I had intended to return this week to better coordination at local levels, to promote necessary and desirable actions with regard to the vulnerable. I will use the term protection to cover this, but I should note that it requires not only reactions to situations where suffering has been inflicted, but also positive measures to empower people so they can resist and prevent exploitation.

This seems the more urgent, after a very informative meeting conducted at the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs. This was the second in what the Secretary has set up for regular consultations with regard to children. In addition to representatives of the various institutions under the Ministry, he had invited officials from Ministries involved in the care of children. There were also several individuals from Non-Governmental organizations whose dedicated contribution I have noted through my own work in the field.

The lady from the Ministry of Education who attended struck me as particularly enlightened. She understood immediately the problems raised by those present with regard to the tuition culture, lack of extra-curricular activities in schools and of facilities for vocational training, the failure to ensure that Life Skills are taught properly throughout the entire secondary school span and inadequacies with regard to counselling.

I will not go into these questions now since I have dealt with them at length in the articles on ‘The Care of Children’ which have now been collected into a book. Besides, my focus here is administrative reform, or rather fine tuning. But I should note that the problem of tuition was first brought up by a very committed monk who has I believe done much work in alternative education and training. He noted that the lack of productive activity in school contributed also to social problems, and was quite depressing in his diagnosis of how society was deteriorating. I can only hope that those who see religion as a reason for beating other people up will instead work towards combating the current consumerist culture and building up social and moral values.

The problems of consumerism came up when the representative of the Ministry of Health noted that fully 30% of our children were malnourished. This is not due to poverty, though unfortunately the common interpretation of such statistics is that poverty levels are rising. Rather, nutrition patterns have changed, and we are not creating awareness of the need for a balanced diet – which could indeed cost much less than the foods now in common use.

The Ministry had prepared an advertisement to encourage a more healthy diet, but it did not have the funds to show this on television, and was being dunned for payment for the screenings that had happened. This seemed another example of the failure of coordination within government, and I am sure that the also very enlightened Secretary to the Media Ministry can establish a policy whereby the state media gives priority to such vital information.

Something needs to be done, or else this country, which has had such good social indicators for decades, will become a country of beggars. How bad the situation was struck me in Lahugala, where the dedicated ancillary government health workers, and the local officials, elected and unelected, indicated that the care of pre-school children, with regard to both health and education, was virtually entirely financed by World Vision. This is an NGO that those who care only for theory and not for practical support for the vulnerable delight in attacking, but the government officials on the ground fully appreciated what they contributed.

Admirable though that is, we need to develop systems whereby communities can stand on their own two feet, without being the objects of charity. In fact some of the NGOs work towards this end, in trying to develop occupations for those needing support, but this would be more effective if government devised guidelines and facilitated such efforts.

I have suggested for this purpose that there should be weekly meetings at Grama Niladhari level to deal with support for the vulnerable, meetings that should involve community representatives (in particular Women’s Rural Development Societies), the police officer dedicated to the GN Division, the school principal, health and nutrition workers, religious leaders and NGOs working in these areas. They can devise projects to deal with particular problems, and also to increase productivity to overcome poverty as well as malnutrition.

When I was discussing these matters with the Secretary to the Media Ministry, he made the point that Food Security was going to be a vital requirement in the coming years, and it is certainly high time government developed a national policy in this regard. But it should also make sure that implementation is local, and is governed by local requirements.

Obviously the GN Division cannot generally be a decision making unit, but it is certainly vital to increase the decision making powers of Divisional Secretariats, acting in collaboration with the elected officials of the area. It is for the latter to affirm priorities, though this must be done through consultation of the people, as envisaged in the Mahinda Chintanaya, and suggested in the proposed amendments to the Local Government Act.

But such consultation should begin at micro-level, namely the GN Division. There should also be facilitation of local initiatives, for instance school gardens, local vocational training centres, language learning opportunities, in addition to encouragement of productive leisure activities to promote the socialization that the learned monk regretted was now wholly inadequate.

Where proposals need to be decided on at a higher level, government must ensure that responses are swift. Obviously not everything can be agreed, but those who make decisions should give reasons as to why some things have to be denied and others postponed. The rationale for the priorities of any decision making body must mandatorily be communicated to those affected by such a decision. Such a requirement would help to restore the trust now lacking.

Thursday, 3rd October 2013 – http://www.dailynews.lk/features/improving-protection-local-levels

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