Civil society organisations have played a very active and at times controversial role in the peace process in Sri Lanka. To their supporters, the best civil society organisations represent a vital force for human rights and justice; but they have also received strong criticisms, including, amongst other things, being conduits for international influence and agendas, and being biased for one ‘side’ or another in the conflict. According to Oliver Walton, Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, much of the controversy has been caused by the relationship between civil society organisations and international donors, where support from donors has resulted in unintended consequences and a backlash against the work of civil society and peacebuilders.

Oliver kindly agreed to be interviewed about his research, transcribed below. His research focused on the Sri Lankan peace process, 2002-2008, though his findings offer insight into both the current situation in Sri Lanka after the defeat of the LTTE, and also relationships between international donors and civil society in conflict situations more broadly.

Insight on Conflict (IoC): What impact has the international engagement in Sri Lanka had since 2002?

International engagement in Sri Lanka since 2002 provides a good case study for looking at the impact of ‘liberal peacebuilding’
Oliver Walton (OW): In the paper The Limits of Liberal Peacebuilding? International Engagement in the Sri Lankan Peace Process Jonathan Goodhand and I argue that the international engagement in Sri Lanka since 2002 provides a good case study for looking at the impact of ‘liberal peacebuilding’, a model of international intervention where conflict resolution is promoted via democratisation and liberalisation. The case of Sri Lanka shows that liberal peacebuilding interventions may have illiberal consequences. They can become instrumentalized and manipulated by nationalist actors on the ground and therefore contribute to an illiberal backlash against international intervention.

In Sri Lanka, the work of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) became closely connected to the peace process. Some nationalist groups used NGOs as scapegoats against an international intervention. These groups argued that international actors posed a threat to Sri Lanka and its sovereignty, its society and values. There was also a widespread view that international actors are seeking to influence the peace process and support the LTTE side.

Academics and international policy-makers have criticised the way that international donors have tended to focus their attention on a so-called ‘charmed circle’ of English-speaking NGOs in Colombo. NGOs are often considered by locals as rather money-focused (a problem which exists in many countries). NGO workers receive higher than average salaries, which can help to create a negative perception of NGOs amongst the wider population.

IoC: You point out in your article that international engagement in Sri Lanka has been counterproductive. What kind of alternative approach would have been more productive?

‘Peace’ became linked to a process of economic and political liberalisation based on the Western model of liberal democracy
OW: There is certainly a risk of overstating the impact of international actors on the ground. The domestic political situation changed quite dramatically and international actors were not solely responsible. The Western-oriented peace approach pursued by the United National Party and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe also played a crucial role. ‘Peace’ became linked to a process of economic and political liberalisation based on the Western model of liberal democracy. The governments focused specifically on economic reforms, which became quite unpopular in the south of Sri Lanka. A more robust alternative may have been one that placed more emphasis on the material needs of communities in both the North and the South.

IoC: You argue that existing modes of donor peacebuilding have tended to depoliticize civil society. How can international donors make their support to NGOs more effective and credible?

OW: At the time when the peace process was breaking down and the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime was beginning to pursue a more authoritarian approach, some argued that NGOs should develop a more confrontational attitude against the government: that they should have challenged the government concerning human rights violations or played a bigger role in shaping the peace process, that they should have tried to ensure that more political aspects are addressed in Track I negotiations rather than only economic ones.

I would argue that it is important to look at the historical context of civil society engagement in Sri Lanka to understand the potential for NGOs to play these roles. Sri Lankan politics is highly centralized, making it difficult for NGOs and civil society groups to effectively mobilise opposition to influence the state. There are very few examples in Sri Lanka’s history where civil society groups were able to successfully confront the government in this way. The state and the political parties dominate the national political arena and have generally co-opted civil society groups when they have grown to prominence.

A more constructive way to improve peacebuilding activities is to give local organisations more flexibility in developing their own strategies. It is important for donors to engage with a broader range of organisations and not just the normal circle. This is quite a common refrain, but in reality it is quite difficult for donors to actually engage with this wider section of civil society. They need to invest more in building capacities for this kind of organisations and support them to develop their own strategies.

During my research, I also came across a small number of NGOs that were trying to develop a more genuine and participatory approach to peacebuilding, based on strengthening the capacities of local communities and leadership, but most did not do this, partly because of the constraints placed on them by donors. This approach appeared to be an effective model of community peacebuilding. If donors provided NGOs with more space to develop their own peacebuilding strategies, it seems likely that more NGOs would start functioning in this way.

IoC: One of the consequences of this backlash was that the fairly neutral-sounding terms such as ‘peacebuilding’ became heavily politicized. Some civil society groups tried to distance themselves from the terms peace and peacebuilding. Why was that?

OW: When I was doing field research in Sri Lanka in 2006/07 I wanted to find out how peacebuilding organisations managed their legitimacy as the public environment for their work was becoming more hostile. One of the strategies I identified was that NGOs sought ways to engage in peacebuilding without using the term ‘peace’. Since 2002, the term had become quite politicized.

During the early part of the peace process the government was very supportive of the so-called peace NGOs and actively encouraged them to support the peace process. However, this quickly changed with the new government after 2004. NGOs were put in a very difficult position. These organisations started trying to develop ways to do peacebuilding without using the actual word ‘peace’. They started replacing it with other words that seemed to be appropriate to the current context such as ‘dialogue’, or ‘community problem-solving’.

IoC: Are there any general lessons you would draw in terms of how international actors should engage with civil society, or how civil society should engage with international donors?

OW: International actors need to have a better understanding of the struggle for legitimacy that NGOs are experiencing. They need to engage constructively with the organisations on the ground and give them the chance to make decisions on their own. NGOs can react in a flexible manner if the situation on the ground shifts and adapt to the new circumstances. Therefore, one of my conclusions would be that we need to give local actors more flexibility in these kinds of environments.

I would stress that flexibility concerning objectives and strategies is key to improving NGO-donor relations and in improving outcomes
Donors often put NGOs under pressure by putting forward specific objectives and pressuring the NGOs to achieve these. I would stress that flexibility concerning objectives and strategies is key to improving NGO-donor relations and in improving outcomes. Donors and NGOs need to develop more open relationships, which provide room for greater honesty about goals and how these might need to change in order to adapt to changing circumstances.

IoC: Finally, what are the prospects for peace in Sri Lanka? How has the end of the war in 2009 had an impact on the peacebuilding process?

OW: The war has ended and it seems quite unlikely that major violence will return at least in the short- to medium-term. The population is relieved that the war is over. However, Sri Lanka’s peace is a victor’s peace, which is potentially storing up various problems for the future if the more fundamental issues that caused the violence are not addressed. The current regime has made little effort to address the most fundamental issues such as human rights and political representation for minority groups. The political trends that facilitated the end of the war such as the militarization of society and politics, and the growing centralization of power around the President and his family have had very negative consequences for Sri Lanka’s post-war politics and will continue to damage the prospects for long-term peace in Sri Lanka if they are not addressed.