Recent reports have dwelt on a Wikileaks revelation about a meeting the US ambassador in Norway had with NGO representatives. This occurred on August 24th 2009 ‘to discuss the recent conflict in Sri Lanka, specifically in relation to a Congressional reporting requirement in recent supplemental funding legislation.’

Ranveig Tveitnes of FORUT ...succeeded in teaching Sri Lankans to boil water before drinking it.

The salient meeting on that day was with Ranveig Tveitnes former country director for Forut. I recall her as a particularly silly young woman, who had claimed, when told that NGOs had spent millions on what was termed capacity building to no purpose, that they had succeeded in teaching Sri Lankans to boil water before drinking it. Harsha Nawaratne, the Head of  Sewalanka, said he pointed out that he had known about the need for this long before NGOs descended on Sri Lanka.

Tveitnes however turned out to be vicious as well, and fell out with her local staff. This led to her being ‘expelled from Sri Lanka without an explanation’ according to Wikileaks. I am told that in fact she had to leave because her visa was not renewed but, given her performance in the short time she was here, that was not entirely surprising. She continued however to fulfil the aim with which it seemed she had originally come to Sri Lanka, in that she told the American ambassador ‘that Forut, and a number of other international NGOs, had local staff on the ground with satellite phones who were able to provide brief but consistent text message situation reports. Tveitnes also would text specific questions to her contact and receive responses.’

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.

Though she then ‘compiled the messages from her contact and provided print outs to Ambassador Williamson’ this was not enough. She ‘also referred Williamson to Guy Rhodes, a Geneva-based employee of the NGO umbrella organization Solidar, who, she said, had compiled reports from various NGOs which had maintained a presence on the ground in the conflict zone, including staff from Oxfam, CARE, Danish Refugee Council, Forut, ZOA Refugee Care, World University Service of Canada, and Save the Children. Ambassador Williamson later called Rhodes, who has since provided the compiled information.’

This was not entirely surprising. I had been wondering when Rhodes would pop up again. He was another character I had drawn attention to in the past, with slightly more success than I usually have when I try to get Sri Lankan officialdom to take tough decisions. Even though in his case too there had been the usual softening, his visa too had not been renewed.

So it seems that, to compile the Report that the US Congress required, recourse was had to two NGO officials whose visas had not been renewed. Given the dislike of the Sri Lankan government that both had made obvious while they were here, it is surprising that the US Report was so mild. I suspect though that this pretty pair found more gullible people in the form of the Darusman panelists and were able to fulfil their aims more successfully in recent months.

As I have realized is inevitable in this country, no one else had put anything on paper, though I believe a few other Sri Lankans shared my views about Rhodes. Fortunately I had said much, because of all the shady characters I came across in my two years at the Peace Secretariat, he was possibly the most sinister.

I came across him first in the latter part of 2008, and I can do no better now than reproduce what I wrote in 2010 about ‘Continuing International Interventions’. I said then –

‘Sadly memories in Sri Lanka are short, and I suspect few will remember the Coffee Club of International NGO personnel (not, I trust, the NGOs themselves in terms of deliberate policy) who spent much time and aid money at gatherings designed to subvert government policy. Their chosen technique in August 2008 was to draft nasty allegations which were then to be presented to the UN through Sri Lankan NGOs. The moving spirits behind the initiative however were foreigners, with a principle role in the drafting being taken by Peter Bowling of what I think was called the International Working Group on Sri Lanka……

Meanwhile in Colombo a dubious group of individuals seemed to be calling the shots, overwhelming the many decent individuals (such as the head of WUSC) who were simply trying to help. The most notorious of the characters out of what seemed le Carre central casting was the head of Solidar, which it transpired was the chosen agency of the European Union in its Julian Wilson days. But the petition, though it was indeed submitted, as Radhika Coomaraswamy confirmed when we met in Geneva, was not taken seriously by the UN. And so, as government stayed firm, and the full enormity of Tiger terrorism became clear, many of these shadowy characters faded away, from Sri Lanka and from clandestine interference.’

The bund built by the LTTE along the Chundikkulam lagoon - courtesy Army media

Guy Rhodes merited much more attention than he received because Solidar was an umbrella organization that included Norwegian People’s Aid. It was they who had allowed the LTTE to use 38 of their vehicles, including heavy earth moving machines that were used to build up the wall that cost so many lives.

I had also written about the perverse way in which Rhodes tried to assert authority with regard to aid, in challenging the government decision to ask NGOs to leave the Wanni. I wrote that –

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.

Abandoned earth moving equipment - LTTE bund construction. Courtesy

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 should note that my efforts to get the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the NGO Secretariat to be more systematic about its monitoring role was not successful, though my badgering did convince IOM for instance to act in a more responsible fashion – satisfyingly, because they are certainly much more responsive to national needs now than most other agencies.

We should however have been more careful about entities such as Solidar, for reasons I noted later in the same article –

‘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.’

I must admit that little of what I have suggested over the years, to successive Foreign Secretaries, to Ministers, to officials, is ever taken up. But given the latest evidence of how Guy Rhodes did so much to make a case against us, I am even more disappointed at our own culpable neglect to do anything about the machinations that were so blatant at the time.

Island 19 September 2011