Text of lecture at a workshop at the Kotelawala Defence University – January 20th 2013
Let me now quickly run through measures I would suggest to maximize the impact of aid interventions.
Request all agencies to work in selected areas and build up close working relationships with government officials in those areas.
This means they can plan outputs in terms of needs that have been contextualized, and report within a framework that tracks outcomes on a comparative basis.
The ideal unit for this would be Divisional Secretariats, since this is the smallest unit able to plan and respond swiftly to local needs. While the first interface of government with people is at Grama Niladhari level, and while we must improve consultation mechanisms at that level, decision making is more effectively done at a higher level, with professional inputs into planning and monitoring.
If agencies wish to work on a wider scale, because this will enhance their appeal to donors, they can work in Divisional Secretariats in more than one District. But a culture must be developed in which they bear responsibility for manageable units, and are accountable to both officials and the community, with regular opportunities for discussion and explication of projects.
Agencies should employ local personnel as far as possible. They should be required to provide satisfactory justification for the hiring of expatriates and salaries that are paid to them.
As it is, far too much of aid money is spent on salaries for expatriates. Though it is claimed that suitable Sri Lankan counterparts are not available, this is often incorrect. One of the horror stories I should share with you is that of the Shelter Consultant for the Welfare Centre at Manik Farm, who cost about 11,000 dollars per month. He was hired in a strange way, because though his salary was met by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, it was paid through another body called UNOPS, which is one of those bodies that survives through implementing projects that should be done by national agencies. I believe it was created for the sort of situation my friend from OCHA described, where there is virtually no government, so I cannot understand why our government still allows it to operate in Sri Lanka.
The Shelter Consultant had done nothing about the threat of flooding, and indeed when I brought the matter up, he started bleating about how Manik Farm was a dangerous place because of fire hazards. He was I think Australian, and brought up on bushfires, and could not understand that, in a state of high humidity, it was not fires we had to guard against.
In the end the problem was entrusted to the Disaster Management Centre which swiftly put in place drains to carry away excess rain. They did an excellent job, and just half the amount we spent someone I can only describe as a fraud would have allowed us to hire a dozen able youngsters who would have worked twice as hard and twice as effectively.
But as I have said before, much of this is our problem, because we do not discuss needs with agencies and suggest alternatives. We also have not engaged in training for deployment of humanitarian assistance, which requires administrative as well as professional skills. Some agencies did start programmes for this purpose, but this is something government should do more coherently.
I should add that these provisions should be implemented tactfully, with sympathetic albeit principled responses to requests. What should not happen is the present practice of arbitrarily refusing visas, or else insisting on several approvals which lead to endless delay. Any request should be assessed immediately and discussed if necessary, and decisions made.
We should also work together with the UN and other agencies to upgrade the quality of local staff. There are several examples of excellent local staff working with the UN, and we must also encourage promotions and greater responsibilities for them. Ultimately, while the Heads of agencies may need to be expatriates, to provide independent assessments which should be respected, we should move towards a situation where national staff occupy all other positions of responsibility. Government should also make use of the expertise of such staff in the planning process.
We must monitor projects carefully, and ensure that outputs conform to national standards.
For this purpose we must strengthen both the NGO Secretariat, as well as planning officers in the Divisions. When I was first asked to report on NGOs, I found the Secretariat totally confused, suspicious about all NGOs and hence restricting the work of several efficient agencies, while allowing obvious frauds, such as the head of a conglomeration of agencies known as Solidar, to run riot. Though I advised about the problems being caused by the man, this was ignored. I was not surprised when Wikileaks revealed that he had been the principal source of information about alleged abuses by the government and its agents, when the Americans were seeking evidence.
After the Secretariat was brought under the Ministry of Defence it has been more coherent, but it lacks staff and expertise to monitor as is needed, and to ensure accountability. I hasten to add that I believe most NGOs do their best, but as with government officials, there is need of constant monitoring and discussion of outcomes to ensure continuing efficiency and effectiveness.
In this context it is worth noting that government has not worked out a method of ensuring that the functions carried out by the former Ministry of Plan Implementation are fulfilled. Before the last election, the Secretary to that Ministry and I submitted a paper on the need to strengthen monitoring of projects, but that suggestion went the way of all conceptual inputs I have made, and instead the Ministry was abolished.
NGOs must produce annual reports with full financial details. Those NGOs that are not registered with the Secretariat on the grounds that they are registered as Companies should be required to send copies of all returns to the Secretariat. The Treasury should be kept informed of all funds received for projects in Sri Lanka, and should collate information with the NGO Secretariat.
For this purpose it is essential to have trained staff who can monitor projects. As suggested above, this will be much easier if projects are set up in terms of Divisions, with monitoring agencies able to have an overview of the impact in the area of all assistance. This will also facilitate planning, so that resources are spread equitably.
I have noticed for instance that much money is expended in the Jaffna District, whereas the Wanni, that is in much greater need of assistance, gets comparatively little. Agencies should also be encouraged to set up offices in relatively neglected Divisions, so that additional income accrues to the area.
Comparisons should be made of the different percentages NGOs expend on operations and on establishment and staff costs, and they should be encouraged to follow best practice in all areas. It would be useful also to ensure that beneficiaries as well as the officials involved are provided with financial details of all projects.
For general planning purposes, the NGO Secretariat should convene monthly meetings of agencies together with donors.
The IASC used to fulfil such a function, which was not its business, but the fault was ours in not having instituted such a mechanism ourselves. The Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance, which the Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights chaired, was a step in the right direction, and proved useful for overcoming problems, but it was too large a body for productive discussion. It set up sub-committees but there was not enough conceptual input into these by most national institutions, even though they were supposed to be co-chairs. I should note that the sub-committee on Health was an exception, and national priorities were enunciated, but this was not combined with a monitoring role for the Ministry so progress could not be assessed.
The story of the sub-committee I was supposed to co-chair is typical of what was going on. It was about Modes of Operation, and was supposed to establish guidelines for assistance. I used to attend initially because I was Head of the Peace Secretariat, and I was startled to find a line claiming that the International Community held the balance between the partners to the conflict.
The draft had nearly been completed, but I objected strongly and it was agreed that this provision had to be reviewed. I was away for the next meeting, and when I came back I was told that participants had agreed that the provision had been decided earlier and need not be reviewed.
Fortunately by the time of the next meeting I was Secretary of the Ministry. My predecessor I should note had hardly ever attended meetings, leaving it to a subordinate, who obviously lacked authority, so it was the International Co-Chair who effectively ran the show. When I brought up the matter again, I was told that my suggestion could not be taken up because the matter had been previously decided.
I told the meeting that I was not making a suggestion, I was stating a fact, namely that the Sri Lankan government could not be expected to subscribe to a document which suggested that external forces needed to hold the balance between it and a terrorist group. I had previously informed the Minister of this, and he had concurred, noting that somehow that provision had slipped past him earlier.
After that decision the Modes of Operation document was forgotten, and the Sub-Committee did not meet again. I suspect my Co-Chair realized the game was up, and the principal aim of at least some of those involved, to establish in a document agreed to by government that we were on a level with the Tigers and the International Community, including NGOs, was above us, was not going to be achieved in this particular forum.
There was however a postscript in that the group had an arrangement with the Canadian High Commissioner that the Canadians would fund training for Sri Lankan officials to work in conformity with the Modes of Operation that had been agreed. A meeting had been arranged for her with my Minister, and she turned up with a proposal to hire some international agency to do this training, the money of course coming out of the pot that was provided for humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka.
She looked startled when I pointed out that the document had not been agreed to, and swiftly withdrew. The matter was then completely forgotten. But I believe that now we really must draw up our own Modes of Operation, and make sure that training in the principles and procedures that should govern our use of aid is provided to all concerned officials.
- The Structure of Government, Cooperation of Government Machinery and the Role of NGOs – 1
- The Structure of Government, Cooperation of Government Machinery and the Role of NGOs – 2
- The Structure of Government, Cooperation of Government Machinery and the Role of NGOs – 3
- The Structure of Government, Cooperation of Government Machinery and the Role of NGOs – 4
- The Structure of Government, Cooperation of Government Machinery and the Role of NGOs – 5
- The Structure of Government, Cooperation of Government Machinery and the Role of NGOs – 6