NGO friends vs NGO sceptic friends

Managing friends who work for Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and NGO sceptic friends have always been the trickiest balancing act of Colombo’s social scene. Mrs C and I avoid the inevitable verbal trench warfare over politics by meeting the two groups separately. But there are occasions when the two groups do meet. Resulting in a rather interesting complicated tango. Mostly because everyone is related to everyone else. Either though extended family, relative of friends, or friends of relatives.

NGO friends defend themselves by considering all NGO sceptics as blind supporters of a corrupt war mongering government. Similarly NGO sceptic friends regard anyone who works for a NGO (almost be default hard currency loaded international one) is a tacit supporter of the terrorists.

I sympathise with the NGO sceptic friends who hold the notion that international NGO activity have either politically and logistically assisted the racist terrorist LTTE agenda. Perhaps the NGOs were manipulated by terrorists, or paid by the LTTE, or just plain stupid, or have their own neo colonial agenda. Admittedly there are some nutty conspiracy theories out there. The same goes for the so called human rights groups and “media” that echo LTTE propaganda — which in turn has a protective effect on the terrorists. The Lone Ranger blog discusses this symbiotic relationship international NGOs and the media have with terrorists at considerable length. Listening to “pro NGO” counter arguments has only convinced me (particularly at a gut level) of the validity of NGO sceptic arguments.

Growing up listening to stories of “biased” media and LTTE spin in the face of a media illiterate government does create a certain level of frustration. Specially when you get to read the behind the scenes details of biases as an adult (not that I’m assuming any form of media is without bias). For some, it has led to personal grudges. Stories of how  some NGO personalities have benefited from acting as month pieces for a terrorist agenda is a familiar weapon – almost to the level of stories about political curroption.

As a result, face to face interactions between these two “groups” are a suppressed blog fight. Without the usual accusation of being a tratior or a war mongering right winger. The verbal fisticuffs are a lot more “subtle”. Phrases like “you boss VP” are nonchalatly used when addressing the NGO types. Phrases like “did the head office in Kilinochchi give you a day off?” are gone these days. Replaced by “your human shields are running away no?”or “another long day supporting terrorists?”. Prominent NGO figures will be casually refereed to as terrorist supporters. The accusation “you are a terrorist” is never uttered but is framed silently by a million little comments. Like the negative space of a finely cross hatched etching.

Of course its all in good fun no? Along with all those stories casually dropped about “studies” and “surveys” designed to skim off money from aid grants. NGO sceptic point out that though the money is comparatively small, it still buys you the ipod and the free ticket to Singapore to get it. I am not exactly sure what that means. Despite my dimness I know better than to ask so I take another sip of ginger beer.

The NGO types smile tightly through these barbs. Or make some sort of response that starts another verbal scuffle. Tales of government corruption though don’t seem to be a useful defence these day. Most of the time the jabs don’t have the propellent of rage behind them that is standard in the Sri Lankan blogosphere. NGO sceptics have the social ettique to prevent things from getting physically or verbally ugly. People brawl over politics on the internet are not the types to get into a screaming match in a posh public place.

To clear the air, I derail the talk towards happier topics (perhaps my only contribution to these “conversations”). Whose dating who (note: “dating” is a euphamism) and catching up on people we know. Invariably the gossip slides into the politics of Colombo’s NGO world. As with most English speaking worlds in Sri Lanka, is a seething small pond with the requisite whale sized egos.

Heard less often (if at all) are those NGO friends who have been doing the hard rides in to terrorist held territory in the bad old days. Having to ward off the slimy charms of the terrorists for funds that will be inevitably put to military uses. Then to come home, take off the stoney mask of professionalism and cry in shower for the tragedies of lives lived in the claws of the LTTE death cult. Lately it has meant taking brazen acts of personal kindness towards LTTE human shields who have fled from terrorist bullets into refugee camps. I won’t go into specifics of the stories at it would result in breaches trust. Something I hold above the temptations of a “good” story.

Despite the antagonism I refuse to regard my NGO and NGO sceptic friends as monolithic demographics. No demographic can be regarded so ignorantly. Calling my NGO sceptic friends war mongers would be like accusing Anne Frank of harbouring nazi sympathies. Similarly, I don’t see how my NGO friends could be considered terrorist enablers.

As with other aspects of life, this social battle front is far too complicated for stereotyping. Phrases like “NGO” and “NGO sceptic” are just convenient labels marking a tragic disconnect between humans which I feel helpless to bridge. Drives home the fact that I’m a futile irrelevant ant in an ocean of madness — just grateful for the privilege of another exquisitely chilled ginger beer (Elephant House of course).

The war – a fixture of my entire life is supposedly ending with an almost unbelievable decisiveness that I though I would never live to see. Perhaps things will change for the better. However I doubt if long standing suspicions will ever evaporate.


5 thoughts on “NGO friends vs NGO sceptic friends

  1. I think it’s very tough for NGO’s to navigate the political and cultural terrain in an unfamiliar area. I know from my work in South Africa, everything could easily become politicized and sometimes we got flack from the local politicos. That’s why I think it is SO vital for organizations to be politically and financially independent. Reminds me that may be my next blog post.


    1. Politics is unavoidable in Sri Lanka (I think) for any NGO that has anything to do with any social issue. There’s always a political element to them and usually the political element is there to take its cut… The independence of NGOs also seem to be gauged by who gives the money. Anyone with a 1st world government grant risks being painted a “foreign agent”.

      Will keep an eye out for your post 🙂


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