Sri Lanka Express

Is Trump really scrubbing democracy promotion?

Hassina Leelarathna
September 5, 2017

USAID’s ongoing invasion of SL civil society:
new megabucks “democracy” programs 


Despite widespread speculation that the Trump administration will scrub democracy promotion from US foreign policy  the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Colombo is plowing ahead with grand hegemonic plans.  Under the purported goal of advancing “democratic values and government accountability,” it just added another milestone – a new 8-million-dollar federal grant -- to its roadmap for the takeover of Sri Lankan civil society and doing away with the “nationalist” narrative of the Rajapaksa regime.

The Colombo mission announced the three-year grant, titled Increased Demand and Engagement for Accountability (IDEA), August 15, issuing with it a 51-page Request for Application (RFA) in which it says the current government has ensured significant “operating space for civil society” and declares its intent to “take advantage of the current operating space to further advance citizen engagement for democratic reform.”

The new grant is in addition to a $10 million, 4-year civil society grant titled Social Cohesion and Reconciliation (SCORE), and a $6 million, 4-year media program announced earlier this year.  The purpose of the latter, titled Media Empowerment for a Democratic Sri Lanka (MEND), is primarily to “support Sri Lanka's efforts to solidify recent advances in media freedom and democratic governance.”  

Also riding out there is DAI -- Development Alternatives Inc., a US company widely accused of being a CIA front – doling out funds to NGOs from the $13.7 million USAID contract  it has in hand for Strengthening Democratic Governance and Accountability Project (SDGAP).  

Not to be left out of this primordial soup is the National Endowment for Democracy (NED),  a non-profit that took over some of the CIA’s programs. In 2016, USAID tells us, NED made direct grants to 25 local organizations in Sri Lanka for a total value of $2,323,267 “to advance democratic goals and strengthen democratic institutions.”

USAID’s project descriptions for its multi-million dollar democracy piety grants reflect the ever-widening swath of power the agency is cutting in Sri Lanka
Donald Trump & Democracy Promotion



"I share the American people’s frustration.

 I also share their frustration over a foreign policy that has spent too much time, energy, money, and most importantly lives, trying to rebuild countries in our own image, instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations."
Remarks by President Trump on the Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia,Fort Myer, Arlington, Virginia, August 21, 2017


"We must abandon the failed policy of nation building and regime change that Hillary Clinton pushed in Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Syria."
Donald Trump, Republican National Convention speech, July 21, 2016
IDEA is an ambitious project whose ultimate goal is to create a national platform that will give USAID control over countless NGOs and other civil society organizations (CSOs) throughout the island.  “Whereas much of USAID's assistance in Sri Lanka includes an element of support to civil society, this activity will focus on strengthening the civil society sector as a whole with an emphasis on working in all regions of Sri Lanka and supporting CSO participation in national and local governance processes.”   

USAID explains this push towards a national platform as an attempt to make things right, to level the playing field for civil society organizations outside Colombo.

 “Non-Colombo CSOs generally perceive their counterparts in Colombo as monopolizing the advocacy arena due to their close connections to the government.  Colombo-based organizations are often able to utilize their political affiliations and close ties to the government to better position themselves, advocate on various issues, and lobby for reforms while non-Colombo based groups feel disempowered.  This relationship was useful during the rule of the previous regime, as Colombo-based organizations served as a buffer for provincial-based organizations who were being suppressed.  The non-Colombo-based CSOs, however, are now beginning to demand direct access to raise their concerns and advocate directly with national government representatives, and no longer require Colombo-based organizations to represent their voice. “

In addition to geographic cohesion, the program envisions civil society organizations (CSOs) coalescing around key issues.  Noting the absence of “healthy networking amongst civil society group,” USAID proposes promoting “CSO synergies by working with civil society actors to preserve and expand demand-driven forums where CSOs can discuss relevant research, advocacy and watchdog initiatives and explore areas for collaboration.”  The agency sees the implementer of IDEA facilitating linkages and cooperation among CSOs with common interests. 

Similar to IDEA, the $10 million SCORE grant reveals an expansive USAID agenda that seeks to corral a wide cross section of Sri Lankan society, “including but not limited to human rights organizations, youth movements, informal groups, religious organizations, labor and trade unions, professional associations, indigenous organizations, women organizations, Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) organizations, and think tanks.”

“The goal of the activity is to support and strengthen the role of an independent and resilient civil society that builds a broad constituency for transparency, accountability, and good governance,” according to the Request for Information (RFI).

Noting the lack of national or regional umbrella bodies that could provide stronger networking and coordination within civil society, USAID proposes providing assistance to support activities that would increase collaboration “between national, regional, and sub-regional civil society organizations and between communities.” 
USAID Mission Director Andrew Sisson addressing members of parliament launching a Rs. 1.92 billion (approx. $13 m) program to "strengthen good governance," November 23, 2016. (From US Embassy website)

In addition to this expansive geographic control, USAID has the yin and yang of the civil society enterprise covered.  SDGAP is designed primarily to support the “supply side of transparency,” i.e., government actions/performance.   “The [$10m] project seeks to strengthen the linkages between different branches/ levels of government and increase public participation in and public information about key governance systems to ensure greater accountability….IDEA will strengthen civil society capacity to engage government and Parliament, SDGAP will engage Sri Lankan officials and agencies to create government mechanisms and increase opportunities for civil society engagement in related processes.” 

Under IDEA, USAID will be providing support to CSOs to focus on the “demand side of transparency.”  Ideally, CSOs will be conducting government oversight and advocacy at the regional and national levels.     

As for the key issues around which these multitudes of CSOs will be synergizing, USAID has identified 10 broad areas of concentration.  (See list below.) Whether issues that have roiled the Sri Lankan public -- “Bond Scam,” Hanuman Bridge, or the “return of the white vans” get penciled into the script is open to question.     

● Open governance, Right to Information, and the Open Government Partnership (OGP)
● Anti-corruption and public budget accountability
● Campaign and political finance reform
● Constitutional reform, including issues of electoral reform and devolution of power
● Economic rights and governance, including property rights
● Women's participation and empowerment
● Prevention of Sexual and Gender Based Violence
● Transitional justice and reconciliation
● Human rights
● Environment/climate change/disaster risk reduction and disaster management


With millions vested in the civil society sector, not surprisingly, USAID wants to get the Sri Lankan government out of the picture and proposes eliminating state regulation of the civil society sector.

“In Sri Lanka, the state has a regulatory role through the NGO Secretariat; however, beyond that, the sector should be able to self-regulate,” says USAID adding that efforts to create a body or platform for self-regulation within the sector had been launched by the National NGO Action Forum (NNAF).  “An effective self-regulation mechanism, including a Code of Conduct, accreditation and certification schemes, should be initiated in a manner that recognizes best practice accountability standards in the nongovernmental sector, with the aim of ensuring optimum development and impact outcomes. This will help respond to issues of reputation and internal accountability of civil society.”







USAID’s unabated momentum in Sri Lanka  is clearly contrary to  reports in American mainstream media that democracy was going to be dropped from President Trump’s foreign policy.  Trump’s comments that democracy promotion was not going to be a priority under his watch, a leaked draft of a revised mission statement by the State Department that leaves out “democracy,” and the proposed cuts in the State Department budget have been widely construed as indications of a change in Washington’s foreign policy trajectory.

The possibility of “democracy promotion” being jettisoned from American foreign policy immediately drew fierce criticism from the Washington pundits:

 “Advancing democratic values is not simply a service to those around the world longing for freedom … Promoting democracy is not only the right thing to do — it is wise policy that advances American interests,” noted Foreign Policy magazine, while The Washington Post in an opinion piece said: 

“If Trump administration officials move forward with these plans, they will be breaking sharply with decades of U.S. foreign policy. They may believe that democratization is a vague and ineffective goal with no place in a hard-bargaining approach that puts “America first.” But that conclusion defies the experience of presidents Ronald Reagan and Harry S. Truman, two of the toughest and most effective guardians of American national interests.”

Which brings us to the bitter complaints being made by USAID against President Rajapaksa’s administration for trying to curb foreign influence.

“The previous regime pushed a narrative, nationalist in nature, which delegitimized and discredited the democracy-oriented civil society, accusing it of being a purveyor of a foreign or Western agenda.”

Taking note of the reference made above by two leading US publications on the role of “democracy promotion” in advancing American interests, USAID ’s continuing advancement into the euphemistic “new operating space” opened up by the Sirisena-UNP government can only be seen as purveying a “foreign or Western agenda.”