Asia-Pacific, Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights

SRI LANKA: Aid Organisations Struggle to Operate in Post-war Sri Lanka

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Jul 14 2009 (IPS) - The Sri Lankan government wants the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to scale down its operations in the country, but is sparing other international nongovernmental organisations amid questions over the post-war role for humanitarian workers.

Sarasi Wijeratne, ICRC spokesperson in Colombo, this week confirmed that they were shutting down four offices in the eastern region. These offices had 148 local staff and up to 10 expatriates, out of its total strength of 649.

"The ICRC is in the process of reviewing its setup and operational priorities in Sri Lanka," said Jacques de Maio, the organization's the head of operations for South Asia, said in a statement last week.

Following the ‘cessation of hostilities’, the government had asked the ICRC, present in Sri Lanka since 1989, to scale down its operations in the country, the statement said. The organization, involved primarily in providing humanitarian assistance to the war-displaced, was working on the island on an ad hoc basis before 1989.

Other nongovernmental organisations were not surprised to hear the news. They have had a rocky relationship with the nationalist government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa since it assumed power in November 2005.

Dr Vinya Ariyaratne, Executive Director of Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s biggest local NGO with a broad grassroots reach, said the government attitude is neither hostile nor supportive towards NGOs.

"There is a kind of middle path but I am supportive in the government move to scale down operations of agencies (like ICRC) whose role becomes limited in a post-war scenario," he told IPS.

An expatriate worker for an international aid agency, who declined to be named, said there have been discussions with government officials on the post war role for international NGOs.

"There is no pressure or request to reduce our work programmes but certainly there is a need to re-define our role and set out the boundaries," she said.

She said while the government was good at infrastructure development like building roads, schools and hospitals, civil society was more experienced in the soft side of development like reintegration of the displaced and preparing them for a life after war.

Dozens of NGOs, mostly international agencies like ICRC, UNICEF, Save the Children and from the UN system have been active in the combat zone in the northern theatre of war earlier this year, as fighting between Tamil rebels and government troops reached its peak.

Except for the ICRC, all these groups pulled out after troops closed in on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels, killing the remaining fighters and their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and secured control of the entire north for the first time in decades. The north and the east, which the rebels have been fighting over since 1983 to establish a separate homeland for minority Tamils, are now under the control of the Sri Lanka government forces.

Over the years, Rajapaksa’s regime has dealt with civil society groups with an iron fist, and in some cases, his government has accused unnamed NGOs of supporting Tamil Tiger rebels.

NGOs are involved in providing facilities to some 300,000 displaced persons who are living in camps in northern Vavuniya, but with limited access to these camps.

In recent times, the government has imposed about one percent tax on foreign donations received by NGOs. Visas to expatriate workers, including the head of agencies, are also restricted and in some cases reduced to six months with provisions to renew, which becomes a cumbersome process mired in bureaucracy. Expatriates normally serve a 3-year period.

However, while this has been an issue with NGOs over the past few years, the post-war development phase may even seen a scaling up of work by civil society groups.

"There is a lot to be done in the post war phase and once we clarify our role with the government, this would clear the way for a more fruitful relationship with the authorities and communities," the expatriate worker said.

Dr Ariyaratne from Sarvodaya said scaling down is a natural thing given that there is a reduced need for these services.

"What needs to be done is re-define the role of NGOs and INGOs," he said, adding that there are some services that must be provided by the government in peace-time, unlike earlier times when NGOs performed this role when they were torn between two parties, the government and rebel forces.

He said that civil society’s input becomes important areas like healthcare and livelihood support. "We also help the displaced to become self reliant and prepare them to receive state services," he added.

ICRC’s Wijeratne said the agency is continuing to discuss with the authorities its future activities. She says there remain humanitarian needs that must be taken care of.

"We work with displaced people, the sick and wounded, and the disabled, and also returning populations," she said.

The ICRC also has offices in Jaffna, Vavuniya and Mannar in the northern region while two offices in the heart of the battlefield – Kilinochchi and PTK (Puthukudiirrupu) – just before it fell from rebel control, have been shut down after being captured by the government.

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