SRI LANKA: Part two of the Interim Report of the Parliamentary Committee on NGOs is flawed from the point of view of policy, science and law

Basil Fernando

(This is the second part of an article which is a comment on the Interim Report of the Select Committee of Parliament for investigation of the Operations of Non-Governmental Organizations and their Impact, which was presented to parliament on December 8, 2008)

About origins

In this part of the article we will discuss the Select Committee’s attempt to write history and even science. Charles Darwin wrote the Origin of the Species; the Select Committee is trying to write about the origin of Non-Governmental organisations.

Charles Darwin offered his book for the purview of scientists and it was the work of a scientist. Writing about the origins of anything, including various societal matters is a subject that belongs to social sciences. This is not a matter for parliamentary select committees or even parliament itself. There was a time in the middle-ages when the work of a person would be adopted by the monarch as the officially valid version on a particular subject. That kind of thing was also done by regimes such as that of Hitler and Joseph Stalin. These are attempts that may be described by the local saying, the donkey trying to do dog’s work.

The narrow view adopted by the Select Committee to the effect that “Non-Governmental organisations have descended from charitable and humanitarian work, which had a prominent place in the industrial countries prior to the 19th century” does not at all cover the full scope of the subject on the origins of what are now called ‘Non-Governmental’ Organisations. It was, in fact, not within the competence of a select committee of parliament to write on that matter. Inquiries into this belong to the area of history and science and are not jobs for a parliamentary select committee. By adopting a very narrow description the Select Committee, can in fact, mislead itself and also mislead parliament if parliament were to adopt some policies and practical measures on the basis of this report. If the Select Committee’s views were expressed to achieve some self-serving agenda then that should be unworthy of a committee which has been given a mandate by the parliament representing a government which calls itself a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

The purpose of this comment is not at all to enter into a scientific inquiry into the origin and evolution of this important development which now comes under the name of ‘Non-Governmental Organisations’. The aim here is to show that this particular phenomena has a far more important history and, looked at it from that history, the Parliamentary Select Committee has not understood the subject it has written an interim report about.

What is now referred to as ‘non-governmental’ started a long time ago, perhaps at the very origin of human history, which was a long time before the governments came into being. Spontaneous cooperation between human beings started at the very origin of the species.

If we go into the histories of all the earliest civilizations, whether they be indigenous communities, hunter-gatherers, agricultural societies and the like, what we see is the spontaneous cooperation among humans to deal with their normal problems as well as to preserve their species.

In the earliest forms of cooperation were the linkages between the male and the female having offspring and the development of relationships in order to preserve the species (we may say that the first ‘non-governmental’ organisation was the family). These were the dynamic relationships that helped to develop the types of organisations and communications that laid the foundations for all types of organisational work such as irrigation, cultivation, animal farming, selective planting of crops and the like. All these things happened a long time before the state, as we know it today, came into being. Thus, what is today called ‘non-governmental’ started a long time before people ever thought of governments.

In one sense it is these spontaneous activities of the people which laid the foundations for their civilisations which also at a latter day gave rise to governments. However, from the very first day the governments came into existence there was a conflict between the humans in their natural state and these governments.

From the very date of their birth governments contained within themselves an element of repression and the repression was towards the very creators of the government. Latter day struggles among human beings to gain certain controls over the repressive nature of governance gave rise to many manifold forms of ‘non-governmental’ activities. Many forms of resistance to repression from oral protests, individual protests, family protests, clan level protests, community protests, organised societal protests by particular groups such as farmers, workers, businessmen, traders, bankers and many others who had particular interests, formed much of what is called human activity. None of these were governmental actions. They were what today come under ‘non-governmental’ actions.

The totalitarian state

From the time totalitarian states began to develop either as absolute monarchies, military dictatorships, fascist dictatorships or Stalinist regimes the state has attempted to appropriate all actions to itself. The state is the spokesman for everything, the state is also the interpreter of everything and the state is the actor in everything. In fact, the totalitarian state will not only control action but also thought. George Orwell in his insightful novel, 1984, portrays the totalitarianism in its most absolute and ‘purest’ form. At that point only the state exists, nothing else exists. The past, present and the future exist only through those in power; that is the party. Whether we call it ‘Big Brother’ as he called it or Big Brothers does not matter at all. In this form of state only power exists, and it exists for its own sake. Thus, the so-called state exists and nothing else. In fact, the conversation between two of the main characters of the novel, Winston and O’Brien, is worthy of serious contemplation for anyone who tries to understand what totalitarianism has come to be in our times.

With a totalitarian state ‘non-governmental’, meaning anything other than what the government does, should not and does not exist. The government of the people, by the people and for the people thus becomes some kind of a joke. The citizen is reduced to nothingness. It is this kind of mentality that is presented in the Select Committee’s Report. Under the pretext of trying to stop abuse of funds the real attempt is to introduce ‘government’ into everything. To paraphrase Bertold Brecht this would mean that the sun will not rise, the winds will not blow, plants will not grow, children will not play and men and women will not make love except by the will of omnipresent, omnipotent big brother/s.

As O’Brien would say, this talk about abuse of funds would not matter at all. All the scandals, all the confessions are just sham. What really matters is that entire societies should surrender all their power and allow big brother/s to do whatever and to exist forever.

Perhaps the total project carried out under the pretext of preventing NGO abuse of funds seems to be to abolish all activities against corruption. We have shown in the first part of this article how auditing has been undermined severely by ignoring the queries and exposures of the Auditor General. Perhaps auditing in public institutions and even in the private sector may be abolished and exist only in name. Creating room for absolute corruption requires the undoing of the very concept of corruption and reducing it to some kind of triviality. Already, auditing has been reduced to some kind of triviality in public life. Sri Lankans may have to learn to believe that whatever the government says is right and that figures, statistics and the like are matters of no consequence. Sri Lanka has travelled a long way in that direction. Now for the most part crime does not exist. By a process of stopping the receipt of complaints about crimes and also stopping investigations into crimes, the very existence of these crimes may be made to disappear. People may still be killed, women raped, people robbed and plunder may take place of public property, but these are just the private concerns of the affected persons. Your loved one may have been killed, you may make some noises and when there is no response of any sort you will have that sense of powerlessness which makes you feel that perhaps it is not worth bothering about that killing anymore. By making things lose social significance it is possible to make them also lose personal significance. After all, what is personal? Like virtually tens of thousands of people who have over the last several decades seen the forced disappearances of their family members and were able to do nothing about it, those who become victims of corruption may also have to believe that no such corruption took place at all.

To bring society to a stage where the state can do whatever it likes it has to constantly create enemies. For Hitler, it was the communists first and then the Jews. For Stalin it was the counter-revolutionaries, the Trotskyites and Kulaks and so many others. In George Orwell’s 1984 the enemy of Oceania was Goldstein. For Sri Lanka it was first the trade unions, then the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the LTTE and added to these there were also minor enemies such as the NGOs and even lawyers who represent aggrieved persons in corruption and human rights abuses.

Thus, to understand the origins of the Select Committee itself and its report it is necessary to go into the origins of the contemporary political reality of Sri Lanka which, at least from 1978 has been one where totalitarianism is trying to devour the entire population of the country. What is meant by devouring is the misappropriation of all national resources by a few persons. That is, in fact, the private use of public resources and funds. The problem to be addressed, if it can be addressed at all is how to defeat this totalitarian project.

(To be continued – in the next part of this article we will discuss origins of ‘the non-governmental’ organisations in the history of India, particularly in terms of the Jainist and Buddhist movement and in Sri Lanka, particularly in terms of the Anuradhapura period. The beginning of the totalitarian project started in early history when the caste system was entrenched in India. Jainism and Buddhism arose out of the spontaneous movements of protest of the time. In Sri Lanka this Indian development made its influence felt in the early Anuradhapura period but later with the influence of Indian invasions and Brahminical influences two institutions grew up to stifle the natural development of civil society and these two institutions were the assimilation of the caste system and the development of absolute monarchies).

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-045-2008
Countries : Sri Lanka,