By Rajiva Wijesinha –
I must thank Marga and the Open University, not only for inviting me to speak here today, but also for establishing this course, which I believe is exactly what the Open University should be about. For a long time now I have been complaining that the Open University is in fact a closed one, with as many restrictions on learning as the traditional universities. Whilst I can understand its need to set up Centres all over the country, its concern with developing these has led to restrictions on other Centres. Where, in my view, the Open University should basically develop degree courses and other qualifications, and encourage any others to deliver such courses, the Open University still seems stuck with the idea that it must in fact deliver all the learning it certifies.
This course then is a healthy exception, and I hope that more others have developed over the years since I last made my critique. This is the more important inasmuch as the way the Open University should work is also the way government should work. Unfortunately we are still stuck in the mindset of the sixties and seventies, when government was assumed to be the main protagonist in all activities, including development activities. People were seen as the objects of development, as it were, not as their subjects. They were to be passive recipients of government largesse, just as students now in many university courses are seen as receptacles into which lecturers pour their own learning.
But that is not learning. Learning requires active participation and input from learners as well as teachers. So too development requires the involvement of those whose personal development is as important as the generalities we describe as economic or social or infrastructural development.
That the hand me down model of development did not work became clear in the seventies, and we moved from statism to what was described as an open economy. But that model too was followed haphazardly, and in the end reduced simply to encouraging the private sector to do business. That in itself was no bad thing, but we failed also to involve the private sector actively in development, which would have required its input into services too. True, we had private sector involvement in transport, and to some extent in health, but the most important service of all, education, was left out.
And perhaps more worryingly, the privatization that took place was in the nature of a free for all. As the distinguished economist Muttukrishna Sarvananthan put it recently, bus privatization was about allowing individuals to flourish, rather than setting up systems. Licenses were issued wholesale, as happened even recently when the A 9 was opened, without efforts to ensure that, while several options were made available on popular routes, rural areas were also provided with at least basic services. The result, as I have found in the Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings I hold regularly in the North, is dissatisfaction about the lack of transport, which makes people forget the excellent infrastructure that has been introduced, in the form of roads and electricity and water services and now indeed trains.
In the end we must remember that people are more conscious of the deprivations they suffer rather than the benefits they have received. This is more pronounced when people are on the defensive. Many years ago, when I was engaged in studying what was termed Post-colonial literatures, I wrote about the understanding both Paul Scott, and before him E M Forster, had displayed about the mindset of the colonized. They were quick to feel slighted, and this was understandable. Because of the many slights that had been deliberately inflicted on them, they were quick to sense slights where none were intended.
Unfortunately, given the deprivations of the past, and the immense suffering – largely the responsibility of the LTTE, but that is not always clearly understood – which accompanied the end of the war, many people in the North feel like they have been colonized. It is therefore incumbent upon the rest of us, as Scott and Forster suggested it was upon those British who subscribed to the idea that colonization was about benefits to the colonized, to behave sensitively, and ensure that the people of the North feel no unnecessary slights.
This does not mean that we should forget our security concerns, and give in to pressures from politicians and interfering outsiders to remove the military or cease to ensure that National Policy is followed in the North as well as elsewhere. But we need to do this without obtrusive pressures, and with the full involvement of the people of the North in administration as well as the development process.
The key to this, just as in education, as I have noted above, is participation. The word education, as doubtless you have heard many times, comes from a Latin word, the root of which means to lead. But the ‘e’ at the beginning makes it mean leading out, ie bringing out of people what is in them already – as Plato demonstrated when Socrates showed a slave that he already knew the elements of mathematics, he just needed them brought out of him.
My argument then is that development in the North, as indeed elsewhere, should be about empowering people so as to bring out their full potential. Government has done something of the sort in the East, where the superb infrastructural development of recent years has kick-started the economy, which is now flourishing in comparison with a few years back.
However government failed to realize that that would not work in the same way in the North. In the Vanni, we should have moved swiftly also on Human Resources Development, which was essential, given the deprivations of previous years, if the people were to be able to take advantage of the opportunities infrastructural development laid open. Unfortunately government is still stuck in traditional theories of education, and it has not helped that the Ministry of Education is incapable of new initiatives, while the Ministry of Higher Education has found itself stifled by old fashioned insistence on statism, both within government ranks and without. Meanwhile Vocational Training still continues moribund, despite the best efforts of the Minister to introduce new thinking.
An example of what I mean came up recently when I was told that many vacancies for essential positions in the Wanni could not be filled because people from the area did not have sufficient qualifications. Thus, in the recent absurd recruitment by government of thousands of graduates who are not given sufficient work to do, there were not enough from the Wanni who could fulfil urgent needs – while those from other areas were unwilling to work there and, if appointed, would get away as soon as they had achieved permanence.
The answer is to establish special training programmes, recruiting people from the area with basic qualifications, and giving them permanent appointments only if they get the required higher qualifications – but meanwhile you would have people from the area participating in activities to benefit the area, and bringing to bear their own understanding of local needs.
Such an approach would also help with the third area where Reconciliation is vital, namely the Jaffna Peninsula. Human Resource Development is not as urgent there as in the Vanni, given that the area was under government control in the preceding period and education continued at a comparatively high standard. But while the people there can take advantage of the economic opportunities that are now available, there is an even greater consciousness there of the need for dignity and active involvement in the administration and development.
Unfortunately government did not take adequate measures to implement some of the more imaginative aspects of the President’s manifesto with regard to people’s participation in government. The consultative processes he had suggested have been ignored, and decision making is left to politicians and administrators in Colombo. This is a recipe for disaster because, however good decisions might be, they will be resented without the active involvement of those they affect.
My argument then is that development alone is not enough, indeed it cannot be sustained without the participation of its subjects. As with education, success comes only through input by the subject, not through pouring learning or goods or services into and upon passive recipients. I hope you will remember this as you learn, and I hope government will understand this as it strives to achieve reconciliation, not through development, but as an integral aspect of development.
*Text of a Keynote Address by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the inauguration of the Open University / Marga Institute MA programme in Development Studies