The head of the Italian Red Cross in Batticaloa hosted a pizza party last week. An invitation found its way to me through the NGO grapevine. It was a welcome opportunity to escape the omnipresent horrors of conflict and the tsunami. However, as I sipped drinks with the exclusively western attendees, I couldnТt help questioning the value of the plethora of international NGOs in Batticaloa.
There is no question that INGOs have provided invaluable support to the people of Batticaloa. While government relief funds were locked up in months of political wrangling, UNICEF, ACF, World Vision, CARE, Zoa, GTZ, and others provided tsunami-affected families with drinking water, housing, and sanitation. NGOs picked up the slack while the government ignored the plight of the eastern provinces, concentrating its relief efforts in the southern districts of powerful legislators. There is no question that INGOs deserve most, if not all, of the credit for the fact that Batticaloa escaped the post-tsunami outbreaks of starvation and disease that many had predicted.
Yet, there is something about the hordes of NGO workers in Batticaloa (myself included) that makes me somewhat uncomfortable. The pizza party I attended was the most palpable example of the odd racial and class disparities between NGO workers and Sri Lankans. There were only two Sri Lankans among the roughly 60 western guests. The pizza, beer, and wine flowing inside the house were in stark contrast to the abject poverty and flattened homes outside.
After years of NGO presence, many eastern Sri Lankans continue to live in poverty. NGO workers manage a well-deserved break every now and then, but their beneficiaries continue to work countless hours for $3 a day. Meanwhile, government officials shrug off any responsibility for disaster relief or development projects, secure in the knowledge that if they do nothing, an NGO will eventually do their job for them.
The party I attended was only one of many NGO parties in Batticaloa. Many attract locals as well as INGO staff. But the stark divide at the Red Cross pizza party made me wonder: are we helping to deliver the people of Batticaloa from years of conflict, calamity, and poverty, or are we just creating a culture of dependency? Or are we doing both? Is it possible to do one without the other?
Only time can answer those questions. In the meantime, I have seen some of the poverty and misery rampant in the area, and I know itТs impossible to stand by and do nothing.
Posted By Sarosh Syed (Sri Lanka)
Posted Jul 27th, 2005