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New roles for NGOs in conflict-hit north?

A young child is immunised against measles at an IDP camp in Sri Lanka - August 3, 2009
(UNICEF/Sri Lanka)

NGOs can expect to take on a new role in northern Sri Lanka, helping to rebuild communities, although when exactly is not clear.

“The role of NGOs in doing straight humanitarian work is gradually going to phase down. They are going to have to shift to be more involved with early recovery, but ultimately with development,” Neil Buhne, the UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, told IRIN in Colombo, noting the country’s long tradition of community-based NGOs.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the area is in urgent need of rehabilitation after decades of conflict and NGOs could play a significant role.

“NGOs can be a real asset for the government, given their experience,” Gerson Brandao, OCHA’s field coordination officer in the northern town of Vavuniya, said.

Many NGOs were heavily involved in development work before the December 2004 tsunami, he said, enjoying strong links with the communities that will now need assistance.

“They have the expertise, the knowledge and more importantly the trust of the people already. That link shouldn’t be lost,” Brandao stressed.

Planning role

But according to aid agencies on the ground, there will be no shifting gears any time soon.

More than 280,000 people languish in government camps in Vavuniya, Mannar, Jaffna and Trincomalee districts since the end of the war in May between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland for more than two decades.

Thousand fled the conflict between government forces and the LTTE

Thousand fled the conflict between government forces and the LTTE
Monday, August 17, 2009
New roles for NGOs in conflict-hit north?
Thousand fled the conflict between government forces and the LTTE

Photo: Contributor/IRIN
Thousands fled the conflict between government forces and the LTTE

A 180-day government plan to resettle them in their home communities appears unrealistic, say aid workers.

“If there is a plan, I certainly haven’t seen it,” one international NGO staff member in Vavuniya, who asked not to be identified, said.

“Yes, I believe our roles will change but it won’t be any time soon,” she said, noting that until things change and the resettlement process becomes clearer, the agencies’ immediate focus remains helping camp dwellers.

Others, however, are preparing for what they see as the inevitable shift.

“We have already drawn up our plans for the development stage,” Sasha Ekanayake, regional coordinator for Handicap International in Vavuniya, said.

“After conflict there needs to be resettlement, reconstruction and development. I can’t tell you the timeframe, but the government, which is the main player, will need support,” he said.

Save the Children is already looking into early recovery activities as families, once resettled, will need help replacing their lost assets.

“We can also help these families with cash grants to rebuild their lives and livelihoods so that their children will be taken care of,” Menaca Calyaneratne, spokeswoman for the NGO, told IRIN in Colombo.

Co-operation issues

“These people lost everything,” said one NGO worker. “Until now we’ve been working in an emergency setting. That’s about to change.”

Yet this change also brings new challenges, requiring far greater cooperation between the government and the humanitarian community. More than three months since the conflict ended, access to the heavily guarded IDP camps remains restricted, making needs assessments difficult.


A scene at the Menik Farm camp outside Vavuniya following heavy rains on 16 August, 2009
Sunday, August 16, 2009
A l’approche de la mousson, inquiétudes sur les normes Sphère dans les camps de déplacés
A scene at the Menik Farm camp outside Vavuniya following heavy rains on 16 August, 2009

Photo: Contributor/IRIN
More than 200,000 people are being kept in the Menik Farm IDP camp

Even taking pictures inside the camps is barred by the authorities, who continue to cite security concerns.

“Our access to information is very limited. What information they do share with us is on their terms and only with great difficulty. That’s not the way it should be,” one aid worker said.

Added to that is a perception that NGOs undermine the efforts of public agencies and the government itself - when the two sides should be working as partners.

“The perception of funds moving out of government of Sri Lanka channels due to conditionalities has led to resentment,” Jeevan Theyagaraja, executive director of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, said. 

“This is the wrong perception and hopefully one that will change. We’re here to help and support the government,” said a local aid worker, who wished to remain anonymous. “We hope they will allow us to do that,” he said.

There are more than 240 international and local NGOs registered in Sri Lanka, 77 of which are in Vavuniya where most of the displaced - more than 246,000 - are now staying, making them well-positioned to assist the government’s upcoming resettlement and recovery efforts.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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