By Rajan Philips
There has been a spate of writings on the political economy of war, particularly relating to the war on terror that President Bush has imposed on the world as the primary concern of humankind in our time. Sumanasiri Liyanage, Peradeniya academic and commentator, has recently written about the political economy of peace in the Sri Lankan context. In particular, he has drawn attention to what he calls the emergence of “peace professionals” and their allegedly “rent-seeking operations” in the peace process.
Rent-seeking in economic theory simply means making money without producing anything, and is treated as different from the positive economic practices of profit-seeking and wage-earning. There is also another term, called profiteering which is to make unreasonable profits and often in unconscionable situations such as war. Sri Lankans have grown familiar to war-profiteering over the last two decades, and accusations of war-profiteering are among the main criticisms of Bush Administration’s war in Iraq. In my view, it is far more preferable to put up with peace rent-seeking insofar as it comes with a ceasefire than suffer a war and the profiteering that invariably goes with it. Further, war and advocating war also involve their own rent-seeking operations.
Sumanasiri Liyanage’s (SL) main concern is about the evolution, if not decadence, of peace actors in Sri Lanka – from the mostly voluntary peace activists associated with organizations like the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) and the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) in the 1970s and 1980s, to the almost full-time peace professionals who became particularly prominent after the ceasefire agreement of 2002. SL’s criticisms are that the latter cohorts are young, smart, English-proficient and with urban elitist background. They have been good fits in the Sri Lankan peace organizations funded by Western NGOs. They have little political orientation, lack commitment to peace as a transformative process, and are not strictly professionals with expertise in conflict resolution and political processes. Lastly, they are in it for the money, which although paid as salaries is really rent-seeking.
What is more, the proliferation of peace professionals and their rent-seeking operations have tarnished the whole image of the peace process and that of the genuine peace soldiers some of whom have toiled with dedication and without monetary rewards for decades. There is much to SL’s concerns and arguments and I agree with most of them. But I must say that his model of rent-seeking peace professionals fails to include or account for the changes in the broader socio-political context over the last three decades.
As well, given the present context in which SL is writing, his model creates the unintended impression that much of the blame for the collapse of the peace process and the outbreak of current hostilities should rest with the so called peace professionals.
Here again, much of the blame should be laid not at the peace professionals in the South, but the ‘war professionals’ both in the South and the Northeast. Just so to be clear, the subaltern men and women who take orders to fight and face death are not professionals. Not all war professionals are trained in military hardware. They are drawn from the political class, civil service and judicial decision makers, religious opinion makers, and sections of the media. Many of them are also war rent-seekers advocating war either in the name of sovereignty and security or self-determination. The war profiteers usually do not waste time talking about war, but just go about making profit while making sure to support, directly or indirectly, those who talk about the war.
The NGO phenomenon
Let me try a synoptic account of the evolution of the NGO phenomenon and changes in the socio-political context. The CRM came into being out of concern with the expansion of the state’s coercive powers in the wake of the JVP’s first uprising, in 1971, ironically against a government that was more protectionist and egalitarian than any other in the country’s history. By the time MIRJE was founded eight years later, in 1979, there had been a sea change in the country’s politics and its economic direction. It was open season on the economy, and politically the government had to deal not with the alienated rural Sinhalese youth, but their doubly (economically and ethnically) alienated Tamil counterparts agitating for a separate state.
For fifteen years, MIRJE and other organizations like MIRJE were at odds with the UNP government that was hell bent on seeking a military solution to the Tamil question. It was only with the election of the PA government in 1994, there came about some correspondence, if not congruence, between peace activists on the ground and the government in power. While the PA government got embroiled in the war-for-peace misadventure, the peace momentum did not die and it enabled, in what was truly a political quirk, UNP’s Ranil Wickremasinghe to achieve the first stable ceasefire with the LTTE in 2002.
This was the context in which peace professionals began to mushroom and operate through the NGO network. But their operational modes – the NGO structure, full-time NGO employment, foreign funding support etc. -were already in place. There were several contributing factors to this development. The constitutional changes since 1978 – emasculating parliament, establishing the executive presidency, marginalizing the Left (proportional representation and propping up the JVP), and outlawing the TULF (Sixth Amendment) – brought about fundamental changes in the organization of dissent and politics itself.
The LTTE appropriated or misappropriated the organization of dissent among the Tamils. In the South, as the traditional Left, for long the principal vehicle of dissent, lost its structure and its trade union base, those alienated by and annoyed with the government were left to find other forums to express their dissent. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) became the main forums of dissent. Unlike MIRJE and CRM of old, the new NGOs are the products of globalization and the open economy, and also part of an international network.
The criticism that NGOs are the new instruments of international imperialism is old wine in new bottle and ignores the social circumstances of the emergence of NGOs in Western countries. The NGOs in the West are the result of the empowering response of the young and the disenchanted to the overpowering state, and the response of youthful idealism to the mediocrity of material prosperity. The globalization of Western NGOs is driven more by altruistic considerations than by profiteering motives. In fact, politically inspired Western NGOs began as supporters of Third World social and radical movements, trying to achieve vicariously elsewhere what they could not achieve at home.
Over time, NGOs became conduits for ‘aid’ from the First World to the Third World, harnessing both state and non-state charitable contributions. This suited well the western governments who were cutting down their aid contributions and shifting the purpose of aid from the more expensive hard infrastructure development (power, transportation, municipal services, industry etc.) to the much cheaper and thoroughly open-ended human resources development. The tsunami experience provided a rather not too inspiring illustration of the role of the NGOs as aid conduits, relief providers, and reconstruction specialists. In my view, NGOs play an indispensable and successful role in bringing relief and temporary rehabilitation, but they have no business in long term reconstruction.
More importantly, the tsunami episode exposed Sri Lanka’s institutional inability to organize its own house and properly manage the flow of aid and assistance from outside. It exposed the collapse of the state institutions and the extent to which NGOs had supplanted the functions of the state in many areas. If NGOs had emerged as a response to the overpowering state in the West, in Sri Lanka they have tended to replace the state in areas where the latter has been underperforming or has abdicated its responsibilities. The pathetic inability of the state is evidenced by the bureaucratic manner in which it is dealing with the NGO sector – licensing, monitoring, and subjecting it to vexatious inquiries.
Lesser evil, deadlier villain
One aspect of the NGO phenomenon that does not appear to have been noticed is the extent to which NGOs have been ‘creaming’ qualified people and experts who in earlier times and in normal times would have found socially productive and personally satisfying careers in public and academic institutions. So much so governments are getting away after appointing accountants from the private sector to govern the Central Bank and some University Departments are looking for NGO credentials in selecting their Professors.
In regard to the peace process, it is useful to remember that the first involvement of outside (NGO) consultants to assist the government was started by President Jayewardene during the All Party Conference of 1984. Pieter Keuneman lost no time in criticizing this outsourcing to perform political work that should properly be left to the domain of parliament and political parties and organizations. He may not have seen that it was only the beginning of a process that would later become a sizable consulting industry masquerading as civil society involvement. And twenty years later, we have Sumanasiri Liyanage commenting on the proliferation of peace professionals.
But as I said at the outset, we have to differentiate between peace professionals and war professionals, between rent-seeking operations in the peace process, on the one hand, and rent-seeking operations and crass profiteering in the war industry, on the other. We have to separate the lesser evil from the deadlier villain.
The ceasefire of 2002 that set the stage for the proliferation of peace professionals was only a necessary condition for peace, and not its sufficient condition. The failure to build on that ceasefire towards achieving permanent peace is the result of political blunders in the South and predictable intransigence in the North. It is not the failure of the peace professionals. The virtual collapse of the ceasefire now is the result of political capitulation to the war professionals, which is also their victory.