Funding Groups Report Trust Deficit in Sri Lankan Civil Society

Last Thursday’s teleconference by the International Human Rights Funders Group and EDGE Funders Alliance on the state of Sri Lankan civil society painted a sobering picture of the critical needs still unmet there. While several issues were discussed, perhaps the most alarming for those of us working in philanthropy were reports of the difficulties faced by development organizations.

Large NGO’s and small local organizations alike are increasingly forced to leave the country or, at the least, scale their operations down. The work of these organizations is critical in post-war Sri Lanka, where the people are becoming increasingly critical of the government’s efforts to improve their livelihoods and protect their human rights. Unfortunately, the challenging funding and legal environments there have made it difficult for them to flourish. In particular, speakers cited factors such as these:

* Difficulty receiving government authorization for projects.

* Underreported instances of human rights abuses, especially against activists and aid workers.

* Lack of coordinated giving by donors, leaving some geographical areas underserved.

* Most overseas Sri Lankans support large multi-national organizations like the UN at the expense of local NGO’s.

One priority stressed during the discussion was the importance of capacity building for local groups. There were several examples recounted of organizations running programs that were either outdated or, at the least, ineffective within context. Explains one of the speakers, “As donors, we have a bird’s eye view of the different work being done throughout the country, but these organizations often aren’t able to share their experiences and don’t know what other approaches are.”

Given that international NGO’s are scaling down their operations in Sri Lanka, supporting the capacity of these local organizations is becoming more vital than ever. It is certainly worth considering for donors who traditionally shy away from investing in organizational development.

While further shrinkage in Sri Lanka’s development sector was predicted, there was some optimism about the opportunity these challenges present. As people begin to see that traditional models are unsuccessful, there will be more interest in innovative approaches to development and, in particular, more democratic approaches. There was a strong call for more flexibility and creativity by donors (especially in CSR) as well as more solidarity from aid organizations in order to evolve the sector.

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