The politics of Patricia Butenis’ civil society angst

by Malinda Seneviratne

(March 13, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) There are NGOs and NGOs. There are civil society organizations and there are civil society organizations. You get the good, the bad, the ugly and the downright hilarious. Too often however the more prominent entities tend to define how the particular collective is perceived. There is a reason why NGOs (international and local) are called ENJOYS. A country study on the sector commissioned by the Asian Development Bank in the mid-nineties did not reveal a happy, benevolent and homogeneous NGO community in Sri Lanka. There were big ones and small ones. Some registered with the Social Services Department, some with local government authorities, some under the Cooperative Act and some even as companies. Some had capacities, some not. Some had networks and some did not. Some were good at certain things but horrible at others. Many were donor-driven. Very few thought accountability and transparency were relevant to their operations, even though those terms had a lot of currency in project proposals and petitions which they were signatories to.

Typically, however, NGOs are either praised without reservation or vilified without appreciation of vast differentiation in terms of area of operation (geographical and subject-wise), gap between rhetoric and practice, promise and delivery and so on. When the bad boys and girls demand and obtain the spotlight, sooner or later when the make-up is taken off and the show is over, the relatively more decent, honourable, accountable and effective outfits also get hammered by the bad news.

In this context it is important to be specific when talking about civil society organizations. This is why I read carefully what the US Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Ms. Patricia Butenis had to say on the subject (‘Role of civil society in a democracy deserves appreciation,’ in The Island of March 11, 2011). I am in total agreement. ‘Civil society’ exists. It is a social reality. It is politically relevant. One has to appreciate these things, just as one ‘appreciates’ the fact that an underworld exists, that not all things are rosy, that there is a thing called global political economy, that there are double-standards and so on.

Now it is not impossible to write sunshine stories about ‘civil society’ since not all organizations that can be categorized under this heading are bad. Sarvodaya, for instance, has a long history of improving individual lives, especially in its early decades. SANASA (Thrift and Credit Cooperative Movement) continues to thrive as one of the more sustainable and effective development oriented outfits in civil society. The Sasana continues to be the bedrock of social cohesion. Churches, kovils and mosques are looked upon by the relevant faithful as the final and most relieving addresses when looking for succor.

Butenis has an interesting take. She’s complained that there’s something missing in the debate about civil society organizations, i.e. ‘recognition and appreciation of the role that civil society plays in a democracy’. She has, interestingly, not disputed that the NGOs referred to in an article she takes issue with (‘Foreign funds galore for three NGOs,’ in The Island of March 5, 2011), the National Peace Council (NPC), the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) and Transparency International (TI) did receive inordinate sums of money. She has not disputed that NGOs do undermine the government, misallocate resources or that the government should closely monitor and regulate their work. She’s not disputed that these three organizations, by association (hers, not the author of the news article), are automatically slotted in the ‘bad guy’ box.

Butenis goes on to talk about the good work done by NGOs. Fine. I agree. Why should the US Ambassador out of the blue write in praise of NGOs? She’s not only timed her missive to follow some scathing criticisms of the above-mentioned NGOs, but actually betrays that she’s upset by this criticism. Could it be that she’s sad that her friends are finding things a bit uncomfortable right now?

Her displeasure is not hard to understand. Butenis meets these individuals in the cocktail circuit and perhaps in other private parties too. Her predecessor, Robert Blake, one remembers, was a notorious agent provocateur who wined and dined with the likes of Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, who is a well-known behind-the-scenes operative of a certain persuasion who moreover was and is as thick as thieves with those who want regime change in Sri Lanka by hook or by crook. They are on the same page in terms of arranging a witch hunt of the Sri Lankan Government by the two-tongued sections of the international community, as evidenced by Wikileaks exposures of Butenis’ communiqués on the subject.

If ‘balance’ is what she wants, she could openly say ‘yes, it does seem strange that those who wanted to save Prabhakaran’s behind have got so much money and nothing much to show by way of delivery’. She talks instead about do-gooding or good-doing I/NGOs responding to natural calamities. She says that her government allows foreign NGOs to operate in the USA. She mentions Handicap International which supports people with disabilities. I challenge her to mention a single foreign-funded organization that has been allowed to operate in the USA focusing on human rights abuses and war crimes perpetrated by that country in Iraq and Afghanistan, or works on issues pertaining to Guantanamo Bay or even the vexing issue of political prisoners in the USA and indeed prisoner-abuse, in particular the inhuman treatment of Bradley Manning, accused of releasing state secrets to Wikileaks.

Butenis says that the US Governmnet employs strict accounting and monitoring procedures. Good. Sri Lanka should follow suit to ensure that these foreign-funded NGOs are held accountable. I’ve challenged the CPA, NPC and TI to take out advertising space in national newspapers and reveal to the general public who gave what to them and what the money was spent on, who benefited, what the overheads were etc. Maybe Butenis could help them with some money in this regard, in the interest of furthering the cause of transparency, accountability and efficiency.

I don’t know if the USA has funded any of these organizations. Since she’s upset over what has been written about the CPA, NPC and TI, maybe she could tell us how they have ‘improved the lives of people across the country’. Maybe she’ll agree to a public debate on the subject. Maybe she could first respond to two articles I wrote, one on September 22, 2009 in the Daily Mirror (in response to her first public statement after being appointed US Ambassador to Sri Lanka) and one exactly a year later.

Ms Butenis could have done better than trying to defend the indefensible. She’s made Jehan Perera, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu and Weliamuna look like a bunch of crybabies who have run to ‘momma’ because they don’t have the guts to answer some pertinent questions. She’s showing a lot and we are not looking the other way.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at

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