de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2007). In Favour of NGO’s. LMD. October 2007. Page 140. Volume 14, Issue 03. ISSN 1391-135X.
NGO’s are good for the people and the economy.
NGOs are good for the people and the economy. Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne explains why.
In the last few years we have seen a worsening of attitudes towards NGOs. The Government, in particular, has been seen to be engaged in a spot of NGO bashing and the public, too, seem to have had their share of mis-givings- albeit towards a few high profile NGOs. From an economic point of view, it would be prudent not to tar all NGOs with the same brush and adopt a conciliatory and supportive attitude rather than a negative attitude. Indeed, a facilitative environment to NGOs may result in employment and foreign inward capital flows on par with- or exceeding the efforts of- the Board of Investment (BOI) of Sri Lanka. Because NGOs could play such an important role as an economic driver, the task of encouraging more NGOs could be tasked to a special division of the BOI.
Before I continue with the economic argument, let me address three negative perceptions towards NGOs. Firstly the view that there are too many, secondly that they are fronts for illegal activities and thirdly that they are wasteful. ‘There are too many NGOs’ is a complaint I hear from many circles, whether it is people working in the humanitarian sector or in wildlife conservation. NGOs are simple a vehicle in which people who are strongly motivated for a cause, collect money and spend it to further their cause. As long as there are a lot of people, there will be a lot of NGOs. It is in our DNA to engage in charity work and those who are more organised will structure their work into an NGO. Others may simply donate or collect money for a local temple.
But this is all part of a wide spectrum of charitable activity which is innate in us. Perhaps it stems from our primate origins. A stranger cannot pick lice off your hair to engage in reciprocal grooming. Perhaps our charitable instincts are a displacement activity for our need to engage in what is seemingly social altruism, a behavioral trait of primates. Or perhaps it is a more sophisticated manifestation of our higher intelligence and our emotional response to perceived needs. As in developed countries, we should simply accept that the more NGOs there are, the more useful work can be done. Especially in Sri Lanka, the combined efforts of NGOs could probably eclipse the work of government agencies to provide relief to poor and displaced people.
The second criticism is that they are used as fronts for illegal activities or proscribed organizations such as the LTTE. Every country has laws to reign in criminals and terrorists. In every country criminals and terrorists will attempt to use legitimate businesses or NGOs as fronts. There is no need to whip up hysteria against all NGOs. Do we ban the use of roads because a terrorist organisation travels on the same road we do?
The third criticism is that NGOs are wasteful. This is an emotional judgment and not an economic judgment. From an economic point of view, it helps a country like Sri Lanka to encourage legitimate, law abiding NGOs to set up and operate. The issue of efficiency should be one that the NGO discloses in its financial statement to its donors. Lets illustrate this with an argument. Imagine NGO A receives funding of 10 million rupees a year. It rents a house in Colombo, hires a few office staff, leases a few vehicles and accumulates overheads of 5 million rupees a year. It then has only a balance of Rs 5 million or 50% of the funding available to purchase milk food or fishing boats for the needy. NGO B receives the same funding, but operates out of the home of one of the trustees, uses public transport and uses only a million rupees as its annual overheads. It then has nine million rupees to disburse for milk food and fishing boats.
The example is highly exaggerated, but it illustrates the fact that for the same money, two NGOs could have vastly different utilization rates. However, from an economic stand point, both types of NGOs are equally important. In fact from the stand point of say a city, NGO A would actually be more preferable as it firms up the rental market, creates salaried jobs and strengthens a pyramid of urban service suppliers. From an emotional viewpoint NGO B is better.
New York would hate to see the United Nations and scores of other NGOs leave the city taking away jobs and money. Similarly, Nairobi in Kenya is a city which benefits immensely from the presence of many NGOs. The largest office of the UN outside New York is in Nairobi which benefits from a huge expatriate economy. Just as much we court outside investment for building garment factories and hotels, we should court the international NGOs. The better run organizations also bring good work skills and ethics, along with jobs and money. As with any developed economy, Sri Lanka should have an effective legal structure to regulate NGOs. But it must be balanced and pro-active, so that it facilitates- rather than being hostile to or by designe discourages- the setting up of NGOs. Good NGOs are good for the people and good for the economy.
Accountant & Banker turned wildlife populariser, Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne lobbies for progress. E-mail him at to subscribe to his wildlife e-newsletter.