I am not very familiar with Colombo restaurants, but some months back I was taken in rapid succession to a couple of them that I have been told were the regular haunt of the city’s bright young things. First a visiting British journalist took me to the Cricket Club, and then I was given lunch by a British company at the Paradise Gallery Café. I have no idea what dinner cost at the former, but I found that lunch for three at the latter, two courses each with a glass of wine for one lady and fruit juice for the other, came to nearly 10,000 rupees.

In terms of British standards this is nothing, and less than 20 pounds a head for excellent food in a beautiful location (Geoffrey Bawa’s former office) is superb value. However for people on Sri Lankan salaries, certainly those in the public sector, this is not readily affordable.

It was thus not surprising that the vast majority of guests in both places were foreigners. And perhaps it was not surprising too that several of them were those who would describe themselves as belonging to the international humanitarian community. The salaries commanded by these individuals, not only at senior level, but for fairly simple jobs, are massive by our standards. The argument is that they need to be compensated on an international scale, having obligations in their home countries too, but certainly, for the young ladies who pronounce so sanctimoniously on suffering, it is not a bad deal to dine and wine frequently at levels they could not dream of at home.

The salaries certainly are excessive. I do not grudge those of senior UN staff, but I had always assumed that there were very few of these, providing just essential guidance to primarily local staff at professional and other levels, given the capacities engendered by our own educational and administrative systems. Sadly this is no longer the case, not just in the non-governmental sector but also in the several UN agencies that have sprung up in recent years. The result is that youngsters have flooded in in vast quantities, first after the Ceasefire Agreement when assistance became a lucrative profession, and then after the tsunami when generous individuals all over the world contributed to help the Sri Lankans who had suffered. They ended up also helping their own citizens who found gainful employment in a beautiful country.

I had been told by Sri Lankan colleagues previously of the restaurants that had sprung up in the East, of the crowds who stayed in grand hotels in Giritale and Habarana, of aid vehicles filling the parking lots of Colombo hotels in the evenings, but this was the first time I had seen so much evidence of the use to which aid funds are also used. I must confess I was perhaps in a mood to be critical, because I had just found out that the costs of UNHCR, which I had thought received its basic funding from the UN, were all met out of what is termed the Common Humanitarian Action Plan Appeal. It was even more worrying to be told that, unlike say UNDP which does receive much funding from Headquarters, this Agency has no Sri Lankans at senior levels, and has swelled its ranks of youthful employees in recent years.

Adding to this general irritant was the particular revelation that one individual had a salary package that amounted to $11,000 a month. I hasten to add that he was not one of the senior administrators, who have all struck me, at least while I was working for government, as serious and committed and largely sympathetic to the Sri Lankan people. About their salaries I would not complain, though I could wish that there were fewer of them and that more Sri Lankans were given greater responsibilities. But that an individual on contract for a specific purpose should have taken quite so much out of humanitarian assistance was worrying. The allocation might have included administrative costs, but it struck me as preposterous that funds sought to help the displaced were squandered in this fashion. It was even more galling that he had what seemed a totally amateurish approach to the subject on which he was meant to be an expert.

Thus, instead of admitting, as his superiors did, that the disgusting practice some agencies had indulged in, of building toilet pits of plywood, was a colossal mistake, he claimed that this was not such a problem. To avoid the plywood being destroyed by the gully suckers, he said pontifically, one had to suck carefully, leaving some of the muck behind. That, it seemed, would cushion the plywood from being sucked away too. That this could be a hit and miss affair, while the relentless procession of gully suckers would add to wear and tear on the roads, was obviously more than he could understand.

But his understanding was indeed limited. When we were worried about floods because of the lack of attention to drainage, at least until our Disaster Management Centre took charge of the situation, he suddenly brought up the question of fire hazards. Obviously fire can be a risk anywhere, but evidently the man had no sense of actualities in the type of humidity we experience in Sri Lanka. One had wonderful visions then of him running around providing fire buckets to the displaced, while the monsoon poured down.

All this would be quite funny did it not cost such an enormous amount. But there is also a more dangerous aspect to all this. If one enjoys a wonderful lifestyle, one will not want it to end. It must therefore be the dream of many of these youngsters to continue in Sri Lanka, dining on lobster in beautiful weather, with no risks and not much work. And, sadly, some of them will leave no stone unturned to achieve this dream.

That may explain the relentless criticism of government action that many of them engage in. I had been told by some media personnel of critical information conveyed to them by junior staff who thought their seniors were too close to the government. It would be naïve to assume that this was simply due to idealism, as the journalists thought. I told them indeed to think also about the agendas of their informants, and at that stage I was wondering about excessive sympathy for the Tigers or perhaps the social contacts in Colombo of the international do gooding high lifers.

But sitting in the Paradise Gallery Café I thought that perhaps there were also more basic reasons for the determination of these youngsters to show that they were indispensable. Going back to poky little flats in cold European capitals is not an appealing prospect. I fear then that we will have to contend with much more criticism before the less capable of this monstrous brigade finally leave our shores.