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Role of civil society in a democracy deserves appreciation


On March 5, 2011, the Island carried an article entitled "Foreign funds galore for three NGOs." The author argued that despite the end of the war, several Sri Lankan NGOs still receive foreign funding. The articles lists a number of public institutions and private foundations that support the three NGOs named in the article.

Since my arrival in Sri Lanka in September 2009, I have read numerous articles critical of NGOs. Some contend that NGOs are working to undermine the government; others claim that NGOs are misallocating resources; and still other articles argue that the government should closely monitor and regulate the work of NGOs.

Missing from the debate is recognition and appreciation of the role that civil society plays in a democracy. Civil society, by definition, is the collective body of journalists, domestic and international NGOs, religious leaders, and other individuals and entities who work to improve the lives of citizens in a democracy. Their work can take many forms. Civil society can bring individuals together to respond to natural disasters—-as in Haiti following last year’s devastating earthquake. Civil society can act as a watchdog to ensure governments act responsibly—-such as in the United States during the Watergate scandal. Civil society can also be an advocate for important social issues—-such as in the United States during the civil rights movement.

The same is true in Sri Lanka. Individuals and organizations across the country are working to support a prosperous, united and democratic Sri Lanka. For example, a host of organizations and individuals mobilized following the recent flooding to provide much-needed support to victims of the disaster. A number of other entities are supporting reconciliation by bringing together Sri Lankans from diverse backgrounds to address common community challenges. Still other organizations are working to promote public awareness and government action on environmental issues.

Globally the United States is a strong proponent of civil society. By supporting organizations which work to improve the lives of citizens, we aim simultaneously to strengthen democracies and our bilateral partnerships. We also recognize that this is not a one-way street— civil society also plays a vital role in strengthening American democracy. We allow foreign NGOs to operate in the United States and permit U.S. entities to apply and receive funding from foreign sources, including foreign governments. For example, the France-based Handicap International has a branch in the United States that advocates and provides support for people with disabilities. Handicap International was also a member of the coalition of NGOs that won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for their efforts to ban landmines. Although the U.S. Government sometimes disagrees with the positions taken by some organizations, we recognize that their very presence enlivens debate and enriches our democracy.

In Sri Lanka, over the years, the United States has provided significant funding to Sri Lankan civil society. We have supported organizations that promote inter-faith dialogue, environmental awareness, anti-corruption, active citizenship, freedom of media, and women’s rights. The U.S. Government also employs strict accounting and monitoring procedures to ensure that U.S. taxpayer funds are used appropriately and efficiently.

We believe that our support has helped these organizations improve the lives of people across the country. And we continue to believe strongly that NGOs will play a vital and unique role in building a prosperous, united and democratic Sri Lanka.

Patricia Butenis
US Ambassador in Colombo


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