Impact of aid on peace and conflict transformation in a deeply divided society: Lessons from Sri Lanka

The following presentation was shared by Ambika Satkunanathan, Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, Sri Lanka on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Foundations for Peace Network in November 2016, Philanthropy House, Brussels.

Ambika Satkunanathan

I am here this morning to share with you the impact of aid on peace and conflict transformation in Sri Lanka, which could be described as a deeply divided society. Before I begin my substantive remarks, as this is the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Foundations for Peace Network, I think it is only fitting I remember and pay tribute to Sithie Tiruchelvam, the founder of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, as well as a founder member, and first Chairperson of the Foundations for Peace Network who passed away 2 yeas ago. Sithie was a visionary because in 1999 when she mooted the idea of establishing an indigenous foundation in Sri Lanka many, including I, didn’t quite understand the specific and special role of a local foundation, given at the time there were numerous bilateral and multilateral donors as well as global foundations, that were supporting human rights and peace-building work – they were the dominant players at the time.

Therefore, it was a bit of mystery to many of us what a very small indigenous foundation, such as the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, with a staff of 7 persons- more than Dalia Foundation’s 4 1⁄2 persons and a bit less than Indonesia for Humanity’s 8 persons- could do in such a context competing with the larger donors. We had many questions- how wouldyou mobilise financial resources? Why on earth would the larger donors wish to use the Trust as an intermediary? It just didn’t make sense at the time. However, we decided to go along with Sithie and what a journey it has been. Sithie was also a believer in the need for the existence of networks such as FFP, and was a strong supporter of the network. We miss her, especially at a gathering such as this one.

My remarks today will use as a basis a number of phrases used by FFP members over the years and during our discussions yesterday. The purpose of this is to illustrate that despite the different contexts our experiences are similar- as Kamala said yesterday, each of us is at a different point in the same journey – hence our experiences echo that of others- or at some point we will most likely experience what our fellow members have already had to struggle with. While acknowledging the positive impact of aid, the funding I refer to in my presentation is that which is disbursed without a proper understanding of the socio- economic and political context, and most importantly without understanding or responding to the needs and concerns of the communities the funding is supposed to assist. To quote the FFP 10th anniversary publication, ‘Despite some successes in reducing poverty in some places, the new aid architecture has helped to create a global development industry that may not be fit for purpose’. It is to this aid architecture I refer in my presentation.

One point which I think is important to raise here is that aid is felt to be an integral part of enabling peace and conflict transformation- this assumption came into being because of the inability or unwillingness of the state to invest resources, particularly financial resources, to support human rights and peace-building work. For decades, in many of our countries civil society has stepped in during crucial period of conflicts and disasters to play the role the state should have. For instance, in Sri Lanka we have time and time again seen the state invest vast resources in vanity projects that sometimes adversely affect the population, while seeking foreign aid for post-war rebuilding and reconstruction. Therefore, it is important to question the responsibility and accountability of the state as well.

The other reason we are dependent on external aid is because in many countries it is extremely difficult to raise funds from within the country. As the FFP 10th anniversary publication states ‘Where foundations in divided societies struggle is their access to resources, because, by definition, they is no stable community from which they can receive donations for their work, and the work itself can often be seen as controversial, particularly where emphasis is on the inclusion of excluded groups’. In Sri Lanka local philanthropy is virtually non- existent; we are more familiar with the notion of charity.

Yesterday, a FFP member stated yesterday that money is part of the problem- not just lack of it but also too much of it. This is something we in Sri Lanka have experienced, but from which we regrettably have not learnt lessons. We experienced this during the 2002 peace process, the post-tsunami context and now in 2016 are entering that phase again with the constitutional reform and transitional justice processes. How exactly did too much money impact on peace and conflict transformation in Sri Lanka?

Due to the nearly 30 year armed conflict, there was not merely destruction of infrastructure, property and lives but also values- values of humanity, decency and democracy. Yet, at the same time the conflict also saw people risking their lives to save others, it saw volunteerism and communities stepping up to address the needs of those affected. The influx of external aid in 2002 and then to some extent post-2009 after the end of the armed conflict, resulted in the destruction of this spirit of volunteerism. We found that many young persons preferred to work for INGOs rather than community-based groups due to much larger salaries and benefits. We saw property and rents in certain areas increase manifold. We also saw small organisations struggle to absorb the large grants given by donors. We saw corruption and breakdown of relationships within networks and organisations due to competition for these resources. For instance, there was conflict within a network of 2000 women due to the creation of 2 paid positions by a donor to manage the affairs of the network, whereas previously it was done on a volunteer basis. This not surprisingly led to conflict about who should be hired for those positions because most of the members were economically disadvantaged and as this was seen to benefit only 2 of 2000 women. Yesterday Martin used the term “gatekeepers” during our discussions- in Sri Lanka we saw the influx of large amounts of funding create new hierarchies within the non-profit sector. We witnessed civil society become the “non-profit sector”. A number of urban organisation with English speaking, foreign educated staff, who could easily access these funds became the gatekeepers and spokespersons for the communities. The donors also prefer to support these organisations as they find it is too much trouble and resource intensive to support small CBOs who require considerable hand-holding and other forms of non-monetary support to access and effectively use financial resources. It is exactly this kind of non-monetary support that the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust provides to CBOs. Most often the relationships the urban-based organisations have with the communities are tenuous and likely based on need, especially the need for information for research or advocacy. The repressive environment that came into being post-2009 enabled the perpetuation of these hierarchies since most community-based groups were under severe threat, and without the support mechanisms that the urban-based groups had, the CBOs were forced to work under the radar and were unable to articulate their concerns themselves. For instance, the urban-based groups had access to diplomatic missions that would intervene if these organisations faced any threats, while a small CBO in a rural part of the Northern Province was far more vulnerable to threats and violence.

As I mentioned to colleagues yesterday, during the 2009 era of repression we saw numerous CBOs come into being in the North and East – these were people who came together to respond to local needs- they were not professionals in the non-profit sector, they knew nothing about project proposals and came together at great risk to their lives. Post 2015 regime change and the initiation of the constitutional and transitional justice processes we are seeing increased donor interest in Sri Lanka, as Sri Lanka is now seen as one of the very few success stories in a world full of intractable and emerging conflicts. Therefore, we are now faced with the danger of a repetition of 2002 where these organic formations will likely be assailed by large influx of financial resources. There is the danger that these initiatives might focus on short-term outputs rather than supporting long-term initiatives that focus on structural change, and strengthen the community based organisations. In this context, NTT is focusing not only on strengthening CBOs to prepare them to withstand and survive this onslaught, but also dedicating energy to finding means of strengthening the relationship between groups- i.e. we seek to support the creation of moving away from being part of the “non profit sector”, to moving towards being a part of civil society once again.

What we at NTT are trying to do is break these barriers and erode the power of the gatekeepers. During the post-2009 era we did this by actively seeking and supporting the small CBOs, by enabling them to have access to safe spaces to articulate their concerns, by strengthening their institutional structures, by enabling their access to information and providing opportunities to strengthen capacity of institutions as well as individuals within these organisations. In the post-2015 context after regime change, we continue to support them to gain access, space and visibility to articulate their concerns and in particular participate in the constitutional reform and transitional justice processes.

It is undeniable that development aid impacts deeply divided societies in ways that exacerbate conflict and deepen existing cleavages. In Sri Lanka there are perceptions that the international community only supports, both politically as well as through financial resources, the Tamils in the North and East, while the poor and marginalised in other parts of the country are ignored. These perceptions can be both true and false. Some donors do only support projects in the North and East, while there are many who support initiatives all over the country- yet there isn’t enough awareness or information in the public domain about this, leading to misconceptions. At the same time, it also has to be acknowledged the North and the East were devastated by the armed conflict and hence would need more resource allocation than other parts of the country. Yet, what donors need to realise is that ignoring the majority of the population in the rest of the country, or leaving them behind, will not enable conflict transformation but rather the opposite. Further, it will leave them open to the machinations and manipulations of extremist, right-wing groups that will mobilize them against reform processes. We witnessed this in 2002 during the peace process and are witnessing it again in 2016.

What kind of initiatives do the large donors support? The tendency of donors has been to support high visibility projects with immediate impact. Long-term social change is hence not something that appears to attract their support. For us in Sri Lanka, particularly as a post-war society, the importance of socio-economic rights cannot be downplayed, and although aid seems to prioritise development there is avoidance in tackling the complex issues, such as structural change required to enable economic empowerment, particularly of the marginalised. The development initiatives tend to be ad-hoc – for instance livelihood projects for women headed households that tend to ignore the various structural elements that have to be in place if women are to earn a living wage from these projects. For example, women need to be linked to distribution and marketing processes, from which they are isolated due to a number of reasons. Also, when we speak of economic security of those who have lost everything in the war we cannot deny the need we might have to change the rules of the game, i.e. the way in which the commercial sector functions, if the extremely disadvantaged are to not just survive but thrive.

Finally, development aid as we discussed yesterday is driven by the policy and political agendas of donors. This tends to be a double-edged sword as we have experienced in Sri Lanka. If your interests align with that of the donors then you are able to secure financial resources. Also in Sri Lanka, during the post-2009 era of repression donors/bilateral development partners provided protection to civil society organisations and helped them lobby and advocate with UN and other bodies. In Sri Lanka this was imperative to being able to engage in human rights work during this period. However, when the political status quo changed and a more democratic government was elected in 2015 the donor-civil society dynamic also changed.

We now find development partners/donors have close relationships with the government, as a result of which they might not always be supportive of criticisms of what they find to be a government that is generally open to donors and the international community. Hence, those who are being very critical of the various reform processes of the state, like the transitional justice process for instance, may not be able to secure grants, as they would be seen to be too radical, or disruptive or as spoilers. This could lead to the marginalisation of these groups, and the silencing their concerns and voices. Marginalisation breeds anger and resentment, and in turn conflict.

At the same time donors may also place pressure on the government to drive the reform process in ways that could cause harm or impact adversely on certain communities or affected persons. For example, a number of donors wish to support projects on sexual violence in armed conflict. The reality is that while some women may wish to speak of the violence they encountered there are many more who are not ready to speak of it publicly. Therefore, it could be that victims might face pressure to come forward even though they do not wish to. Within such a context, in the absence of a nuanced, strategic intervention, as we witnessed in the past, for instance in 2002, development partners could become complicit in the grave errors the state makes, or might push the state too hard on the wrong issues, which could cause further conflict.

I would like to conclude by raising two issues we have to keep in mind:

In the FFP publication we say that as indigenous foundations we conceive ourselves to be partners, i.e. equals. Yet we also have to acknowledge that despite our best efforts that are power disparities that exist by virtue of the fact we are the ones who possess the financial resources. Hence, at every point we have to be mindful of this to consciously counter any negative impact that could be a result of it.

Secondly, we cannot avoid the question how far externally driven change be sustained. If foreign aid is to result in transformation, rather than freeze the status quo, it needs to support local mobilisation efforts to change attitudes, tackle structural change and build support for progressive reform processes and initiatives. This is where we as indigenous providers of resources come in- this is where we as indigenous foundations have an important role to play. To quote from the FFP publication, ‘The evidence suggests that such transformation has to come from within. Unless local people own and develop the change themselves, it will fail to take root. A key role for external funders and agencies is to support local efforts to build social justice and peace. Indigenous forces for change make for lasting peace and no amount of external intervention on its own can deliver this’.

Ambika Satkunanathan is the chair of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, Sri Lanka.