For the past couple of weeks the government has been making noises to the effect that they would introduce measures to investigate and control foreign funded NGOs. Every government for the past thirty years has been threatening to do so, but nothing has really come of it although President Premadasa did make a start with an investigation on a couple of respected NGOs for reasons we will not explore. In this country, there is deep rooted mistrust of NGOs even among the general public. The general impression is that these NGOs are up to no good, promoting foreign agendas on local soil and engaged in various anti- national activities. One foreign funded NGO that is acutely aware of the distrust of some NGOs is Transparency International. Its annual report for 2008 said "The anti-NGO sentiment prevalent in the country unfortunately affected our work. The general tendency is to look at all non-government organizations with suspicion and mistrust." The question on most people’s minds is, why are foreign countries pumping so much money into these NGOs and what are they doing with that money?
Tranparency International (TI) for example, has been getting a lot of money from overseas. In 2007, they received over Rs. 37 million. In 2008, it was nearly 40 million. In 2009, the amount received was nearly 67 million. The principal donors are the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Swedish International Development Agency. What has been happening to all this money? This can be explained by means of a few examples. In 2006, TI did a study titled "In pursuit of absolute integrity: Identifying causes for police corruption." The total amount received for this project was over Rs 8.2 million. According to the audit report for this project, something like Rs 2.6 million had been paid to the Centre for Policy Alternatives to carry out two surveys, one among police officers and another among the general public.
The connection obviously is that Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu, the senior most director of Transparency International is also the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives. In these surveys, 770 serving police officers and 1,000 members of the public were interviewed over a period of about seven weeks in total. The cost of getting each questionnaire filled in, thus works out to over Rs 1,500. The number of interviews carried out per day would work out to 36 and the daily expenditure for interviews would thus be around Rs 55,000. In this country, the cost of filling in a simple questionnaire can’t possible be as high as Rs 1,500 each.
The director of this project was paid Rs. 1.2 million. The principal researcher was paid Rs.400,000. In this manner, the total cost of the project was Rs. 8.2 million. The final result of this whole exercise was a report of 106 pages on police corruption. The cost thus works out to more than Rs. 80,000 per page. The question, is was this research worth that much? In the estimation of this columnist, any reasonably able post graduate diploma student (the research is not even up to a Master’s standard) would have been able to do this research by himself and he would have been overjoyed to do it (including the surveys and the traveling it entails) for a santhosam of about Rs. 100,000. There was no rocket science involved in this study. The report is full of trite observations such as that "Police corruption is generally defined as misuse of authority by a police officer in a manner designed to produce personal gain..." (Can it be anything but that?) Even the researchers themselves seem to have been embarrassed by the superficial nature of this study and the recommendations at the end are more about improving the police service generally such as by providing modern interrogation rooms etc, than about ways and means of eliminating bribe taking.
One recommendation that tickled this columnist most was the one which said that "Police officers must be encouraged to attend courses/lectures organized by civil society organizations…" Given how new and interesting the contents of the Police Corruption study was, police officers caught taking bribes could perhaps be made to attend a course of studies on corruption conducted by Transparency International as a part of the punishment!
The mismatch between the cost and the significance of what is produced runs through virtually every project of TI that I have examined. In 2005, TI got over 3.8 million from the Canadian International Development Agency for a "Programme for the protection of Public Resources." What they meant by this was the use of public resources for the presidential election campaign of that year. They had spent something in excess of Rs.2.2 million, on observing the use of state resources for the election campaign, around Rs.900,000 of which was paid to ‘investigators’. They don’t seem to have been doing anything more than duplicating the work already done by elections monitoring bodies which keeps track of complaints of the misuse of state property for elections. A sum of over Rs 1.6 million was left over from this project and this money was utilized for the compiling of a five year ‘strategic plan and donor programme’ for Transparency International from 2007 onwards. A sum of nearly Rs.1.5 million was spent on producing this strategic plan and here too, the end product does not justify the cost. In the first place, since this document was meant to be a strategic plan for TI and a programme for donors to funnel funds to the organization, one would think that a document of this nature should have been compiled free of charge by the directors. But in the NGO sector, nothing happens without money – lots of it. In this instance, they were given money by Canada to design a programme for other donors to give money to them. How lucky can you get?
What then about the strategic plan itself? Here too this plan could have been done by a reasonably able post graduate diploma student, for a santhosam of about Rs. 50,000 or less. There is no way that this could have cost Rs 1.5 million to produce. This strategic plan came together with some gibberish called a ‘log frame analysis’. I had never heard of such a thing before, but I can recognize nonsense when I see it. This is a document with text within boxes, and impressive looking numbering systems and shaded areas to give it a pseudo- professional look. But the content is nonsensical nevertheless. According to this log frame analysis, they want to conduct ‘anti-corruption moral literacy programmes’ for trade unionists. What does ‘moral literacy’ mean? Every bus conductor who pinches money from the collection knows that what he is doing is wrong – there’s no need to labour the point. Then they want to create ‘integrity laboratories’ in schools. The picture conjured in my mind by this term is a room where school principals would have their heart beat and brain activity monitored while being asked questions like "How much do you take to admit a child to this school?" – that’s the only kind of ‘integrity laboratory’ that I can think of. Then they also want to include ‘anti-corruption modules’ into the curricula of schools and universities.
They want to turn the second Buddhist precept and the eighth commandment into an academic discipline in itself, and make us swallow it all. Such courses will be so trite that they may better serve the judiciary as a form of punishment for those convicted for taking bribes, in lieu of a prison sentence. Moreover if the government wants to curtail the intake of university students for arts courses, they can be made to do the anti-corruption modules first, after which they’ll willingly drop out of university! The problem with the NGO sector is that they have a tendency to create work or what deceptively looks like work, to suit the funding available. What is of primary importance is the funding and not the work.
A good example was a 2006 project with the title "Sensitizing public servants on combating corruption". The original budgeted amount for this project was Rs.10.2 million, but they got only Rs. 3 million. With a 70% shortfall, most people would have shelved the whole project, but not TI. They cheerfully went ahead. The Rs. 1.3 million allocated for the development of a training manual was dropped forthwith, another Rs. 1.3 million for training of trainers was dropped, one million for documentation and printing was dropped, as was 500,000 for the media programme. A training programme which was to be designed for 200,000 was designed for 144,000. Transport and secretarial work which was budgeted at 500,000 was somehow met with just 96,000. The Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration which played the role of tout in delivering the public servants to TI’s door was to be given 600,000 as administrative costs, but was fobbed off with just 45,000. (Of course TI which was also to have got 600,000 gave themselves 467,000.)
Twelve awareness seminars which were budgeted at 2.5 million, was carried out with less than 1.3 million – (Presumably by serving plain tea and biscuits instead of chocolate cake and iced tea to participants?) I learnt from a TI official that at the end of the project a ‘validation seminar’ was held at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute for around 25 participants and this had cost Rs.831,000. How a seminar for 25 participants can cost that much is beyond me, but the actual budgeted amount was nearly twice that at over 1.5 million! This was not a seminar on Nuclear Physics. This was about public officials pinching the taxpayer’s money or fleecing the public, and resource persons need not have been paid more than a few thousand at the very most. Even if participants were paid to attend, it still could not have cost that much. An NGO budget is a miraculous thing. It can be as little or as much as one wants. They did the programme with just three million, but if they had got the original budgeted 10.2 million, they would somehow have found ways and means of spending that too.
In 2005/6, TI conducted a programme to introduce ‘value for money audits’. (To others, not ironically to their own organization.) This too got a hefty grant of nearly 10 million from the Swedes. As is usual, they had asked for much more – Rs.12.5 million no less. The unearthly, other dimensionally plastic nature of NGO budgeting was to be seen in this case as well. Even though they were short of their budget by close to 2.5 million, they were able to complete the project and still have nearly 1.5 million left over! In this 10 million project, 6.5 million was paid to various individuals as consultancy fees as well as management fees, with the project director alone getting nearly 1.5 million. An architect, civil engineer and quantity surveyor shared 1.2 million amongst themselves. An Indian consultant got 667,000. One would think that in a project on getting value for money, meetings with stakeholders would be paramount. The sum allocated for this in the original budget had been 410,000. But they had managed to do what was necessary with less than 13,000. (Yes, thirteen thousand).
Then again one would have thought that meetings with community based organizations and beneficiaries of the value for money audit would be equally paramount. The amount allocated in the budget for this was Rs 936,000, but not a cent was spent for this purpose. Then a sum of over Rs 2 million had been budgeted for traveling while the actual expenditure was around Rs 351,000. Documentation and information gathering had an allocation of over Rs 500,000 but the actual expenditure was 30,000. The reason for this incredible budgetary plasticity is because much of what an NGO does involves non-essential expenditure on non-essential work. You can cut down on the work as well as the expenditure with no loss.
Money for nothing
What happened to the money that was left over from this exercise in futility called the Value for Money Audit? As can be expected, it was utilized in yet another project where there was no value for money at all. This was for a 2007 project called "Community Interactive Programme in the Tsunami Recovery Programme: Voice out corruption". As usual, they wanted nearly Rs 4.2 million for this project. But they got only Rs 2.8 million from the Swedes. However with the Rs 1.4 million left over from the Value for Money project and the Treasury bill interest thereof, they actually had even more money than was originally estimated with nearly Rs 4.4 million. One quarter of this, over Rs 1.1 million went to the project director and another Rs. 900,000 for researchers and other personnel. Nearly half a million rupees was spent on traveling. The preparation of the final report cost nearly three quarters of a million. This kind of expenditure on non-work and on producing nonsensical reports is a crime against humanity, and here it is happening under our very noses. The horror of it is that Transparency International is an organization that seeks to work closely with our state sector. If the state and local government sector begins to think that it’s okay to spend money on this scale on nonsensical projects, that’s the end of this country. I can almost hear a DIG telling a subordinate "I say, my daughter’s wedding is coming up, let’s do a report", and the subordinate replying "Sir we don’t have enough money for a report, can’t you make do with just a survey?"
If it was simply a case of a few influential people diddling money from overseas donors, nobody would be interested in knowing what was happening. But the suspicion in this country is that money was being funneled for the use of certain individuals and that these projects are only a facade, to enable the transfer of millions. The political stands taken by the people who run these foreign funded NGOs tends to increase this suspicion. There is a certain uniformity across the entire NGO sector. One would think that if these were bona fide social service organizations, there would be a diversity of opinion among them, which would reflect the political divisions in the country.