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… an inflated idea of its own importance

In addition to security considerations, there are several areas in which government is deeply involved. But we should not take what government does for granted. There is a natural tendency for any institution to have an inflated idea of its own importance, and this means that it will tend to take on more and more responsibilities. A regular consequence of this is that it becomes inefficient.

It is therefore important that those exercising particular responsibilities give careful consideration as to their core functions. They should know what it is they must do. Any additional services they can provide might be useful, but they should also make sure that they do not create a culture of dependency, which could inhibit development. The statism that dominated many societies in the last century often led to stagnation. Any government therefore must bear in mind the need to leave room for individual initiatives that would also help with satisfying social needs.

In particular ,when allocating responsibility for the provision of services governments must take care to discourage populism. Ministers responsible for services should be able to conceptualize. They must work on improving service delivery whilst encouraging alternatives that will help to raise standards and improve the service.  I therefore present here the next section of the Second Chapter of ‘Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka’, which scrutinizes what government should do, and why, with regard to service provision –

 

Services

qrcode.29262648Before what we may term the Modern Period, beginning from about the eighteenth century, security and justice were seen as the primary duties of a government. While governments performed various other functions these were largely as a matter of personal commitment by particular rulers, or in times of emergency. They were not seen as central to the duties of a ruler.

With the development of modern society, however, the role of government changed. This can be seen most clearly with regard to health care, which is now seen as one of the most important functions of government. In the early days, some kings distinguished themselves by building hospitals, the management of which was often handed over to independent institutions such as religious bodies. But the responsibility was not usually considered that of the government itself.

With industrialisation and rapid urbanisation, health became a more central concern. Epidemics had more disastrous consequences for the society, and not only cure but also prevention became an urgent necessity. With the development of new techniques in health care that required extensive capital investment, the establishment of government hospitals became necessary. So health became a vital function of government. The minister of health has a crucial role to play in any government of today. Read the rest of this entry »

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At the debate on the FUTA demands arranged a couple of weeks back by Eran Wickramaratne, perhaps the most telling complaint made by the FUTA head was about children in a distant village clustering in droves before dawn to get the bus to a school far away. That anecdote seemed to have nothing to do with the FUTA strike, though it should have been if the demand for 6% of GDP being spent on education was about results, rather than simply sloganeering. The failure to respond at all coherently to Eran’s simple question, what should be done with the 6%, made it clear that policy changes which would lead to a better education system for all was not part of the agenda.

This was sad, because I am sure that some at least of those leading the strike are idealists, not concerned with the massive pay hikes that are being demanded on top of already large salaries. But the failure to analyse the root causes in the decline of our education system that they have highlighted, and to suggest radical reforms that ensure greater accountability, simply plays into the hands of those in the government sector who are satisfied with the status quo. I assume therefore that the strike will soon be settled, with yet another salary hike on top of all those the current government has granted so readily over the last few years, with no effort to deal with the problems of children forced to travel endlessly, to distant schools and to tuition classes, to make up for the failure of government to provide decent schools even in small towns, let alone in villages.

One of the reasons for this failure is the absence of coordination between the providers of the various services essential to a society committed to equal opportunities. Sadly it has not yet registered with our decision makers that good transport facilities are an essential component of a just society. It is useless providing schools and hospitals unless access to them is easy.

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The Indian journalist Sathiyamoorthy, one of the sharpest – and also I think most sympathetic – commentators on the Sri Lankan scene, wrote recently on questions in connection with the army and the police in the North. With regard to the latter, he seems to be of the view that the police should not come under the Ministry of Defence, which is not an argument I accept.

My main reason for this is the very simple belief – on the basis of a principle known as Occam’s Razor – that one should not create entities unnecessarily. Unfortunately Occam’s Razor is unknown in Sri Lanka, where we multiply entities endlessly, as with Ministries and layers of government. In affirming the need to keep the police under the Ministry of Defence I believe we should also extend the principle more widely, but that is another question, and requires more thought and strength of mind than is usually applied in this country.

Sathiyamoorthy thinks a division between the police and the Ministry of Defence would help ‘in recapturing the imagination of the police as a civilian force, easily approachable by and comforting to the civilian population. Not just the Tamil minorities, but even the Sinhala population in the run-up to the JVP insurgencies had felt alientated from and by the police, for possibly no fault of theirs’.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2019
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