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10 Jan 2015The most important issue facing the new President is to restore confidence in the governmental process.

For this purpose it is necessary to establish systems that work according to the Rule of Law, and with full accountability to the people. In this respect it is vital that Parliamentary control of legislation and finances be restored.

This does not mean strengthening an Executive based in Parliament, but rather strengthening Parliament to be an effective check on the Executive. This means strengthening the power of ordinary members of Parliament, both government and opposition.

Measures to ensure this were the principle component of the Standing Order changes I had proposed last year, changes which the Speaker ignored in contravention of the existing Standing Orders. My main purpose was to strengthen Committees of Parliament by streamlining them and ensuring that they were not chaired by members of the Executive. In the case of the Finance Oversight Committees, the PAC and COPE, the chair was to be a member of the opposition.

But ensuring open discussion in committees is not enough. It is also necessary to give them teeth, and for this purpose we should ensure that the Executive either follows their recommendations, or else gives reasons in writing as to why this is not desirable or possible. The same would apply to the petitions committee, the directions of which are now simply flouted by the Executive.

I would take this principle further, to promote consultation as well as accountability at local levels. The Local Government Act should be amended to ensure involvement of People’s Representatives in Committees of Pradeshiya Sabhas and Local Councils. I have already suggested amendments in this regard to the Secretary of the Local Government Ministry who had consulted me about the Act. It will also be necessary to define clearly the areas of responsibility of local government bodies, and to give them powers to work effectively in these areas.

In addition, given the number of administrative decisions made at Divisional Secretariat level, there should be consultation mechanisms at Grama Niladhari level, with mandatory feedback at the decision making level. This is the Divisional Secretariat, and I am glad that Mr Sirisena’s manifesto declares the centrality of this level, and the need to ensure coordination of services. With regard to this I have been working together with several Ministry Secretaries on a UNDP Project to improve delivery of services, and I hope the next government studies the excellent report produced by Asoka Gunawardena and implements its recommendations. Certainly we must get rid of the ridiculous system introduced by Basil Rajapaksa, of handing over development funds to Members of Parliament to spend virtually at will, with no coordination and little reference to the plans of the Line Ministries.

Line Ministries should be strengthened, and this requires reducing the size of the Cabinet in accordance with clear rationales, as pledged in the opposition manifesto. We cannot have many ministries dealing with similar subjects, and we cannot have ministers doing what they want – and in particular accepting unsolicited bids for projects, which has become a feature of the way the present government runs things – without adherence to well developed plans. It is imperative that a Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation be set up, and given teeth on the lines of the suggestions the Secretary to that Ministry and I forwarded to Mr Lalith Weeratunge at the end of 2009.

I have stressed governance issues, because these seem to me the most important in terms of safeguarding democracy and promoting equitable development. For this purpose it is also essential to pass the proposed Freedom of Information Act, and to give it teeth through ensuring public accountability at all levels of government. In addition I hope we will also introduce the Bill of Rights which was promised in the 2005 Mahinda Chintanaya, and which the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights had got drafted by the end of 2009, but which has since been ignored. Read the rest of this entry »

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After nearly 100 meetings at Divisional Secretariats, with the participation often of Pradeshiya Sabha representatives, I am more than ever convinced that the future of this country lies in strengthening local government institutions. However, if they are to do more, they also need to consult the local citizenry.

At present there are no formal structures to ensure such consultation. Some local bodies do have provision for Standing Committees, and I have been told that for Pradeshiya Sabhas there is provision for members of the public to participate, but this is not the case with Municipal or Urban Councils. The latter indeed do not seem to have provision for such Committees.

This is quite contrary to the premises on which the Mahinda Chintanaya is based, and I was happy to find that efforts to amend the Acts have progressed considerably in the last couple of years. Unfortunately the same old trend of simply amending earlier Acts has continued, instead of repealing previous legislation and replacing it with a clearly comprehensible new Act. This will mean that those elected to such bodies will find it difficult to understand what their powers are, and lawyers will have a wonderful time interpreting the Acts.

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After some depression about not achieving very much with regard to either Reconciliation, or the Human Rights Action Plan, I was heartened by several factors last week. In the four Divisional Secretariat meetings I attended in the Wanni, it was clear that things were improving all the time. Several problems were brought to my attention, but these were largely practical problems, similar to those prevalent in other parts of the country. The impact of inclement weather on agriculture, the need for better roads for rural connectivity, and for better electricity connections, shortages of teachers for essential subjects, are national problems, not consequences of the conflict.

Of course much more needs to be done for the people of the Wanni, given what they suffered, and for the first time I felt sad that I cannot contribute more to education, since the Ministry as it now stands is incapable of increasing teacher supply or ensuring better distribution. But, with regard to the other matters, there is much appreciation of progress with regard to roads and electricity, and also understanding that government paved the way through its support for agriculture for abundant harvests in the last few years, even though this year floods have caused problems.

I should note here the appreciation amongst officials and community organizations of the Japanese Peace Project, which has done much for small scale irrigation works in the last few years. A meeting at the Japanese Embassy later in the week confirmed my view of the intelligence and sympathy of their approach. Equally the Indian Housing Project has generated much confidence that things are getting better, though government must do more to publicize both that and the other large scale housing support provided by the military and other agencies, in particular the Swiss, who also work relatively quietly.

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Some of the issues I have raised in recent columns in this series came up in a different form in a presentation made by Indrajith Coomaraswamy during one of the discussions the Liberal Party has been conducting on Reform. Though initially we had thought of concentrating on Constitutional Reform, it soon became clear that that alone was not enough, and questions of change had to be looked at holistically.

Given Sri Lanka’s current status, as a Developing Country that has got over the hump of under-development (the only Under-developing country that was still under-developing, as the Economist I think once sharply put it), it is obvious that economic issues are of particular concern. We were fortunate therefore to get four speakers who dealt, in short and succinct presentations that were amongst the best I have heard, on political economics, and the issues we now face.

All of them should be widely disseminated, but in particular what Indrajith Coomaraswamy said should be studied by all decision makers. Pointing out that we were now in a better position than ever in the last half century to go forward, he pointed out the severe institutional constraints we face.

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My own concerns, both with regard to aspects of Reconcilation that are not being addressed adequately, and also in terms of my responsibilities as Convenor of the Task Force to expedite implementation of the Human Rights Action Plan, were more with Protection issues. I therefore concentrated initially on these in the consultations, with Ministries and officials from the North, that the UN has kindly facilitated.

However I recognize that the vast majority of people in the North are much more concerned with livelihood issues. It is vital therefore that the initial nexus between government and the people, namely the Grama Niladhari, concentrate also on development, construing that term in the broader sense.

The Grama Niladhari then should have regular discussions with the people for whom he is responsible, so as to find out their pressing needs, and then put these forward to the relevant authorities. In the North I am regularly asked about roads and transport, about electricity and water supply, about irrigation and the marketing and storage of produce. The more perceptive members of Rural Development Societies also raise issues of credit and better training.

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I wrote last week about Parliamentary Consultative Committees and the role they should play with regard to legislation. But there is more that they should do, in helping the Executive develop policies and monitor their implementation.

The hopelessness however of expecting them to fulfil these tasks came home to me when, the morning after I got back, I received notice of a meeting of the Consultative Committee on Education, and was rung up also by the Secretary to the Committee Office, urging me to attend. It is possible she does this for all members, but I doubt it, because she mentioned again that no one else on the Committee had commented on the proposals for Education Reform that have been discussed in a Special Parliamentary Committee for over two years now.

They had not commented a few months back when a penultimate draft had been circulated, and they have not commented now, when a final draft has been sent out to all of us for comment. I will continue to hope, as I think she does, that something from someone else will come in before the 15th of January, which is the deadline, but I doubt it.

One of the problems is the manner in which the Committees are constituted. The copy of the Standing Orders distributed to MPs when Parliament was convened in 2010 was printed in 1993, and notes that Committees should have not more than 12 members. This has now been changed and all Committees now have 21 members. The Standing Orders I have say that ‘No Member shall serve in more than one Consultative Committee unless the Selection Committee decides to the contrary’, but either the Selection Committee has made several decisions to the contrary or else the Standing Order has been changed. I am supposed to serve on 7 Consultative Committees, including the Committee on Civil Aviation, about which I have no ideas at all.

I don’t think the Selection Committee has been at all serious in constituting Consultative Committees, but in mitigation I should add that it would be impossible for the Committee to be serious about this job, given that it has to allocate 21 members to each of 60 odd Committees. What would be much more sensible is to ask MPs to apply to Ministers for membership of their Committees, and for Ministers to propose a small Committee of the truly committed who could meet on a regular basis to discuss issues in an informed manner. For meaningful discussion the Committee should have not more than ten members. Read the rest of this entry »

Based on a talk given at the SF training centre in Kilinochchi – Part 1

Based on a talk given at the SF training centre in Kilinochchi – Part 2

In welcoming the initiative of the armed forces to get involved in communication, and in what might be termed Public Diplomacy, I noted how the failure to have planned coherently is apparent in the manner in which Development has been targeted in the North. Infrastructure has been created apace, and certainly we have done much to put in place the tools through which livelihoods can take off. But we have not worked systematically on the training that should also be provided to ensure maximum usage of the opportunities that are available. Thus, though we knew from the start that there would be much construction, no schemes were put in place in much of the Wanni to start vocational training for the purpose.

I still recall some months back having a discussion with a bright young man from the Ministry of Economic Development in Mannar, and pointing out that such training should have been thought of. He agreed, but it was obvious he did not think it was his responsibility to have thought of such things. He may have been correct, but it should have been someone’s responsibility. It is precisely because that sort of holistic thinking is lacking in our much fragmented public service that I believe the forces have a role to play in promoting it.

Similarly, we have no systematic records of what has been achieved, and in particular the input of government and of local agencies into the process of rebuilding. We produce lots of glossy booklets, but we fail to produce clear pictures of actual outcomes. I am reminded then of what happened with regard to preparations for the displaced, when we had elaborate plans, which were clearly impractical. In fact they were used by our critics to say that we wanted wonderful facilities so that we could keep the displaced incarcerated for long periods. Much time then was spent arguing over the plans, and little was done, and it was only because of the enormous energies of General Chandrasiri, who was put in charge of the process a short time before the conflict ended, that Manik Farm was got ready in time to provide at least basic shelter to so many. I still recall him getting down to yet more work at dusk, when everyone else was packing up for the day, and the international community claimed it was not allowed to stay out so late. That to my mind was yet another example of the forces having to step in to salvage an operation that civilians – including experienced international aid workers, though the responsibility I should add was more ours – could, and should, have planned better. Read the rest of this entry »

sithamuI received last week the quarterly report of Diaspora Lanka, an organization that works in Mannar through personnel and funding from Australia to implement projects in collaboration with local institutions and people. This is a model that should be encouraged, for it has a limited focus which allows for deeper relationships and greater accountability.

It works in several areas, including Urban Planning, which is a healthy innovation in a context in which planning is limited and rarely participatory. The Report notes that, amongst the next steps envisaged, is the establishment of a working relationship between the Urban Council Mannar and the Urban Development Authority and the National Physical Planning Department. This seems an excellent idea, and I hope that the UDA gets involved actively, since this would be a healthy corrective to the claim that it functions without close liaison with the people.

It is clear from what we see around us that the UDA is doing a great job of restoring order to at least some cities, but for sustainability it is important to involve the people in projects. Given what seems careful initial planning by the Mannar Council, with due attention to environmental issues, they would be good partners for the UDA.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2019
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