Donor conference: Who will benefit from the funds?

By Dr. Darini Rajasingham-Senanayake
Ritual and symbolic analysis are a good way to understand the series of high profile international pledging conferences for Sri Lanka and Multilateral Needs Assessments (Oslo-Washington-Tokyo?), that have taken place in recent times. Repetition of the same donor conference, albeit with different chairpersons in different world capitals appears to constitute a coming out party of sorts - a series of debutant balls for the Liberation Tigers (LTTE), and a celebration of a growing relationship with the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL). The pledging conference in Tokyo if it happened without the LTTE would however be the ball without the debutant.

The organization has signaled that it would not be bought off by international rituals, pleasures, or false dawns since post/conflict reconstruction and development has been intangible in the north east in the year of peace. But the international arrangements for the post/conflict reconstruction party in Sri Lanka have developed their own momentum, structure and 'logic of practice' as symbolic anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu would have said. Though the sums to be pledged are already known, the rules that govern the behavior of host and guest are such that it would be churlish to question the relevance of Tokyo after the Washington and Oslo meetings - particularly as Japan is Sri Lanka's largest donor.

Additionally, the Multilateral Needs Assessment prodigiously prepared by the UN agencies, World Bank and Asian Development Bank over the last six months will also be presented in Tokyo. The Needs Assessment (available at www. represents the bill for peace in the island. Repeated needs assessments constitutes a ritual of the multilateral agencies that increasingly seek to control the post/conflict industry in war torn countries in the global south, also to legitimize their operational costs. In Sri Lanka the post/conflict industry is also visible in the droves of Euro-American UN technical experts ubiquitous other war zones of the world, recently arrived in Colombo from South Africa, Eritrea, Rwanda etc. as the neo-liberal peace dawns on the horizon of paradise lost.

Rituals, even secular ones like pledging conferences and needs assessments however have non-economic costs. While attention is focused on Multilateral Agencies' needs and donor time frames, very little has been done locally, on the ground for those affected by war. Thus, though the beleaguered Norwegian facilitators play a crucial and remarkably professional role at the track 1 level, many people in the conflict affected regions of the island have expressed the sense that they are not reaping the benefits of the year of peace, that post/conflict reconstruction is slow despite the promises of international aid, and core issues pertaining to human security and the return of displaced people are not being addressed. Meanwhile, the LTTE blames the GoSL for the various delays and the inefficiency of the Sub-committee on Humanitarian Needs and the World Bank's North East Reconstruction Fund (NERF). Thus the international post/conflict industry run by the Multilateral agencies feeds into Sri Lanka's current 'no war no peace impasse', albeit at drastically reduced levels of violence.

What the current impasse seems to reflect is an over internationalization of the peace and post/conflict reconstruction process that is increasingly driven by donors and the multilateral agencies. It is in this context that the withdrawal of the LTTE from the negotiating table without recourse to armed violence provides pause for analysis of what has been achieved and what is left undone to re-orient the peace process. The current impasse appears to be structured and contoured by 3 juggernauts: hard line interests within the LTTE, hard line positions and inefficiency within the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL), and the agendas and inefficiency of the international post/conflict reconstruction industry run mainly by the multi-lateral agencies (ADB, World Bank and UN system who increasingly work in concert).

There are of course several reasons for the impasse in the peace process including the failure of the GoSL to develop a broad based and bi-partisan peace process in the south, as well as endemic knowledge and information asymmetries in the post/conflict industry. While the interests and constraints on the GoSL and LTTE that structure the impasse have been extensively analyzed, the interests of the international post/conflict industry in Sri Lanka (as in other conflict torn countries in Africa and Asia), are less well understood. This essay therefore focuses on the role, practice and impact of the international post/conflict reconstruction industry in Sri Lanka.

These observations draw on 8 years of ethnographic study of the conflict and experience as a consultant for a number of multilateral agencies and humanitarian and development I/NGOs. Comments are also based on participant observation in meetings on rehabilitation; reconstruction and reconciliation in the northeast and in Colombo and at the "Multilateral Agencies Needs Assessment Validation Workshop" held in Killinochchi, March 2003.

The international presence has played an important humanitarian, stabilizing and bridging role in the conflict between the GoSL and the LTTE, even as it sustained and subsidized the conflict dynamic during the second decade of the war, and more recently the peace and post/conflict reconstruction effort. Moreover, it is clear that an international presence will be necessary for the peace and post/conflict reconstruction process to continue. What are not clear is what sort of post/conflict reconstruction would bring about a sustainable peace in the island and what role the international presence may best take. Indeed a serious evaluation including a costs-benefit analysis of the international post/conflict industry and its impact on the peace process in Sri Lanka appears to be necessary as the peace process approaches a tipping point.

Regaining the Peace Process: Media Hype, Ritual Pledging, and Cycles of War
Aside from the LTTE, the collective approach to peace in Sri Lanka appears premised on the idea that promises of funds from international donors accompanied by sufficient media hype would buy time for peace to develop momentum and blunt extremist demands on both sides. While this approach paid high dividends in the short term (the first year of the process), it has led to the medium term impasse. It is increasingly clear that the current laissez faire, neo-liberal post/conflict reconstruction approach cannot have any significant or sustainable impact without some of the core political and social issues (e.g. fiscal and administrative devolution), being addressed alongside the immediate humanitarian issues that pertain to the return of the displaced and reconstruction of their livelihoods, including de-mining.

In the context it is worth noting that of the $70 million pledge at the Oslo donor meeting in March, 20 percent of "aid" was in the form of grants while 80 percent is in the form of loans - payable by the GoSL and the people of Sri Lanka collectively. One does not have to be Cassandra to recognize that this may be a recipe for long-term indebtedness, impoverishment, and a new cycle of conflict (cf. Rajasingham: 2003). Of course, it is not at all obvious that the pledges made in Oslo and anticipated from Tokyo would actually materialize. The 70 million pledges at Oslo have now been revised to 40 million and will be probably revised down again. The media hype that surrounded the Washington conference, leading up to the Tokyo donor conference in June (now in question), may be precisely that - hype.

As such what is worth asking is who would ultimately benefit from the funds? Is it the people and regions of the country that have suffered the wages of war, the networks of local and international firms bidding for large infra-structure projects and contracts for the neo-liberal post/conflict reconstruction program favored by the Multilateral Agencies, or the international post/conflict reconstruction industry staff and technical experts that descend on the war zones of the global south, creating new inequalities and mounting debt for impoverished war-torn societies? The answer is probably a combination of all three. It is the proportionality of benefit that is in question, and the size of the peace debt that the country would have to bear. In Afghanistan it is well known that less than 15% of the "aid" actually reached those it was supposed to benefit.

A sense of perspective regarding the inflated dollar figures quoted for post/conflict reconstruction and the (dis) proportionality of benefit may be apparent from a brief comparison. One displaced family in the northeast would be paid 100,000 rupees (approximately 1,000$ per family) to rebuild their homes - and restart their livelihoods - of the $3 billion sought. On the other hand, a UN, World Bank or Aus Aid consultant in the post/conflict industry is paid approximately the same amount for 2 days of work.

UNHCR that handled the assessment for resettlement of displaced persons has quoted a sum of $332 million in the Multilateral Needs Assessment where no budget assumption or breakdowns of operation and programme costs are provided, despite repeated requests from civil society and NGOs in Sri Lanka. Whither equity and participation of civil society not to mention transparency and accountability of the Multilateral agencies?

Many countries in the global south suffer from the syndrome of repeated cycles of war and peace. Of the 38 peace processes that occurred during the decade 1989-1999, 31 returned to war within three years as research by John Darby of the US Institute for Peace shows. A number of analysts of peace process and cycles of war in African contexts have also noted that international intervention, particularly humanitarian aid and post conflict reconstruction, has its own institutional behavior and logic of practice that may both ameliorate and feed into violent conflicts in the global south. It is also recognized that the practice and legitimacy of humanitarian and post/conflict reconstruction is in crisis, particularly after the US awarded contracts to US firms for Iraq's post/conflict reconstruction before the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

In the context, the delays and ineffeciency of SIHRN that partly explain the withdrawal of the LTTE from the Track 1 process are not unrelated to the requirements of the international aid industry, including the setting up of North East Reconstruction Fund (NERF) by the World Bank, the need for yet another Multilateral Needs Assessment of the war zone, and the international conference timetable.

Given that the war-affected populations in the north-east complain of the numbers of UN, World Bank and ADB consultants surveying them while nothing changes, and given that previous studies, national expertise, and critical analysis have been marginalized in the current Multilateral Need Assessment isn't there a question about the international post/conflict industry and its impact on the peace process to be raised? Is the Sri Lankan peace process also hostage to the inefficient rituals and time frames of the international post/conflict industry? To understand why this may be the case and why a paradigm shift may be required in the global post/conflict industry we need to grasp its political economy.

Multilateral Needs, Validation Rituals, and the Post/conflict Tool-kit
It is increasingly recognized that the demise of violent conflict constitutes a moment opportune for drastic structural adjustment of economies and societies. Not surprisingly, since the end of the Cold War and the proliferation of violent conflicts in post Soviet states post/conflict reconstruction has emerged as a growth sector in the world development industry led by the Bretton Woods institutions. The international post/conflict industry is estimated to be worth $20 billion and rising, with Iraq the latest addition to the list of war-torn countries in the global south, whose resource wars continue to bolster the economies of the global north.

The increased role of the Bank has meant the triumph of the neo-liberal approach in post/conflict reconstruction and the simultaneous closing of other possible models of development, such as, mixed economy models or those that advocate protection of key sectors like agriculture and fisheries also for food security in situations where access to markets may be limited and market imperfections obvious. Broadly the international post-conflict tool-kit approach consists of neo-liberal institution, constitution and social capital building. The private sector, the market and structural and sector adjustments promoted by the Washington Consensus (World Bank and IMF) are the mantra for development and peace building.

The international post-conflict tool-kit then entails application of a universal set of technical formulas transported from one conflict zone to another. Based on the assumption that conflicts are generically similar, the approach produces a-historical, poorly theorized, a-political and culturally insensitive strategies, many of them failing to effect sustainable solutions.

The international tool kit approach is manifest in the work process and output of the current Multilateral Needs Assessment to be presented in Tokyo as the price of peace in Sri Lanka, a document that does not establish any developmental priorities. The current Multilateral Needs Assessment is the third such assessment of the war affected region in the past four years in Sri Lanka, not to mention the assessments conducted by the north east provincial council and local GAs and Kachcheries.

The current UN led Multilateral Needs Assessment is on a grander scale than in past years, with more international agencies and technical experts participating than in the previous World Bank led study of Rehabilitation, Reconstruction and Reconciliation (RRR Framework study that consulted all stakeholders including the LTTE), or the UN rapid needs assessment. However, no reference is made to previous work in the current document, which ideally should have built on previous work rather than duplicating it. As it is, the current Needs Assessment reproduces the same information lacuna and appears to be a checklist, without clear local priorities and focus for implementation of post/conflict reconstruction that assists the track one process.

This is largely due to the marginalization of local and national expertise and the fact that the majority of the international experts preparing the Needs Assessment lack a basics understanding of the Sri Lanka's history, society and conflict, and local priorities. Given that so many assessments already exist, it is arguable that priority should have been given to developing a poverty and vulnerability reduction strategy (PVRSP) for the north and east to enable proper targeting of assistance to those who most need it, along with a micro-meso-macro analysis of how to develop the two key sectors of the north east economy - the agriculture and fisheries sectors which constitute 80% of livelihoods in the north and east. Such an approach would have enabled commencement of reconstruction projects sooner and spending funds on already identified projects in the first year of peace.

The current needs assessment gives prominence to large-scale infrastructure projects where big contracts are involved, and thus to the business sector, multinational interests. This emphasis is accompanied by a thin safety net of humanitarian assistance for the displaced and poor in the conflict areas to rebuild their livelihoods. As such, it gives priority to the interests and development agendas of the international agencies, rather than to the communities most affected by the conflict. This is reflected in an urban and large infrastructure projects bias, though 80% if the northeast economy is agriculture and fisheries based.

At the Validation workshop in Killinochchi in March 2003, the Secretary for the North-East Provincial Council, the LTTE representatives, and various members of the public rejected the fisheries sector report in a packed meeting. Community members pointed out that less infrastructure and more emphasis on Agriculture and fisheries was needed since these were the "eyes" of the north east economy. In the context, it is unclear that the serious concerns that were raised have been addressed or indeed that the needs assessment has been validated. Indeed this raises the issue of the undemocratic work process of the Needs Assessment and the manner in which the Multilateral Agencies steamroll over local opinion and dissenting voices like grand juggernauts. The miss-fit in priorities of the Multi-lateral and the local communities could no doubt become a cause of renewed conflict a few years later, when poor communities realize they have been marginalized again.

Cumulatively, the Multilateral Assessment appears poorly acquainted with the priorities of people most affected by war and the needs of a country struggling to own and manage its own post/conflict, development and reconciliation process. It is of course claimed that the Needs Assessment is a technical exercise rather than a policy document. On the other hand, it is clear that the marginalization of local expertise also limits it. It is widely recognized that the two decades-long armed conflict in Sri Lanka, real and perceived ethnic grievances were fed by a number of local micro-conflicts over scarce resources arising from poverty and caste-based social exclusion. A number of studies have noted that for successful conflict transformation it will be crucial to better recognize and analyze the various links and dimensions of conflict at the local or micro, meso, and national levels, and thus move beyond narrowly technical or ethnicity-based solutions in the post/conflict reconstruction phase.

The Multilateral Needs assessment exemplifies the international tool kit approach to post/conflict reconstruction and its problems including mismatched local and international development priorities. In the context, the GoSL and the LTTE need to ask whether the country actually needs or can absorb the international funds that are mostly in the form of loans? The current absorption rate of international development "aid" stands at between 17-35 % for various reasons including administrative inefficiency. While it is obviously correct that the north east of the country that has been all but destroyed would require a major fund for reconstruction, particularly for infra-structure, a number of displaced people noted at "Multilateral Need Assessment Validation Workshop" in Killinochchi in March 2003, that what they need is not handouts and vast amount of assistance from donors, but rather an improved security situation to enable them to return and get on with their livelihoods.

It is of course elementary that proper targeting and setting of priorities would enable cost cutting and a far less extravagant bill for peace. The Needs Assessment appears premised on the notion that business and the free market will take care of the economics of peace. Issues of corporate corruption and crony capitalism that are endemic in post/war economies that exacerbate economic inequalities and distort markets is overlooked. Such policies in other conflict-affected parts of the world have demonstrably fuelled inequality and cycles of social violence and conflict.

There is clearly a need for a more balanced approach in the international post/conflict reconstruction agenda, where the benefits as well as the shortcomings of globalization and the neo-liberal emphasis on privatization, structural reform and growth are recognized. In many parts of the global south globalization has become a race to the bottom as poor countries compete to lower already low wage rates in order to attract often speculative foreign capital and experts, and education systems are restructured to provide cheap labor at the lower end of the global economy, rather than to generate knowledge and research.

Finally, the intellectual underpinnings of the neo-liberal approach to post conflict reconstruction is theoretically and empirically impoverished. Though business is seen as a catalyst, no mention is made of a fact well know to social scientists in Sri Lanka that small businessmen and Mudalalis often used ethnic disturbances to destroy business competitors from the other community. The tool kit approach derives from an erasure of cultural, historical difference and a trivialization of social analysis, whereby social analysis is reduced to the presence or absence of "social capital". Thus cultural and political difference between nations, people and histories and appropriate development paths are seen as irrelevant.

The Daily Mirror, June 5, 2003