Wednesday, July 20, 2016

POWER & SILENCING IN CIVIL SOCIETY

Having just had an unexpected to-fro with a lady who has been in the civil society for the past twenty years, and who suddenly, a few years ago, jumped into gay rights area (through HIV/AIDS funding pursuit, no less), I am having to write this blog entry.

When I came back to Mongolia in 1999, a fresh, young, green thing with hopes and dreams of affecting the change for my community of queer sisters and brothers, I was lucky to have heard about the Gender Studies Seminar that was being organised by LEOS and Japanese feminists. During the seminar, the interpreter was at a loss when it came to explaining feminist/gender studies terms that were/are convoluted and need to be understood correctly before being translated. As it happened, I jumped in from time to time to help out with clarifying the terms so that the seminar was more comprehensible to people attending. As a result, I found myself in the civil society space sooner than I imagined, and my very first project was around gender studies that led to the first tertiary level Gender Studies Curriculum development for humanitarian science undergraduates.

While with my first women's NGO, I was excited to learn about the women's rights movement in Mongolia, attending various meetings and conferences, and trying to raise the issue of LGBT people, which, of course, was always shunned and denied. While with my first women's NGO, I also learnt about the extent of bad and unethical practices in the NGO world (not only a problem in Mongolia, as I sadly learnt later), the first realisation sinking in deep when I was paid the salary of less than one third of what I had signed up for. The NGO was obviously getting the rest of it. When I raised this unacceptable issue at one of the staff meetings, I was met with extreme hostility and an answer "But this is how we survive and pay our staff". It didn't fly with me: why would I ever agree to share my salary with my colleagues when they are not working on my project? I threatened them with financial audit, then got too busy as I met and fell in love with my first Mongolian girlfriend, and then I just kind of forgot about it. Except, the aftermath was that I was, unbeknownst to me, maligned verbally by those people to everyone in the civil society, the aftermath was that years later during the CEDAW advocacy in 2008, I was deliberately left only 5 minutes to present the situation of LBT people in Mongolia, the aftermath was that, even this year, in 2016, while doing the advocacy in Geneva again on CEDAW, and again on LBT people's situation in Mongolia, I was verbally attacked and my grievances about not being given enough time perhaps this time, a nightmare scenario for us, skirted under the carpet, ever again.

What astounds me till this day is that there is so much lack of accountability within the NGO sector in Mongolia where many NGOs simply pocket the moneys for projects without any accountability to the stakeholders. God help you if you try to raise these issues: you will be character-assassinated and maligned in every possible way. God help you if you try to handle these privately and humanely: you will be verbally attacked and your just grievances waived off as "How many of you are there anyway?", "Just be happy we included YOU, forget about the rest of your community". God help you if you dare to question the mighty "leaders" of the civil society who have done what they have done for decades and are not going to sit back and smile on as funding is pulled from under their feet because they had abused/misused funds (as it happened with MONFEMNET and their LGBT Programme in 2015). They will come at you with a proverbial knife to your throat - character-assassination is a knife at a throat - and try to silence you.

Except I am no longer silenceable. Having always had the bigger picture of ensuring equality and non-discrimination to my community of queer brothers and sisters, having always fought tooth and nail to get voice within even the civil society on these issues, to get them understand that our issues are valid and legitimate, I am no longer silenceable, I am a hurricane and I will be reckoned with, whether you like it or not. Donors are becoming aware daily of the dirty realities of some of the NGOs who have for decades filched funding for personal purposes, and they are becoming tougher, which is exactly how it should be, with the exception of some donors that are still supporting the unethical NGOs who have been known to indulge in so many underhand dealings such as funnelling funding for personal profit through conflict of interest situations (one NGO, for example, pays 7.5 million tugrug (3.7 thousand USD) per month in rent, to a landlord who happens to be the director's boyfriend), through non-trnasparency on activities under their projects (meaning that the community continues to believe without facts that those NGOs are truly working for their rights, but if they truly did, with so much funding, where are the results to show?), through some NGOs usurping into areas they have no expertise in and thus create more harm than good for the concerned community members...

My head truly hurts from all this lack of accountability and disgusting practices of some NGOs. And I am still voiceless, still powerless because no matter how many times I write to donors about these practices, donors will look at the superficial results (number of people tested/reached out to/trained - check!) rather than the substantive results (what changes happened due to these interventions), and will continue to fund them. I refuse to be silenced. I have seen enough shit to know what is right and what is wrong. I am, perhaps, a bit too forceful when I express these facts, but FACTS remain. Do not sugar-coat anything, FACTS SHALL REMAIN.

If we had as much as 3.7 thousand USD per month only for our public information campaigns, Mongolia would have long had an anti-discrimination legislation. If we had as much as some organisations' operational funding, we would've had a) shelter for the LGBTI young adults kicked out from home and/or are survivors of domestic violence; b) policies and corresponding mechanisms in all sectors that would enable mainstreaming of LGBTI concerns in their activities and programming; c) information and awareness raising campaigns and all the OTHER ESSENTIAL STUFF, too, such as stronger visibility in media, stronger allies unafraid to speak for us at all levels, including political.

And you know what?! I can't really blame anyone but the multilateral donors for this situation in Mongolia around LGBTI rights, for example. They have been happy to break up the movement to its component pieces by identity lines (it's funny that an NGO that supposedly works for MSM and trans communities only works with trans women, completely denying the reality of someone like me who is a very queer, read gay, trans man who has had a widening of his sexual orientation post-transition), by giving more legitimacy to some organisations by availing funding that is unheard of in Mongolia by any standards, by creating a divide between the legitimate issues vs. illegitimate issues because they, donors, themselves have been blind to the realities of the communities and had perpetuated the inequality within the communities. Because, and now I speak about NGOs working beyond issues pertinent to LGBTI rights, NGOs have been led to believe that they must only serve the DONOR AGENDA that is often narrow and unheeding of the realities on the ground since they are mostly COPY-PASTE from other countries, the NGOs feel justified in silencing the community by saying "Hey, we are funded, and we are doing a great job. The fact that you are not funded well is because you are not doing a good job!" But the fact remain: even with tiny funding, we had been able to do in a few years what some organisations had not been able to in two decades.

Donors must realise and deal with what they had created in Mongolia. That they are still contributing to all this mess by being silent on issues of accountability as they continue to fund, thus, hold unaccountable their funded organisations. That, money means power. And that they must not use it to silence the very communities they are supposed to serve. That, the communities are watching, and we are not stupid. And we will NOT BE SILENT.

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