COLOMBO, 30 May 2007 (IRIN) - Foreign aid donors and international agencies in Sri Lanka today released a set of "guiding principles" and pledged to work with transparency and impartiality to provide humanitarian assistance.
The commitment comes amidst heightened criticism of the humanitarian community by some government authorities and local media.
The USA, the UK, Japan, Germany, the European Union and the UN were among 14 bilateral donors who recently signed the 10-point memorandum setting out internationally accepted standards for delivering aid.
The group, which accounts for almost 90 percent of overseas aid to Sri Lanka, also sought better access to those in need of assistance and more security for donor agencies' staff, while promising to distribute aid impartially and with respect for the desires of local communities.
"We wish to show ourselves as a group that these are the principles underpinning our work to counter some of the negative criticisms that we have been subjected to," European Union Head of Delegation Julian Wilson told reporters at the public launch of the document.
He said the "Guiding Principles for Humanitarian and Development Assistance in Sri Lanka" was meant to reassure people here "about the constructive and professional approach" that governs the activities of the international donor community.
"They show the commitment by donors and their implementing partners to give aid impartially, to provide humanitarian and development help to citizens in need and not to fuel conflict or terrorism," said Wilson.
The other signatories to the code of conduct are Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Greece, Norway, South Korea and Sweden.
The guiding principles focus on alleviating poverty and suffering, promoting self-sufficiency and encouraging participation by local communities in sustainable development in close co-ordination with the government.
While supporting "an inclusive peaceful solution" to the island's protracted ethnic conflict, the donors also pledged not to allow their vehicles or other equipment to be used "for any military, political or sectarian purpose".
In return, they requested all parties "to protect and promote the safety, security and freedom of the agencies and their staff," citing in particular safeguards against violence, abductions, harassment and intimidation.
Wilson said the guiding principles were not invented or negotiated for Sri Lanka specifically but were internationally accepted norms for aid work. He said they are enshrined in the International Code of Conduct of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the Red Cross/Crescent Movement and are also found in each donor's founding statutes.
Criticism of aid agencies
Foreign aid agencies have at times been criticised in the media for alleged misuse of finances and lack of transparency in implementing development projects, particularly in the wake of the December 2004 tsunami disaster.
Both government and ultra-nationalist political parties have also alleged that some international donors with access to the war-affected north and east have helped the Tamil Tiger separatist rebels with equipment and materials brought in as humanitarian aid.
"There has been a huge amount of vilification, false charges and misrepresentations in this country about our work," said Angela Bogdan, Canada's envoy in Sri Lanka. "This [the document] is a transparent gesture to highlight what we are doing here and why."
Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe said the government had begun a dialogue with the donor community to seek ways of improving access to people in need and to improve security for humanitarian staff.
"We value the partnership with our bilateral donors and see nothing controversial in these guiding principles since they are guided by international humanitarian standards," Samarasinghe said. "We are also assured that they will not fuel conflict and terrorist activities and will not compromise national security."
He said that if there was reason to believe that national security had been breached by a donor agency, the government would launch an investigation at which the agency would be able to present its defence.
"Until then, no value judgements will be made, unless, of course someone is caught in the act of terrorist activity or compromising national security," he said.
With the surge in violence between government troops and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) since December 2005, humanitarian aid workers have been called upon to help tens of thousands of civilians displaced by the fighting.
Agency staffers voiced fears for their safety after the August 2006 murder of 17 employees of Action contre la Faim by unidentified assailants in eastern Muttur. They have also complained of restricted access to displaced communities lacking basic necessities.
Minister Samarasinghe said the government had shown its intention of maintaining good relations with the aid community by recently permitting 21 international NGOs to begin work here.