Need is for international engagement not disengagement

by Jehan Perera

(February 15, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The UN has announced that it will increase its international appeal for flood relief from the USD 51 million it made after the first spell of floods in January to take into account the additional damage done by the second onslaught in February. The flash appeal was for humanitarian assistance to enable international partners, including local and international NGOs, to support the government in addressing the needs of more than one million flood-affected people over the next six months. However, the outlook for more aid appears to be not too bright. The response to the UN appeal so far has been only about USD 13 million of which about a quarter is still to be received.

Although other parts of the world have also been affected by bad weather and floods, and are in need of emergency assistance, the poor international response to the flood crisis in Sri Lanka is a matter of concern. The question is why the UN appeal for Sri Lanka has met with this response. The figure of USD 51 million set by the UN as its initial target for humanitarian aid is only a small fraction of what will be needed to repair the damage caused by the two rounds of floods. The government itself has estimated the cost to be in the region of Rs 50 billion. This is about ten times the size of the UN’s appeal.

The UN’s representative in Sri Lanka has attributed the absence of strong donor support to its flood relief appeal as due to some donor countries having it lower down in their list of priorities. It is not only Sri Lanka that has been affected by adverse weather conditions in recent times. Pakistan recently experienced massive floods that displaced over two million people. Today there is talk of ‘humanitarian fatigue’. In response to a media query whether the poor response was due to political or diplomatic failures, the UN official had been astute to reply that humanitarian aid was need-based, and not based on extraneous considerations.

A possible reason for Sri Lanka to drop in the priority ordering of the international community with regard to humanitarian aid is its growth of income to exceed USD 2,000 per capita. This has put it into the middle income level, albeit at the lower level. The general policy of many of the aid donors in the international community is to prioritise the poorest countries of the world for their humanitarian aid. These are now mostly found in the African continent. This was the explanation that Sweden gave to Sri Lanka when it ended over fifty years of support and withdrew its embassy and aid programme from the country last year.

Confrontational Approach

However, it may not be a coincidence that Sweden’s decision to withdraw totally from Sri Lanka last year coincided with the sharp deterioration in diplomatic relations with that country in 2009. The Sri Lankan government even denied the Swedish Foreign Minister a visa to visit the country to observe the humanitarian situation in the last phase of the war. This was a major setback to relations between the two countries, and negated whatever chance there was of a continuation of some sort of Swedish assistance to post-war Sri Lanka.

The confrontational approach to international relations adopted by the government in the last phase of the war has got moderated in recent times. But its legacy still remains. The depiction of the Western countries as being anti-Sri Lanka on account of Tamil Diaspora and human rights activism that emanates from those countries has continued in the political rhetoric of some of the more nationalistic government leaders. This seems to have led to a policy of disengagement on the part of some of those countries.

The diplomatic cold shoulder being given to Sri Lanka by Western countries may be related to the poor response to the UN’s appeal for flood relief funds from these countries. This could signify a general policy of disengagement of those countries from Sri Lanka. While Sri Lanka remains important to countries with a geopolitical interest in the region, in particular to India, China and the United States, most other countries have no such interest to keep them committed to Sri Lanka. However, there is one factor that could cause them to remain interested in Sri Lanka. This is the presence of an active Tamil Diaspora which is a strong and growing force that is putting pressure on the governments of their host countries as well as on Sri Lanka.

Diaspora Role

One of the key objectives of the Tamil Diaspora is to come to the aid of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, both through sustaining their families and relatives by sending them remittances and by strengthening their will to resist perceived government’s efforts to politically marginalize and ignore their grievances. But if they are to succeed in the task of improving the life of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka on a long term and sustainable basis, it is better for them to be prepared to engage constructively with the Sri Lankan government, and find ways to do so, rather than confront it. To the extent that the Tamil Diaspora can work with their host governments, of which most of them are now citizens of, they can seek to promote constructive engagement with the Sri Lankan government.

The counter-example of Myanmar needs to be considered by both Western governments and the Tamil Diaspora. After the military take-over in Myanmar, the Western countries disengaged with it and imposed economic sanctions in the hope that this would bring down the military junta or compel it to change course. However, due to strong support from neighboring China, the efforts at inflicting economic hardships only led to civilian suffering, while the military government had flourishing trade relations with China. Realizing what was happening India too broke ranks with the West and began dealing with the Myanmar government. The net result was that the Western countries lost whatever influence they had with the government in Myanmar to promote democratic values and human rights. This mistake should not be repeated in Sri Lanka by those Western countries that have supported the country generously in the past.

The Sri Lankan government should also be prepared for this engagement. In general, Western donors have their own criteria regarding the circumstances under which they would provide assistance for which they are accountable. Usually this includes working in partnership with civil society and international humanitarian agencies. The Sri Lanka government has made very clear to the international community that its favoured option is to receive any humanitarian assistance directly to itself, to be used as its own discretion. However, in agreeing to the UN’s flash appeal the government signified its agreement to working in partnership with local and international NGOs and humanitarian groups. The next step in forging bonds of partnership and constructive engagement all around would be for the government to improve the devolution of powers to meet the just expectations of the ethnic minorities.

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