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

In the second section of this talk I spoke about the different layers of government, and the lack of clear responsibilities for each of them, along with mechanisms to ensure coordination and avoid overlap. I advocated strengthening the relationship between the different layers and also laying down guidelines for regular consultation. This will also require very clear job descriptions, including for Grama Niladharis, who currently have a range of responsibilities with neither the training nor the resources to enable them to satisfy these.

Until very recently the only official document Grama Niladharis received was a diary that included a list of responsibilities which seemed to date back to colonial times. These were –

  • Initial responses to illegal activities
  • Assistance in emergencies
  • Land formalities
  • Excise duties
  • Valuations of less than Rs 5,000
  • Timber concerns
  • Provision of IDs*
  • Census duties*
  • Provision of Certificates*
  • Pension responsibilities*
  • Registering of persons*
  • Election responsibilities*

As can be seen, these can be divided into formal duties (the last 6, marked with a single asterisk), and those requiring discretion. With regard to the latter, there are generally other government departments which formulate regulations to guide action. Given then that the GN role is largely advisory in these areas, it is unfortunate that procedures for consultation and for consistent responses have not been laid down clearly.

Recently the United Nations Development Programme issued a Handbook which gives further advice on how functions should be fulfilled. This was as part of its assistance to promote good governance , and the book has indeed been very helpful, but some officials at the Ministry of Public Administration were not aware of this, and initially at any rate distribution of the book was chaotic.

Useful though the exercise was, more would have been achieved had it been more coherently planned, with the opportunity taken to revise completely the job description of Grama Niladharis, whilst setting down the skills and training that are required to do the job well. It would also have been helpful to lay down guidelines about office and personnel requirements, and this might have helped to ensure a more sensible way of providing jobs for unemployed graduates than what has now happened, which is to send them to Divisional Secretariats and expect the poor Secretaries to find work for them. But as yet we have not developed in our public servants, or rather restored to them, a concept of a mutually supportive hierarchy, with individuals fulfilling responsibilities in accordance with structures that demand consultation and monitoring. This of course is what the army is good at, which is why I am delighted that the Officer Career Development Centre will extend its services to other public servants too.

What we need at all levels of government is the capacity and the willingness to build up teams that will complement each other in setting and achieving goals. At the Grama Niladhari level, these will be consultative rather than decision making mechanisms, and will therefore work with Civil Society. However relevant officials should also participate, through what I term horizontal as well as vertical involvement. Horizontal means that basic service providers for the area, school principals, health workers, the police, would meet together regularly to discuss potential problems. Vertical means that one or more officials from the Divisional Secretariat would be allocated to each GN Division, to liaise and assess and pass on relevant information. It does not matter that the Child Rights Officer would look after one Division and the Women Development Officer another, since at their consultative meetings at the Divisional Secretariat they can pool information and facilitate any professional intervention that is required.

I should note that we do have examples of good practice of this sort, for instance in the field which has prompted this lecture, namely that of Disaster Management. Largely because of the organizational capacity of the Director General of the Disaster Management Centre, one of our most distinguished military officers, we have in place a system of coordination in the Districts that has contributed to swift responses when disaster strikes, along with constant efforts to increase awareness and to reduce risks. I believe however that this needs to be replicated in Divisional Secretariats too, since needs are increasing and we need to expand the pool of local expertise and the capacity to respond.

The pattern of creative coordination is apparent also in Colombo, where with the support of UNDP regular consultations are held to look at a range of potential problems and develop satisfactory responses. These meetings were well organized, and constructive, as I saw recently when UNDP produced booklets on several risk factors, which should be immensely helpful in schools, as a consequence of a suggestion made a couple of years back to raise awareness through the school system. Whether the Education Ministry actually makes use of these books however is another question, given its tendency to rely on boring textbooks rather than the colourful and user friendly material UNDP and the Disaster Management Centre have produced.

These meetings were I think more helpful than meetings of the Disaster Management Council would have been. That never met while I was Secretary of the Ministry, understandably enough given that it had to be chaired by the President, and he obviously had more urgent things to attend to it those days. But in any case I believe a body which consisted largely of Ministers would not have been able to engage in creative discussion, given that the subject was only of peripheral concern to most of them. Rather, while such a Council might be necessary in times of Emergency, to ensure cooperation, what is more useful is a regular meeting of Secretaries or their representatives to discuss practical issues, as happened at the meetings supported by UNDP.

Those meetings, and the relationship between UNDP and the Disaster Management Centre was a prime example of how aid should work. It fulfilled what are termed the Paris Principles with regard to aid, which were formulated when the structure of world governance was based on equity rather than patronage. Amongst the commitments entered into then on the part of donors were

  • To respect partner country leadership and help strengthen their capacity to exercise it.
  • To base their overall support on partner countries’ national development strategies, institutions and procedures.
  • To draw conditions, whenever possible, from a partner’s national development strategy or its annual review of progress in implementing this strategy. Other conditions would be included only when a sound justification exists and would be undertaken transparently and in close consultation with other donors and stake holders.

Unfortunately, in the last decade or so, these principles have gone with the wind, and Sri Lanka finds itself in a situation in which aid is governed by the predilections of donors, and not in accordance with our needs and systems of administration. However the responsibility for this sad state of affairs lies largely with the Sri Lankan government, or rather with some of its agencies which understand neither their own responsibilities nor basic principles of administration. In contrast, agencies like the Disaster Management Centre, headed by a professional who understood the objectives of his organization but also appreciated the parameters of donor support, was able to deploy aid and assistance most effectively. It was also supported in this by the ethos and personnel of UNDP which I think of as one of the old fashioned aid agencies, committed – as it should be, since the UN is a body of which we are a constituent member – to the interests of the country in which it operates.

Let me end here, before encouraging you to contribute your own ideas to an area in which I hope you will play an active role in the future, with an anecdote. It concerns an agency called the International Organization for Migration, which has over the last four years worked very positively with the Sri Lankan government. This does not mean there have not been a few problems, which should have been addressed more effectively by our government, but by and large the relationship was good and the work productive.

Five years ago, soon after I had become Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, I was called in by the Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs because IOM had complained about me. He said I had asked them to report all their activities to me, which I had no business to do.

That was not the case, I said, and asked him to look at the letter I had sent them. I had found that they were engaged in all sorts of projects about which government knew nothing, and I had told them that all activities had to be in association with a government agency. I had made it clear that it did not matter which the agency was, and I certainly did not expect them to seek my concurrence, but they had to seek the concurrence of some governmental institution.

The Secretary was with another official who, though later he turned out perfectly civilized, seemed in those early days to take the view that I was unnecessarily antagonistic to the West. There was a group in the Foreign Ministry then that thought a military solution to the terrorist problem was not possible, and that we should instead seek to negotiate.

I was told then that I had no business to interfere, since the IOM Memorandum of Understanding was with the Foreign Ministry. I granted this, but added that my Ministry had the mandate to coordinate foreign assistance in connection with the conflict, and I would do my job. I would however be quite happy if the Foreign Ministry undertook the coordination itself, but I felt that it had done nothing thus far in this regard.

The Secretary took out the MoU as I had asked, and found that it said IOM could work with any government agency, but had to deposit a copy of any agreement under which they worked with the Foreign Ministry. It turned out that they had deposited nothing thus far, and the Foreign Ministry had no idea about what they were doing.

The Secretary agreed that he should inform IOM that they had to keep his Ministry informed of all their activities, and the IOM head, who was a bright young man, complied.  He would send me too copies of the documentation of all projects he worked on, until I told him that I really did not need these provided he kept the Foreign Ministry informed. I knew, and he knew, that he could continue to do precisely what he wanted, and that the Foreign Ministry probably was not monitoring his work – but it was important that he should acknowledge that assistance was in accordance with our priorities, not those of anyone else.

I cannot claim to have done much, but I was pleased with two comments from senior representatives of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance, which had pretty much done what it wanted until I was appointed. I will describe what happened in the afternoon, but towards the end of my stint at the Ministry, the Deputy Head, an Englishman whom I found very sympathetic to this country, told me that many of those who had come here had got it wrong. Most of them had experience largely of Africa, where in many places the writ of government did not run, and so they had to make all the decisions. The situation was quite different here, he acknowledged, and once they understood that, they could work more productively.

His boss, an American woman I grew quite fond of, especially when she confessed she understood precisely why I was not approving a visa for someone they wanted to slot in soon after the war ended, told me once that I should be more relaxed since I had won.

I had to tell her that nothing of the sort had happened. All I had succeeded in doing was getting them to grant that they had to consult us about what they were doing. But she knew, as I did, that by and large they continued to do what they wanted to, and we were light years away from establishing a system, such as say the Indians have, which ensures conformity to the Paris principles.

Let me ask you then to consider now what are the structures we should have in place to ensure conformity on the part of aid agencies to national priorities. Consider too how we should organize their work to avoid overlap and to ensure efficiency and effectiveness, which of course requires intelligent monitoring.


  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