By W A Wijewardena –
Violation of good governance principles as a matter of routine
In this uncertain world, there is one thing about which Sri Lankans can be absolutely certain. That is, they can be pretty sure that they would wake up every morning to news of gross disregard of good governance principles by the country’s political leadership.
It may be the use (or according to by some critics, the abuse) of discretionary powers given to them under the Constitution. Or, it may be the use (again the abuse) of majority powers in Parliament to steamroll the views of the Opposition. Or, it may be even making a public statement that they would not listen to the public voice when they approve of public projects funded out of taxpayers’ money.
Whatever it may be, it is not in line with the good governance principles to which a democratic government would have committed itself.
Good governance usher growth and prosperity
Adopting good governance principles is important for a country if it desires to create prosperity for its people. Empirical studies have shown that countries that are ranked high in good governance also have higher levels of income and those with questionable governance are left in the other end. This is understandable since governance ensures accountability of the political leadership for the action it has taken, on the one hand, and makes the whole population inclusive in the development efforts, on the other.
Thus, the prospect for a select group of people to enjoy the fruits of development is ruled out if good governance is adopted. It improves growth by improving the quality of business environment of a country.
However, good governance should cover five other sub-components, which are equally valid. They are the maintenance of law and order, observance of the rule of law, protection of property rights, adhering to disclosure requirements and making government activities transparent. Arising from these sub components are the need for ensuring freedom of thought and expression, creation of a society that accepts, recognises and tolerates human diversity and helping people to attain the highest level of self-perfection through peaceful intercourse with those having diverse views, faiths and values. A country’s political leadership could disregard these essential requirements to its own peril.
Good governance is moral responsibility toward stakeholders
Good governance is simply the moral responsibility which a person, an organisation or a government extends toward its stakeholders for delivering what it has promised to them. In the case of the government, these stakeholders are the citizens of a country.
A country today is made up of a nation which is organised as a State for providing a package of common benefits to its members. The topmost in the list of these benefits is the opportunity made available to citizens to attain the highest state of material, intellectual and spiritual wellbeing. The State which is the ‘boss’ has a permanent existence, whereas the government, made of up those who have been assigned to carry out its mission, is temporary in nature.
The mission of the State changes from time to time depending on the changing values, aspirations and expectations of the citizens. Accordingly, the mission of the State of Sri Lanka today should necessarily be different from its mission, say, many years ago. The political leadership which runs the government should reckon these changing aspirations of people and take the country to the future accordingly.
What this means is that, though they may be nostalgic about the past, they cannot, or should not try to, replicate the past. This is an important lesson which those who aspire to seek political leadership should essentially learn if they are to bring in prosperity to their citizens.
Governance may not come internally
If good governance arises from within a society, that is the best. However, due to two reasons, this may not happen automatically. One is the inherent selfishness of people. The other is what economists call the ‘Principal-Agent problem’. Hence, there has been a necessity for imposing good governance from without or externally.
Man is by nature a selfish creature
A good biological description of man that includes all other species as well is that ‘man is by nature a selfish creature’.
This has been eloquently explained by the fourth President of USA, James Madison. He has said that ‘if men are angels, there is no need for a government’. By the same token, one may say that since men are not angels, they cannot be expected to follow good governance principles on their own.
This has been further elaborated by the Oxford trained historian Yuval Noah Harari in his Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He has said that concepts like good governance or equality are not inherent human qualities. Genetically, they have been wired to seek their own self-interest. Hence, good governance is just a concept arising in the mind of people without a biological base.
Selfishness of man that includes all other species as well has been further explained by Oxford University based evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in a path-breaking study presented in his The Selfish Gene. He has said that a mother is ready to sacrifice her life her child not because she is guided by motherly love. She does so because it is written in her gene that she should protect the gene that has been transferred to her child. This is obvious when one looks at how a child cares for its parents.
Though the parents are ready to sacrifice their life for the sake of their children, the latter does not have the same motive toward the parents. Instead, they will sacrifice their life for their children. That is why in Sri Lanka’s history there are stories of sons killing fathers to ascend to the throne but not stories in which fathers killing sons to prevent them from assuming kingship. Thus, it is not unnatural for a political leader who has promised the delivery of good governance to a society to go back on that promise and do everything for the prosperity of his kith and kin that are genetically related to him. Even in that case, there is an order of preference starting from own children and then extending to siblings and other lesser relatives.
Agents have incentive to rob principals
The other reason that works against the natural establishment of good governance in society is the Principal-Agent Problem. This problem arises in every case where one has to engage another to have a service delivered to him. The person who engages the other – called the Principal – expects the other – called the Agent – to do the best for him. In fact, that is the contractual arrangement between the two parties.
However, the agent, guided by his selfish motive, would do everything for his own benefit, thereby giving lower priority to what the principal has commissioned to him to do. In the case of a state, the principals are the citizens or voters. They engage politicians who are agents to deliver prosperity to them. The politicians, instead of doing best for the citizens, would use their powers – discretionary or otherwise – for their own benefits. They would appropriate a nation’s resources to themselves thereby creating inequality in the allocation of resources. Look at how the road rights are used by politicians in developing countries.
The use of road rights has been allocated by law in terms of a given set of rules. However, the politicians have been in the habit of allocating priority road use to themselves thereby denying the road use to other users.
Creation of an enemy to muster popular support
Politicians usually justify these arbitrary preferential allocations by intoxicating the citizens with nationalistic ideologies. The usual modus operandi has been to create an enemy in the minds of citizens and drive them against the enemy so created.
That enemy could be a different ethnic or religious group within the nation. Or, that enemy could be a global power that has a notorious track record of interfering with the internal affairs of other nations. The first one will help politicians to divide the nation into ethnically or religiously divided sectarian groups and rob its resources having blocked the people’s rational vision by intoxicating them with pseudo-nationalistic feelings.
To put it into practice, hate is institutionalised by creating and planting hate-promoting stories among the populace. When the rational side of people’s brain is blocked, they would accept any story without further probe or inquiry.
There is ample evidence to this phenomenon in Sri Lanka’s recent past. The terrorist group that attacked Christian churches and hotels on the ideals of Islamic State or IS had created so many such stories to lure followers. Similarly, the mobs that subsequently attacked Muslims in some selected parts of the country had also been prompted by similar stories. Politicians on all sides paid a deaf ear to these hate-promoting stories because it may have very well served their purpose of robbing the principal.
Regarding India’s recent elections, similar voices have now been expressed. The writer Jawhar Sircar writing to the Wire has concluded before India’s recent election results were out that India would remain divided and battered no matter who would win the elections. What he meant was that both the Congress Party leaders and Bharatiya Janata Party leaders are equally guilty on that count. There is an ironic similarity in Sri Lanka’s political leaders as well. Thus, whoever who would come to power in Sri Lanka, the country would remain battered and divided.
If leaders follow the Buddha, no need for imposing governance from outside
Since good governance in government is not established on its own internally, it has to be imposed from outside on a country’s political leaders. The traditional method has been to subject them to a moral and ethical code of governance. The Buddha pronounced it in his Eightfold Noble Path that included right understanding, intention, speech, action, living, effort, attentiveness and concentration.
There is no need for enforcing good governance principles on any political leader who follows this eightfold path. It should not be a strange thing in a country which is said to be belonging to Sinhala Buddhists and dedicated to promoting Buddhism worldwide as its gift to other nations.
In addition, monarchies in both ancient India and Sri Lanka had been guided by another code of statesmanship – The Tenfold Doctrines of Statesmanship. A monarch who follows these doctrines has to cultivate the following qualities in him when ruling a nation: gifting, sacrifice, virtue, austerity, uprightness, softness, non-harmfulness, non-ill will, forbearance and non-conflict. When these doctrines are adhered to by a monarch, there is good governance established internally in that country.
Possibility of breaking the promise by political leaders once they capture power
In a modern republic where the Head of the State or the President is elected by people, there are some practical problems regarding their proper implementation. One is that a Presidential candidate may promise people that he would adhere to these principles after his election to the post. However, he could go back on his promise at any time thereafter.
Another is the difficulty in objectively measuring whether or not he has broken his promise. A political leader can resort to numerous powers that enables him to buy critics and hide his activities from public scrutiny.
Yet another problem is the mass support he can muster to justify his action by intoxicating the minds of people. In such a situation, there should be outside mechanisms to control his activities.
Separation of powers to establish checks and balance
One mechanism is the separation of powers among the three power bases of a modern State: the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary. When these three bases are independent from each other, the use of State powers is balanced and each body can function as a check on the other.
This was amply demonstrated in the 56-day saga beginning from 26 October 2018, in which the President used his discretionary powers to sack the Prime Minister and appoint a person of his choice to the post. This power of the President was effectively checked by the Legislature and the Judiciary. Thus, as long as these three institutions are independent and separate from each other, there is hope for people to block any illegal action by anyone of them.
However, Sri Lanka’s present situation is an exception where the President does not enjoy the majority power in Parliament. But, this mechanism will be ineffective if he has majority power in Parliament. In that case, there should be a different mechanism to prevent political leaders from arbitrarily violating good governance principles.
Have a proper institutional structure
That other mechanism is the establishment of an effective institutional mechanism to check on the excesses exercised by these three power bases. Institutions in economics are not just formal bodies but value systems which peoples of a nation would subscribe themselves to.
These values should be pro-good governance and, when they are violated, people should raise their voice against such instances. Hence, it is of utmost importance for a democracy to have a strong institutional system to protect its people from the excesses of political leaders.
*W A Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at email@example.com