Guy Rhodes - Coordinator of the Solidar Consortium in Sri Lanka, chair of the Solidar Steering Committee composed of the Country Representatives of NPA, SAH and ASB and is a focal point for Solidar activities in the country.

 Amongst the shadowy figures dominating the Coffee Club, the gossip circle of international NGO personnel that propelled one of the early petitions against Sri Lanka presented to the UN Secretary General, was a man called Guy Rhodes. He headed a conglomerate of European NGOs called Solidar, which seemed to have swept up a great deal of the funding described as humanitarian assistance to the Sri Lankan people.

I first noticed Mr Rhodes when he spoke passionately against international agencies continuing, after they had been asked to leave LTTE dominated areas, to use the funds they had collected for the benefit of the people left behind. His argument was that, unless the agencies had continuing access, they would be in breach of the conditions their donors had laid down in granting them funding for humanitarian purposes. This seemed very odd, firstly because the other agencies did not seem to suffer from this constraint, and secondly because it was obviously wrong that donors should have inserted clauses into their funding agreements without the knowledge, let alone the approval, of the concerned government.

 Guy Rhodes did not seem inclined to let us look at the agreements he cited so confidently. We had previously pointed out to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that many agencies, contrary to the blanket agreements they had signed, with that Ministry or others, simply did not bother to consult government, let alone get its approval, in gathering funding unto themselves to use in Sri Lanka. Of course it was partly our fault for not having set solid systems in place and demanding accountability, but in mitigation it should be noted that the UN had imperceptibly slipped into the role of coordinator of funding.

I believe this began with the Ceasefire Agreement, when the LTTE made it clear that there had to be mechanisms to control the two parties to the Agreement, which they kept insisting were on an equal level. Unfortunately the government of the day seemed to grant that, and so the idea spread that the UN was intended to hold the balance.

I found an extreme version of this in what was termed an agreement on Modes of Operation for aid agencies in Sri Lanka. This seemed to have been agreed before I got involved, but I pointed out the offending clauses to my Minister who insisted that they be removed. The Europeans who had been making the running in this instance too asserted at a meeting at which I was not present that it was not possible to reopen the discussion, since the wording had been previously agreed. However, by the time of the next meeting I was Secretary to the Ministry, and it seemed necessary, though technically we only co-chaired the meeting with the Head of ECHO, the European Aid Agency, that we should take charge. It was made clear that the document had to be reworded, and further discussion was ruled out. Shortly after that the Modes of Operation document was virtually forgotten.

However there was one last little fling, when the ECHO Head brought in the Canadian High Commissioner to discuss with my Minister a training programme on these Modes of Operation, for which the Europeans had arranged some external firm. My Minister was rightly annoyed, and made it quite clear that such agreements should not have been made without prior consultation. The Canadian High Commissioner claimed ignorance of the fact that we had not been consulted, and beat a hasty retreat.

My Minister thought she had been taken for a ride, though I was not so sure of this myself. It was after all this lady who had engaged in utterly undiplomatic behaviour, in attempting to blackmail a local NGO which had been critical of Rama Mani, the head of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies. That however is another story. Certainly in the business of humanitarian assistance it was the Europeans who made the running, in endeavouring to assert their own primacy, as opposed to that of government, in planning assistance.

Their principal instrument for this was Solidar. This organization was a conglomeration of a number of European agencies, though in Sri Lanka there were only three that functioned, a German organization known as ASB, a Swiss one called SAH, and a Norwegian one entitled Norwegian People’s Aid. Not entirely surprisingly, the heads of most of these were British.

It was Norwegian People’s Aid that first opened our eyes to what some or perhaps they alone of these aid agencies were up to, when it transpired that the LTTE had made use of many of their vehicles, including heavy earth moving equipment. The story first broke in terms of nine or so vehicles going missing, and it was only much later that NPA confessed that nearly forty had been taken. This was long after the Ministry of Defence had known about the situation.

There was much anger at the time against the Norwegians, but a Sri Lankan diplomat with some knowledge of the situation told me that he thought the Norwegians had been simply used in this case, and that it was their British employees who were responsible for the breach of trust. These included a man named Felipe Atkins, who had so many nationalities that John le Carre would have found it difficult to create him.

Certainly I do not think even the ECHO officials who made a valiant effort to defend them understood the whole story. They claimed that the LTTE had been able to take the vehicles because the Government had not allowed a European to be stationed in Kilinochchi, but they were told that this was not the case, whereupon it was argued that the European who had been there was not an expert. Why it required an expert to count the number of vehicles in the compound, and why an ordinary European could not see that several vehicles were missing, was not explained.

Norwegian People’s Aid left the country soon afterwards, though Guy Rhodes made a valiant effort to have his visa extended. I told him that I could not recommend this, but he did receive a short extension on compassionate grounds. However I think his shelf life was by then over, though I am sorry that my suggestion, that we find out exactly how much he was paid for his work, was never taken up.

He did seem to have continued to do damage even last year, for I was told by a Swiss politician who was involved in SAH that he had been told by Solidar that it was the Sri Lankan government that had opposed the American effort to take away the people the LTTE was holding hostage in Mullaitivu. Fortunately I was able to cite an LTTE outlet in America that had condemned this plan, and the British head of ASB issued a handsome denial, so that the MP too wrote to me later that that was not quite what he had meant. But I have no doubt that pernicious disinformation was part of the Solidar agenda, at least as far as Guy Rhodes was concerned.

Sadly, Solidar and its components continued to be flavour of the month. I found for instance that UNHCR used Solidar as its preferred agency for projects and, though unlike the Europeans they had no ban against using local agencies, these had not been pursued for 2008. We managed to ensure some change for 2009, but there continues to be built in prejudice against locals, despite their greater efficiency (the best reports we find in the Protection area are those of the National Human Rights Commission and the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, whereas the international agencies engage in bitty work without it seems proper planning).

So this year, when we had requests for permission to work in the North, it turned out that ASB had received massive amounts of funding. By then it seemed its head was having problems about his work permit and, though he had been advised to speak to me, demurred on the grounds that I would rubbish him. This was unfair, because the previous year I had actually helped him. However it is possible he thought I would question him as I had done Mr Rhodes. Meanwhile the Swiss Agency seems to have backtracked on its agreement to work together with CHA.

I can only hope that all this does not indicate that they are back at work on a different agenda too, as seems so obviously to have been the case in 2008. Clearly we need to be constantly vigilant, so I am glad that the process of permissions is now securely in the hands of the Presidential Task Force for the North, which is able to have a clear picture of the whole. This is essential if funds meant to benefit the Sri Lankan people are not deployed for other purposes, not I believe by any agency in itself, but simply by a few individuals able to subvert the original humanitarian purpose they are supposed to uphold.

The Island 31 March 2010 –