Although the role and importance of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and other civil society organisations (CSOs) have diminished since January 2015, they continue to play a significant role. While the level of their co-operation with the state is fairly high, this has not always been so. The eruption on in July 2014 of a controversy regarding the political and media activities of civil society highlighted its long-standing friction with the state. Relations between state and civil society have been characterised by periods (of varying duration) of familiarity and of remoteness, of alliance and of antagonism.
Civil society to independence
Civil society in Sri Lanka appears to have been of considerable antiquity, predating the European colonial conquest. The earliest CSOs were probably localised, self-organised and self-funded mutual benefit institutions such as Temple Development Societies (Dayaka Sabhas – committees of lay people supporting Buddhist monasteries) and Tank Councils (Wew Sabhas – farmers’ societies for the maintenance of reservoirs and distribution of irrigation water). There may also have been informal community-level voluntary bodies, such as the ubiquitous Death Donation Societies (Maranadara Samiti – funeral aid societies). These supplemented already existing, traditional informal self-help co-operative structures, such as the Goyam kaiya (co-operative work band).
In the 19th century ecumenical organisations associated with Christian missions emerged as the first NGOs. Many of these being local subsidiaries of worldwide Christian missions, they were also the earliest examples in the country of international non-governmental organisations (INGOs). Typical of these was the first, the Colombo Auxiliary of the British and Foreign Bible Society (now the Ceylon Bible Society), established in 1812.  Among the still extant NGOs which followed it were the Christian Literature Society of Ceylon (1858 – based on the Sinhalese Tract Society founded in 1849) and the Young Men’s Christian Association (1882).
Non-Christian civil society emerged in reaction to these mission-based NGOs, in the form of religious bodies (mostly intent on proselytisation, education and social reform) emulating their structure.  The nascent native bourgeoisie funded responses by their own religions to the incursions of missionaries as well as of the established Anglican Church. The first of these revivals occurred among Tamil Hindus in the northern Jaffna peninsula, spearheaded by a former Methodist mission scholar, Arumuga Navalar. In 1858, a booklet compiled by him, Saiva-dusana-parihara (‘The Abolition of the Abuse of Shaivism’), was published by the Saiva-prakasa Samajiyar.  This may have been the first non-Christian NGO, but does not appear to have lasted. Arumuga’s associate Sankara Pandithar founded the Paramata Kantana Cuyamata Tapana Sangam in 1864. However, it was not until 1888, nine years after Arumuga’s death, that the rather less transient Saiva Paripalana Sabai (Jaffna Hindu Board) was founded.
By this time the renaissance of Buddhism among the majority Sinhalese was well under way. It had begun with the establishment of the Sarvajna Sasanabhivrddhadayaka Dharma Samagama (Society for the Propagation of Buddhism) at Kotahena in 1862 – which mimicked the Anglican Church’s Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, which had commenced work in Sri Lanka in 1840. A major challenge faced by revivalists was the provision by mission schools of education for lay people; so much of their activity concerned the establishment of schools. The Lokartasadhaka Samagama (World Welfare Society) was formed in 1868, opening the first lay Buddhist school the next year. In 1871, the Dharmaparaya Society was established under the patronage of Ven Dharmaloka Thera.
The Buddhist revival was given a considerable boost by the arrival in Sri Lanka in 1880 of Helena Blavatsky and Henry S Olcott, the founders of modern Theosophy – which combined esoteric beliefs with opposition to dogmatic Christian theology, advocating the ‘brotherhood of man’ and extolling ‘Oriental’ philosophies. Together with the leaders of the Buddhist community, they established the Buddhist Theosophical Society, that same year. The commitment of the Theosophists to expanding the position of women in society beyond marriage and motherhood gave impetus to the formation of the first association of women, the Nari-shiksa-dhana Samagama (Women’s Education Society) in 1889. Also under their aegis were born the Mahabodhi Society (1891) and the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (1898).
The exile to the island in 1883 of Orabi Pasha and his fellow Egyptian revolutionaries had a similar effect on Sri Lanka’s Muslims, such as MC Siddi Lebbe, who had already been radicalised to some extent, influenced by Arumuga Navalar. In 1891 the Colombo Muslim Educational Society (Jamiyathul I’thikanul Uloom) was formed. The Central Muslim Young Men’s Association was founded in 1913, by the offspring of those inspired by Orabi Pasha.
On the other hand, secular civil society was rather tardy in emerging. The Lanka Theosophical Society, formed at the same time as its Buddhist counterpart, was a non-denominational body ‘composed of Freethinkers and amateurs of occult research’, a ‘scientific’ body concerned with the study of esoterica. However, it does not seem to have survived very long. Nevertheless, the influence of the Theosophists, with their pan-religious philosophy, probably aided in the rise of a secular nationalist movement; particularly the temperance movement which arose in 1904. Certainly, Theosophists were present in the Ceylon Social Reform Society (1905), which sought to defend the country’s cultural values.
However, it had been preceded as the first sustained secular organisation by the Ceylon Women’s Union (1904), which addressed problems facing women, including issues of status, and which included in its ranks women from both the Christian and the Buddhist revivalist movements. 
The women’s movement grew alongside the nationalist movement; with secular organisations complemented by the religious. ‘Ladies’ societies’ (Kulangana Samiti) sprang up in the wake of the Buddhist revival and one of these, the Mallika Kulangana Samiti, was the first to demand the right of women to vote, paving the way for the secular women’s suffrage movement. Women associated with the latter were prominent the formation in 1931 of the Lanka Mahila Samiti (Women’s Association). Modelled on the Women’s Institutes movement in Canada and aiming to raise women’s social, health and economic standards it became the first broad-based NGO in Sri Lanka, expanding by 1948 to 125 branches. ,
Mahila Samiti branches had many of the characteristics of community-based organisations (CBOs) and filled a hiatus in civil society. The first formal CBOs, the Thrift and Credit Co-operative Societies, had been established in 1906 – after the enactment of the Co-operative Societies Ordinance. However, first Consumer Co-operative Societies were only established after 1940. These were complemented after 1940 by government-promoted rural development societies and other CBOs.
In 1944 the Women’s Conference was established to co-ordinate the efforts of voluntary women’s organisations, to be followed two years later by the Central Council of Social Services, which fulfilled the same function for the social services sector.
Post-independence civil society
By the time the British colonialists conceded dominion status to Sri Lanka and handed power over to the Anglicised domestic elite in 1948, there were many CSOs were involved in social service, welfare and poverty alleviation activities. In years following, there was a gradual expansion of civil society both quantitatively and in terms of geographical area, as NGOs reached out from the high population-density, highly urbanised south-west to the countryside.
The end of the Korean War Boom saw falling export prices, adverse terms of trade and declining external assets.  This led to greater dependence on foreign aid and also on NGOs for development work. In this period the Department of Rural Development promoted actively village rural development societies for voluntary self-help work. It was on its initiative – in order to build the capacity of these CBOs – that the introduction to Sri Lanka was made of several international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), notably Service Civil international.,
After the landslide election victory of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (People’s United Front) in 1956, there was a transformation of the socio-political landscape. A new breed of NGOs, rooted more in the grassroots rather than in the old elite, began to emerge, notably the self-help organisation Sarvodaya and the Christian Workers’ Fellowship.
Civil society began to be involved in human rights activism in the aftermath of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna insurrection in 1971. The Civil Rights Movement was formed to campaign for the release of incarcerated insurgents. Many of the NGOs which emerged in this period had roots in left-wing political activism.
Following the victory of the United National Party (UNP) at the general election of 1977, the economy was liberalised and exchange control and travel restrictions were relaxed. The friendliness of the new regime to the West resulted in the increased flow of foreign assistance. Consequently, the NGO sector began to grow rapidly, both in terms of numbers and of activities – which became more diversified.
The socio-political impact of NGOs increased in accordance with their quantitative and qualitative expansion. This process gathered pace following the outbreak in 1983 of a separatist insurgency in the mainly ethnically Tamil North and East. The carnage it unleashed combined with the difficulties faced by the government in providing basic services in areas controlled by the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), led to a steep increase in the numbers and activities of NGOs. 
The escalating civil conflict gave increased significance to human rights issues, which the outbreak of a second insurrection in the South of the country made even more important. The latter especially had an adverse effect of NGOs, many being forced to bring their activities to a halt due to attacks by southern insurgents. At this time the women’s movement became quite vigorous and initiated several human rights initiatives.
The civil society sector received a sudden and unexpected boost due to the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, in which 35,000 Sri Lankans died and a million were displaced. The government was not prepared for the magnitude of the disaster, which was had no parallel in living memory. NGOs filled the gap, helped by an unprecedented inflow of funds. 
NGO numbers and activities exploded: the number of INGOs active in Sri Lanka rose from about 60 to over 140 in the course of a few weeks; while the indigenous civil society sector expanded correspondingly. The bulk of foreign aid was channelled through NGOs and other humanitarian agencies, which were involved in providing food, health care, housing, water and sanitation and livelihoods for the victims of the catastrophe. 
The inflow of funds and foreign agencies affected the nature of civil society itself. According to some estimates, employment in NGOs expanded by up to 20,000. Salaries of personnel increased, especially in the INGO sector and income disparities opened up compared with society in general.
The civil conflict ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE by government forces. Civil society was now confronted by a new challenge: that of reconstructing the North and East and of rehabilitating the inhabitants – many of whom had been traumatised by the severe combat – including the resettlement of the several hundred thousand internally displaced people.
Today the actual size of the civil society sector in Sri Lanka is not known with any precision, despite state attempts to keep tabs on it. Estimates of the number of NGOs and CBOs in the country vary from 20,000 to 50,000.
There is a continuing need to build capacity to meet the current demands and also to prepare local communities and NGOs to respond to future demands. Issues of deficiencies in capacity are exacerbated by the limited mechanisms available for sharing lessons learnt from past experiences.
Earlier, NGO personnel tended to come to civil society from political activism and had no special training in the tasks they were called upon to undertake. However, through rigorous previous study of political literature, they generally had outstanding communications skills. However, from the mid-90s onwards, the key personnel entering NGOs originated from academic or professional backgrounds, some of them educated overseas. Hence, there has been an improvement in staff capacities.
Nevertheless, capacity issues remain, especially among smaller NGOs, whose workforces tends to be less well trained than those of the INGOs, to which better trained personnel tend to migrate. In the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami, many domestic NGOs lost personnel to INGOs, reducing capacity. This was the experience on the ADB with partner NGOs in the North East Coastal Community Development Project: they were found initially to be weak in capacity due to loss of their experienced people to INGOs immediately after the Tsunami.
Even in INGOs, weaknesses in effective capacity do occur, mainly due to the lack of training and experience of expatriate staff in dealing with local conditions and operations – sometimes even lacking in expertise – while domestic experts are left to deal with mundane administrative matters. 
Among the challenges faced by civil society today, a major issue is the extreme dependence of NGOs on overseas funding and steps need to be taken to minimise this lack of financial independence in the long term. By the 1990s, the only CBOs renowned for financial self-reliance were Death Donation Societies. Apart from the fact that some CBOs involved with infrastructure, such as community water supply, tend to be self-sustaining, this situation remains basically the same. The extent of this dependence was revealed in 2011, when NGOs faced difficulties following a reduction in donor funding, which occurred because the country no longer faced a humanitarian crisis and because it was no longer a low-income country.
The hegemonic identity of NGOs in Sri Lanka has historically been more political than economic, more ‘rights’ oriented, than ‘development’ oriented. They have had great impact by lobbying and by advocacy on human rights and pluralism. In general, contemporary Sri Lankan civil society lacks co-ordination, covers a wide range of interests, and is highly politicised and ethnically divided. The character of NGOs has been transformed since the mid-1990s, from service institutions aiding with the disadvantaged; they now have newer, more professional personnel who view them primarily as sources of income. The newest breed of NGO activist is more comfortable in high-level lobbying than in grass-roots mobilisation and also lacks the former commitment to systemic change.
Government relations with civil society
From the beginnings of the modern civil society sector in the country, its relations with the authorities have been characterised by periodic tightening and easing of tension. In the early years of the British colonial administration, American Christian missions were confined to the Jaffna peninsula and restrictions were imposed on additional foreign personnel, and their publications were subject to ‘vigilant control’. These restrictions were only removed after the Colebrook-Cameron Commission made its recommendations, and after the missionaries sought the personal intervention of Governor Wilmot-Horton. [i],[ii]
[i] Ruberu, T Ranjit. ‘Educational Work of the Christian Missionary Societies in Ceylon during the Early Years of British Rule’, The Ceylon Journal of Historical and Social Studies, 1963, vol. 6 No. 1
[ii] Winslow, Miron and Winslow, Harriet Wadsworth. A memoir of Mrs. Harriet W. Winslow, combining a sketch of the Ceylon mission, London: John F Shaw, 1838; pp 135-136, 282.
Significantly, the government’s perception of the American missionaries was based on political considerations. It was thought that the state’s Established (Anglican) Church was sufficient to minister to the religious needs of the populace, without the intervention of foreign missions. There was apprehension that the latter would ‘foster political objects’.
These concerns of ‘foreign influence’ and ‘political interference’ would continue to bedevil government-civil society relations in Sri Lanka. That NGOs, being mainly funded from overseas are delineated and motivated by foreign interests and hence threaten the country’s security and sovereignty, and that NGOs are involved in political activities, disseminating political agendas are two of the three principle arguments used for greater supervision of the NGO sector by the government; the other being that they are unaccountable to the stakeholders whom their activities impact. 
In assessing these claims, both the nature of the political system and the political designs of civil society should be taken into account. The perception of NGOs as foreign or non-national nature, stems from their heavy dependence on overseas funding sources and hence on their activities being tailored to a certain extent to attract external financial support.
It was only in 1939 that the part played by NGOs was recognised in the legislation. This was in the Children and Young Persons Ordinance, which enabled the government to obtain the services of NGOs.  A Social Services Commission, Chaired by Sir Ivor Jennings, was appointed in 1944 to inquire into the capability of existing social services. Four years later, on its recommendations, the Department of Social Services was established with functions relating to the provision of social services to children, women, paupers and waged labour. A grant-in-aid scheme was put in place, which for the first time enabled the monitoring of NGOs by the state. 
In general, the activities of civil society were peripheral to the vision of the state before 1977. Where interaction did occur, it was not in general antagonistic. Indeed, as mentioned above, the state had itself taken action to introduce INGOs to the country.
However, the accession to office of JR Jayawardene’s relatively authoritarian government following the victory of his UNP that year put paid to this laissez faire situation. The new regime at first received well the proliferation NGOs, particularly of foreign-linked NGOs, because it anticipated that they would engage in activities supporting its own development programmes.  Nevertheless, due to the largely anti-statist ideologies held by many NGOs, it began to view them with a jaundiced eye, being suspicious of their motives and actions; on several occasions it reprimanded the NGO sector for allegedly undermining national security, disrupting ethnic harmony and supporting terrorism.
The existing legislation was found inadequate for monitoring the fast-growing NGO sector. There were, of course, a number of Acts and Ordinances under which non-profit organisations could register: as trusts, as approved charities, as co-operative societies or as mutual provident societies. A new legal mechanism was introduced which made it easier to scrutinise NGOs, bringing them all under one roof: the Voluntary Social Services Organizations (Registration & Supervision) Act of 1980, under which NGOs receiving government grants or having expatriate staff requiring visas had to register with the Department of Social Services, was enacted by Parliament. However, the provisions of the Act were not applied stringently.
The Central Council of Social Services was expanded into a state-guided umbrella organisation and the National NGO Council was established for grass-roots organisations. In the late 1980s, the government inaugurated the Janasaviya poverty alleviation programme, which eliminated the raison d’etre for many CSOs involved in social service.
In the early 1990s, the government’s unease regarding civil society increased because of foreign donor pressure to share responsibility for poverty alleviation with NGOs. Also, due to civil society intervention in politics, activities of NGOs became highly controversial. The government therefore, appointed a ‘Presidential Commission of Inquiry in Respect of Non-Governmental Organisations Functioning in Sri Lanka’, to look into the activities of three key NGOs, the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement, the Eye Donation Society and the Christian evangelical INGO World Vision, all of which were accused of corruption.
In consequence, in 1993 the government issued new emergency regulations under the Public Security Ordinance regarding the registration of NGOs, making it mandatory for NGOs with an annual income of over Rs 50,000 (approximately US$1,000) to register with the Director of Social Services and, for all those with an annual income of over Rs 100,000, to present an annual, audited statement of accounts with details far beyond the normal requirement. 
In subsequent dialogues between the government and civil society, facilitated by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), representatives of civil society stressed that they felt was no urgency or threat to the public security to warrant these emergency regulations. On their part, government representatives recognised the work done by NGOs, but demanded more accountability and transparency from NGOs and insisted that the 1980 legislation for voluntary regulation of NGOs was inadequate. 
After 17 years of rule by the UNP, the government changed in 1994, and the administration of Chandrika Kumaratunge, who had herself been involved in civil society activities, took office. There was an expectation that there would be less antagonism between state and civil society. There was indeed a considerable reduction in state/civil society stress and increased co-operation. NGO personnel were co-opted by the government for its peace programmes and state funds were made available to NGOs.
However, the honeymoon ended when, in 1996 the government set up an NGO Secretariat (‘National Secretariat for Non Governmental Organisations’) to register NGOs and two years later, made changes to the 1980 legislation to enable greater supervision, despite lobbying by civil society groups. Parliament enacted the amending Act No. 8 of 1998, which permitted the government to appoint boards of management for NGOs involved in fraud or misappropriation of funds.  This was supplemented in 1999 by new regulations governing the financial management and administration of NGOs registered under the 1980 Act, which laid down the procedure for boards of inquiry and the records of financial accounts, membership, officeholders and minutes to be maintained. However, grey areas remained: since the regulations specified social service organisations, CSOs involved in research and advocacy took the view that the regulations did not apply to them.
The escalation of the civil conflict led to a corresponding growth of government spending (mostly military). Since the growth in expenditure was not matched by the growth in income, the state became increasingly dependent on foreign aid. The conditions under which this aid was given, for instance regarding politics, peace and human rights, caused government concern. Government control over most small foreign funded projects had been minimised because bilateral donors preferred to channel funds for them through civil society.
The Government was uncomfortable with the marked increase in both the number and the scale of activities of NGOs involved in the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami relief efforts. Its disquiet was aggravated by the fact that a large part of overseas Tsunami assistance was steered through civil society and not through itself. Officials complained of the inability of their departments to compete with the resources available to INGOs.
Antagonism between state and civil society increased in the final phase of the civil conflict, and government suspicions about the NGO sector were aggravated after the conflict ended in 2009, when some international advocacy groups lobbied against Sri Lanka in international fora. In 2010, in accordance with a Special Gazette notification, the NGO secretariat was transferred under the purview of the Ministry of Defence.
However, tension eased somewhat thereafter, with the government extending tax benefits to NGOs operating in the affected areas. In fields other than the political, both foreign and domestic NGOs continue to work closely with the government on programmes and projects. Taxation of NGOs is governed by the Inland Revenue Act, under which they are subject to taxation on 3% of their income from grants, donations and contributions, which is deemed as profit (over and above profit from trading or other economic activity). Even so, by the Guidelines for remission of NGO tax payable issued in 2011, they may receive tax remissions if they are involved in activities connected to infrastructure or to livelihood support to displaced persons in a specified geographical area or if they are identified as being involved in specified disaster relief operations.
Government concerns regarding NGOs
In 2008 a Select Committee of Parliament was appointed to investigate the operations of NGOs and their Impact on sovereignty, national security and national and social well-being. The Select Committee reported that most NGOs operated in contravention of the law and policies of the state; that many operated according to their own agenda; that they had no clear understanding of the legislation governing them; and that there was minimum financial transparency. It observed that there was less government supervision of NGOs than in other countries. It recommended that all NGOs be registered under one institution. 
Foreign funding received by civil society and the transparency of its finances have been of great concern to the government. Soon after the Boxing Day Tsunami, the Department of Exchange Control of the Central Bank announced that all foreign remittances to NGOs should be channelled through new ‘Post Tsunami Inward Remittance Accounts’. 
Government investigations of funds received by NGOs in 2008-2010 found that three advocacy groups were the major recipients of overseas funding. The largest sources of finances were the Norwegian government, the European Commission and the Swedish SIDA. Other major contributors were the EU and government agencies, government-aided funds and private and church foundations in Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, the UK and the USA. 
In general, however, the identification of overseas sources of funding is difficult, since there is apparently no mechanism in place for monitoring funds channelled through the banks. The country’s banking system has no records of the exact amount of funds received by NGOs over the past few decades. 
The second source of unease for the state has been the matter of NGO registration. A 1999 circular issued by the Presidential Secretariat ordered the re-registration of all ‘voluntary social service organisations/non-governmental organisations’, together with the procedure for registering at the national and regional levels.
In June 2013, The Media Centre for National Security said in that some NGOs had ‘fraudulently evaded registration’ but had registered as non-profit organisations the Registrar of Companies. It warned that NGOs failing to comply with the registration regulation would face strict legal action. 
A year later, the Director of the NGO Secretariat said the legislation governing operations of NGOs registered in Sri Lanka would be amended. ‘In the future,’ he said, ‘non-profit guarantee limited groups registered under Companies Act will have to register under the NGO Secretariat.’
The problem has been that the existing legislation and regulations do not contain a strict definition of what constitutes an NGO, which provides a loop hole. Hence, the registration of NGOs with the NGO Secretariat is not comprehensive. This gap has been the cause of considerable misunderstanding: only NGOs which are involved in ‘social service’ activities in terms of the 1980 Act need register while, on the other hand, many of the organisations of which the government has a jaundiced view tend to be involved in advocacy regarding the environment, human rights and politics in general.
The third area of government apprehension has been the precise degree to which civil society is involved in activities which it sees as political. On 1 July 2014, the NGO Secretariat issued a circular directing to all registered NGOs in Sri Lanka to desist, with immediate effect , from ‘unauthorised activities’ which were ‘beyond their mandate’, such as holding ‘press conferences, workshops, training for journalists and dissemination of press releases’. 
A joint press conference was held on 9 July by registered NGOs in Colombo to condemn the circular. Thereafter the Ministry of Defence responded by clarifying that legal controls over NGOs, such as the existing regulations, were a common, world-wide practice, that this was merely a re-iteration of the existing position, and that the circular was issued to combat non-compliance by a handful of institutions which went beyond their mandate. 
The matters of financial transparency and registration of NGOs can be solved once the government adopts a clear and comprehensive legal definition of what constitutes an NGO. However, as pointed out above, it is precisely the political identity of civil society which has been dominant in Sri Lanka; but it is also this aspect of NGOs about which the government has, historically, been most suspicious. In this situation, notwithstanding possible future resolution of the other outstanding issues, antagonism between state and civil society appears unavoidable.
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Ibid, p 121
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2 responses to “The History of Civil Society Organisations in Sri Lanka”
We require a study of th e financial resources of ALL the civil society organisations over the past decade or so –with clear demarcation of SOURCES. THIS not with dirty intent of punishment but to embody TRANSPARENCY