Final Visual Aids: Sri Lanka

It’s pretty much a year since I suddenly left China to work in Sri Lanka, and a bit less than a year since the drama of being nearly kicked out of Sri Lanka engulfed my life. Having now spent a full two months in LA, surrounded by the many good acquaintances, tennis hitting partners and others who formed the warp and weft of my LA life prior to joining MSF, I’ve realized how many people aren’t aware of the challenges the Sri Lanka assignment presented me (and my other MSF colleagues in Sri Lanka, plus any other NGO folks trying to do similarly neutral and independent work). In so public and documented a medium as this blog, I can’t relate details of the challenges we and other NGOs (non-governmental organization: this is what the world calls those entities we Americans know as “non-profits”) faced in trying to provide neutral, impartial, and independent humanitarian assistance to those populations most needing the kinds of assistance we’re best at providing (in our case, usually specialized emergency medicine).

Saturday, 30 September 2006, a day that will live long in my memory: I was up earliest in the house and brought in the papers, seeing this article before I even poured my first cup of tea. It seemed to validate rumors we’d been hearing for some weeks about some sort of “NGO black list.” Later that morning, the postman brought a letter from the Dept of Immigration & Emigration giving us a very short time to clear our expatriates out.

But having had a few very rewarding conversations about humanitarian space here in LA, most recently with former colleague and friend Bree and one of her current colleagues, who regularly supports MSF and thus keeps her ears more tuned to events and policies affecting the ability of neutral humanitarian actors to do their jobs, I thought perhaps I could safely put up for the edification of my friends and readers a few articles scanned from the English-language newspapers in Sri Lanka last fall. Since these are public record, and the comments I’ll be adding are information available from public sources, I hope I’m not in any way compromising the position of my successors and colleagues still trying to work in Sri Lanka.

Know that these are only a small selection of clippings directly about international NGOs that appeared during what I experienced as the worst months of anti-NGO publicity in the English press, mostly October of last year. Colombo has three English-language dailies; one can be seen as a channel for the GoSL viewpoint, another as the essentially Sinhalese-nationalist counterpart to the Murdoch-era New York Post; and the third is the only one my experiences lead me to believe attempts to research and report stories with some impartiality and neutrality. As far as I could ascertain, none of the plethora of Sinhalese-language papers carried any of these stories last fall: it seemed all to be a domestic political shadow-play put on for the benefit of the English-speaking elite and expatriate residents in Colombo. This changed a few months later, when events caused both Save the Children and Oxfam to come under public criticism for trumped-up reasons, when the Sinhalese papers carried some stories that I personally thought could be quite dangerous for people working at those NGOs. (If I remember correctly, as one example, when the army overran some southeastern LTTE-controlled zones very early this year, they found Save-the-Children distributed fishing boats in a few LTTE camps: these boats had been broadly distributed in areas most affected by the tsunami back in 2005, in areas under both GoSL and LTTE control, and what agency could possibly control the fate of every one of hundreds of boats distributed more than a year earlier? None of the explanatory facts appeared in early media reports about these events: those that I saw all chose to portray these agencies as actively supporting the LTTE. This in an environment in which extra-judicial killings against people perceived to be acting for or against any of the various sides in this conflict are extremely common, thereby making it ever more dangerous for NGOs to work in Sri Lanka, especially for any Sri Lankan citizens to work with the NGOs. Example – in the Jaffna Peninsula which is under government control, a hand grenade was thrown into the compound of the International Committee of the Red Cross last fall, on the same day that the Island article, shown above, appeared.

I suppose – I hope – books will be written about all this one day, because the issues involved are typically complex and many-faceted. NGOs in Sri Lanka and elsewhere make mistakes as do all human organizations, and it’s not my goal to portray them as infallible victims of politics or circumstance. But it is my goal to sensitize those reading this to the fact that the space for truly neutral, independent, and impartial humanitarian actors to operate in the world’s many zones of conflict continues to be challenged, restricted, and attacked by all sides – by both governmental and non-governmental actors in almost any context that I’ve read or heard about. And if we’re going to say, as supposedly civilized societies, that noncombatant civilians in these contexts have rights to basic necessities like food, shelter and medical care…then, well, somehow we have to re-forge some global recognition of these rights and of the responsibilities of humanitarian agencies to meet them when necessary. To the many well-meaning friends and families who continue to worry about my safety and well-being in these potentially-dangerous contexts where I work, I challenge you to recast your imaginations and ask why it’s OK for a kid born in these places to live, and (more likely than me) possibly die unremarked in these places, while I’m supposed to be some kind of hero for just going there and doing a little work there, always knowing I’ll be able to leave when my assignment is over, and spend a summer taking yoga classes and playing tennis in LA. There will always be a spectrum of haves and have-nots, but must the gulf between them, and our developed-world perception of the most have-not zones and their worthiness of attention, be so extreme?

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