Text of lecture at a workshop at the Kotelawala Defence University – January 20th 2013


In the last segment of this presentation, I will look at a number of factors that have to be taken into account in assessing possibilities of effective coordination. Some of them relate to government machinery, and some to the work of NGOs.

  1. Government officials have difficulties about preparing and implementing plans coherently because they have to report to many political masters.

In earlier times, government officials in particular areas related to Ministers for particular subjects and to individual Members of Parliament in whose constituency they functioned. Senior officials such as Government Agents had to relate to Members of several constituencies, but this was in terms of just one for each area.

Now however all Members in a District feel and exercise responsibilities within the whole District. In addition, government officials also have to relate to Provincial Council Members – many of them for each District taken as a whole – and to elected local government representatives, again many of them for each area.

The result  can be conflicting instructions and conflicting priorities. This also leaves little room for initiative of the part of the official. Previously such initiatives could be explained to political representatives and taken forward together, but with so many masters, it is natural for most officials to adopt more passive approaches. This applies also to suggestions that come from Civil Society, including NGOs, since it is easier to respond only to political proposals, given how many of these there can be.


  1. NGOs no longer function purely altruistically.

Until a couple of decades back, aid organizations provided support to those in need. They did this through initiatives that supported government programmes, or else through individual projects based on local needs. Their lead agents were primarily philanthropists who did not live off the work they did.

In more recent times however aid organizations have become businesses that provide livelihoods to the personnel who work in them at all levels. As with all businesses that have career structures, there is a relentless tendency to enhance those careers by increasing the size and influence of the business. NGOs wish to have a decisive say in policies and practices wherever they operate.

This desire has been supported by international developments that have reduced the power of national governments. In some crisis situations, the writ of government does not run, or there are capacity problems. While it is difficult, except where political interference is with the gloves off as when regimes are changed, for international players to dictate terms, the pill can be sweetened by increasing the influence of aid agencies. This has contributed to relentless efforts to formalize structures such as Country Teams, Inter Agency Standing Committees, even Coffee Clubs (such as the one in Sri Lanka which took on an authority that was wholly inappropriate), which rarely allow government agencies any decisive inputs.

The influence of international aid agencies has also been enhanced by the tendency in the UN system to hire personnel from such backgrounds. It was a former Indian ambassador to the UN in Geneva who pointed this out to me, when his government was in the forefront of trying to restore the balance that had existed previously in the UN, with staff drawn in similar proportions from different groups of countries.

By 2008, when the debate took place, UN staff were predominantly from Western countries. A habit that had developed of countries funding particular positions and nominating personnel to them had conclusively changed the colour, as it were, of almost all UN agencies. But the ambassador pointed out to me that, not only were the personnel representative of a particular geographical outlook, they also came from NGO backgrounds and would move back into them, so that their mindset was completely opposed to the principal of national sovereignty on which the UN was based.

We can see this in the different ways in which senior and junior staff reacted to what happened in Sri Lanka at the conclusion of the war. Senior UN personnel, from Sir John Holmes downward, understood the perspectives of an elected government dealing on behalf of all its citizens with a terrorist outfit, but younger people had less commitment to formal structures and responsibilities, and saw themselves as holding the balance between conflicting forces. Sadly, because we did not engage enough when criticisms started with senior UN personnel, we have allowed the argument to be decided by default in favour of the critical perspective, as indicated by the recent UN Petrie report.


  1. Donor countries have their own agendas.

This has obviously always been the case, and there is no reason to feel surprise at this or anger. Obviously the government of any country has an obligation to spend its money in the interests of that country.

This does not preclude altruism, because sometimes helping a country in need will contribute to international stability, which is desirable for the donor country. But in general policies and practices are based on personal interest. There are of course exceptions, as when public opinion after a disaster encourages assistance without strings or reciprocal benefits. But it makes sense for recipient countries as a general principle to be aware of the realities of international assistance.

Having recognized this, recipient countries can always cooperate so that both donor and recipient country get what they want and need. Now that many countries are open about their needs, as with the restructuring of their Ministries of Foreign Affairs to incorporate trade relations, we can very simply say that measures that enhance investment and trade opportunities for donor countries will attract more aid. Given that most political dispensations now accept the need to increase market involvement at all levels, there is every reason to suppose that mutually beneficial relationships can be established.

Recipient countries should however note that they should not abandon their own decision making powers in the process. Given the tendency noted above for aid agencies to take on authoritative roles, recipient countries must be firm in resisting this, while at the same time encouraging consultation and accepting advice that is productive.


  1. Local politicians have their own agendas.

The other side of this coin is that local politicians too sometimes promote programmes that benefit them more than the people they represent. It is for this reason that horizontal consultation mechanisms are essential, in addition to vertical consultations that allow decisions to be made in terms of national policies and plans.

For this purpose it would be helpful to institutionalize consultation mechanisms that incorporate cross-cutting inputs. A revitalized Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation would be helpful, but we should also think in terms of much better training for Planning officials at all levels. Developing reporting mechanisms that record outputs as well as outcomes is desirable, with enhanced ability to assess programmes in terms of national needs.


  1. The Structure of Government, Cooperation of Government Machinery and the Role of NGOs – 1
  2. The Structure of Government, Cooperation of Government Machinery and the Role of NGOs – 2
  3. The Structure of Government, Cooperation of Government Machinery and the Role of NGOs – 3
  4. The Structure of Government, Cooperation of Government Machinery and the Role of NGOs – 4
  5. The Structure of Government, Cooperation of Government Machinery and the Role of NGOs – 5
  6. The Structure of Government, Cooperation of Government Machinery and the Role of NGOs – 6