Report from Colombo: NGOs Confront Rising Difficulties as Conflict Escalates

Mahinda de Silva, Senior Advisor at the Sewalanka Foundation, with Worldwatch researcher Zoë Chafe.

As Sri Lanka’s conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) continues to heat up, domestic and international non-governmental organizations find it increasingly difficult to carry on with their work—particularly those in the field of development and human rights. The renewed conflict has also meant that the post-tsunami rebuilding effort in the northeast—large swaths of which are under the control of the LTTE—faces yet another hurdle.

Even before the resumption of conflict, reconstruction there has been a challenge, due to the lack of the necessary infrastructure. Now, the government has closed the A9 road—the main north-south artery essential to transport supplies and equipment to the north—and has imposed tight restrictions on foreign NGOs’ operations. Colombo says that anyone talking to the LTTE without government authorization will be a considered a terrorist. Yet working in the northeast is next to impossible without some sort of rapport with the Tigers.

There is a growing, if incorrect, conception that NGOs are favoring Tamils over the Sinhalese majority. Worse, accusations are hurled that foreign actors are little more than agents of the LTTE. The Colombo newspapers these days are filled with vituperative language where propaganda seems to edge out journalism. In sum, the humanitarian space in Sri Lanka is closing fast.

These difficulties mean that many international NGOs have come full circle. In the wake of the December 2004 tsunami, large numbers of them rushed into Sri Lanka, flush with aid money, and many swiftly elbowed aside local organizations. Now, the conditions under which they work are becoming progressively difficult. That's true even for NGOs such as CARE and Oxfam that have a long-standing presence and a proud track-record in the country.

Among Sri Lanka’s domestic NGOs, the Sewalanka Foundation appears to fare comparatively well in this complex situation. Sewalanka was founded in 1993 with the mandate to address the needs of the most vulnerable communities in Sri Lanka’s most neglected and disadvantaged regions. After a ceasefire agreement was signed in 2002, the group was able to expand its activities into the northeast.

Today, it is one of the largest NGOs working there. A senior staff member of Sewalanka told us* that its ability to operate in a conflict zone is based on its willingness to recruit people locally, work with local community groups, proceed in a highly transparent manner, and avoid the lethal politicization that seems to infect so much of what is happening in Sri Lanka now.

It may not be easy to emulate Sewalanka’s approach, but the organization has demonstrated that it is possible to work in extremely difficult circumstances. But of course, Sewalanka and other NGOs would much prefer to work on forward-looking development and community empowerment projects instead of having to fight rearguard humanitarian battles. Not yet recovered from the lethal punch of the tsunami, Sri Lanka contends with the consequences of both a natural and a human-made disaster.

*Worldwatch researchers Michael Renner and Zoe Chafe are completing a two-year project on peacemaking in the wake of disasters. Their visit to Sri Lanka follows on an earlier field trip to Aceh.