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DEVELOPMENT: Asian NGOs Must Lead in Asia

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Apr 21 2009 (IPS) - In a spirit of South-South Cooperation Asian NGOs must take the lead from international and western NGOs working in war-torn Sri Lanka and across Asia, as they understand the local dynamics and culture much more deeply than anyone else, an experienced Asian NGO leader told IPS.

Hironobu Shinbuya, CEO of Save the Children Japan (SCJ), in an interview with IPS, frowned on ‘foreign’ experts’ tendency to impose untested – often prohibitively expensive – western solutions on local communities.

“Everywhere I go I can sense this happening and within the alliance we have a very serious discussion about this.” Shinbuya said, adding that in 5 to 10 years time there won’t be any perceived need for foreign experts. “I am not knocking down western ways… I am only saying that some of the institutional framework – whether the U.N., banks [World Bank/IMF], or international corporations – needs a paradigm shift in the way they work,” he noted.

“There is a resonance of this view now. You see it happening in India, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations [ASEAN]… the paradigm is in fact shifting.”

At the G20 summit last month, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown echoed this sentiment in his call for a paradigm shift in the leadership structure at the World Bank and IMF – traditionally controlled by the U.S. and Europe.

Shinbuya, who has worked in the U.N. system since 1976 and has served as a special advisor to the UNICEF Executive Director in addition to heading a UNICEF regional centre, was in Sri Lanka to review the progress of SCJ here. Save the Children has a unique structure with an international headquarters in London and 28 members or branches across the world work, he said. The branches are independent entities, raising their own funds and deciding on their own priorities and projects. The alliance – now 90 years old – is older than UNICEF.

Shinbuya’s perspective has found a resonance with Sri Lankan aid workers who agree that Asian NGOs could achieve much more locally than western NGOs – while also attracting less negative attention.

Jeevan Thiagarajah, executive director of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA) – an umbrella group of Sri Lanka’s largest local and foreign NGOs – agrees that Asians can do more at much less cost. Thiagarajah, also a member of a government panel that oversees NGOs, says there is a tendency to depend too much on international NGOs and calls for a balance in the composition of staff at international NGOs working here.

“There are good and bad NGOs. Some NGOs have enormous funds to spend but [throw] away the money,” Thiagarajah explained.

Jehan Perera, director of the foreign-funded National Peace Council, which is promoting a peaceful end to the country’s ethnic conflict, says Shinbuya’s view is very much in line with the Sri Lankan government’s perception of western NGOs.

“There is wariness against NGOs who are involved in social reforms, peace building and calling for an end to the war,” Perera said. “The government is cautious of international NGOs involved in humanitarian work as they are believed to be conduits of information [from conflict zones] to the international community,” he said.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa criticised international NGOs during a speech on Saturday. Meeting a group of taxi drivers at his official residence in Colombo, the President said that despite the presence of many foreign NGOs in the former LTTE rebel headquarters town of Kilinochchi, no sustainable development has taken place there. “None of these organisations have built community centres, roads and houses, or have provided electricity, water or other facilities to the people,” he was quoted as saying in the state-run Sunday Observer.

“My view here is that if there is an urgency to deliver services… then we should do everything possible, for these needy people. Just yakking about it is not good enough,” Shinbuya says.

“I am urging that the SCF Alliance move its headquarters to Singapore or Bangkok from London,” he added. “The Asian dynamics are very different, and Asian NGOs understand this better than anyone else.”

Shinbuya, who says he has been working to achieve better recognition of Asian NGOs for years, says NGOs want visibility and branding which is the name of the game now. He also believes it is essential to work with governments.

“Working with governments doesn’t mean taking everything that they say. You can also make constructive criticism. You have to be smart and sensible and basically provide enabling processes to deliver services more effectively.”

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