Book Review : They stoop to conquer


Back in 1978, Columbia literary theorist and critic Edward W Said ripped to shreds theretofore common Westerner’s understanding of the East with the publication of his groundbreaking book, Orientalism. Prior to that, the prevailing belief among the Occidental intelligentsia, and through them, the Western audience at large, was perhaps best articulated by Karl Marx, “They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented.”

Nearly 30 years on, Susantha Goonatilake, author, Recolonisation: Foreign Funded NGOs in Sri Lanka (Sage Publications India, 2006), would like us to believe, the bias lives on, if only in anthropology departments of Harvards and Princetons. The likes of Gananath Obeysekere, SJ Tambiah, Richard

Gombrich and Bruce Kapferer, all firmly planted in the pantheons of Western education establishment, to Goonatilake’s discerning eyes, have literally hijacked Sri Lankan history. As a result, the image of Sri Lanka — ruled by an “ultra-Sinhalese, anti-Tamil” clique — has taken a nosedive in the international arena.

Selective coverage in foreign media has further helped fuel the anti-Sinhalese bias. For instance, even when hundreds of thousands of ethnic Sinhalese were being butchered in the South by the UNP-led Sinhalese government in its attempt to tamp down on the protests following the signing of the India-Sri Lanka Peace Accord in 1987, the bulk of international attention went to the North — where the government was fighting Tamil separatist groups

— despite the fact that for every Northerner killed (and not necessarily a Tamil), 80 Southerners, mostly Sinhalese, lost their lives.

Most of the NGOs running on foreign aid were strong advocates of a separate homeland for the Tamils. In doing so, they had all but replaced the official Sri Lankan foreign policy mechanism. Unjustly, the author believes: Tamils have always been a small minority occupying a small area to the North.

According to Goonatilake, lack of accountability and precedence for the interests of the founders (and funders) render the foreign-funded NGOs highly ineffective in Sri Lanka; and sometimes, even a direct threat to the country’s sovereignty. In comparison, small

government-backed initiatives, though short on resources, have proven to be highly effective in poverty alleviation through their grassroots-level programmes.

Goonatilake blames the foreign-funded NGOs for eroding the role of the sanghas, the Buddhist monk organisations with time-honoured tradition of community service. It was the tireless effort of these monks that helped establish well-educated and egalitarian societies in former Sinhalese kingdoms. In carrying out developmental efforts in societies with such an

illustrious history of self-governance, the author reasons, foreign help may well have been done without.

The book is an important reminder that there is more to NGOs running on foreign funds than

that meets the eye. It might prove helpful in exploring the kind of activities foreign-funded NGOs should be allowed to engage in and the ones best left to communal and government authorities.