By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Following my lecture at the Kotelawala Defence University on August 3rd, I spoke at a Seminar arranged by the Officer Career Development Centre at Buttala on August 6th 2013. The text of this lecture had been prepared earlier, but the incident that had occurred at Weliweriya in the previous week suggested that I needed to qualify what I said.
Over the previous six years I had probably been the most effective spokesman for the military internationally – which is doubtless what led to the Ministry of External Affairs ensuring that I no longer have an official role in this regard.
But I have continued to defend them against unfair attacks, and done so successfully. Indeed, after my assessment of the Channel 4 videos, the UN Special Rapporteur is reported to have told one of his students that, did he need someone to defend him in a Court of Law, he would select me. I have been able to do this because I have believed that our forces fought a clean war. Though there may have been individual aberrations, which need to be investigated as the LLRC Report indicated, we have much to be proud of in comparison with other countries faced even with far lesser threats.
Given their competence and decency, I have long believed that the military should do even more than it is doing now, to promote greater coherence and efficiency in the Nation Building process. I still stand by that view. But I realize that I have not made forcefully enough here the point I have also noted, that the work of the forces should be within a civilian framework, and in line with norms prevalent in a peaceful situation, with avoidance of military responses appropriate to an emergency.
This is in line with the point made by His Excellency the President, which I agree with, that we cannot simply discharge members of the forces because the period in which we needed large numbers is now in the past. His argument was that we needed to retrain them to take their place in a society free from conflict. For that purpose we had to identify civilian roles, in for instance the worlds of business and administration, which they could satisfactorily fulfil.
But to do that we need to ensure a mindset free from the militaristic approach that was necessary during the conflict. And we need to ensure that actions appropriate when self-defence had to be a priority are not thought of, let alone practiced, when there is no danger.
Those principles were ignored at Weliveriya. Numerous excuses may be offered, ranging from allegations of external manipulation to charges that guns were fired from within the crowd. None of this is impossible, but the manner in which the forces were deployed suggests a readiness to believe the worst, which the situation simply did not warrant. And the consequences, multiple deaths and injuries to so many, are totally unacceptable. If indeed it is thought that provocation was offered, the forces must surely analyse why they react to this in precisely the manner that plays into the hands of shadowy enemies, and adds to their support through the widespread suffering the reaction imposes.
It will be alleged that those critical of what happened at Weliweriya are those who opposed the work of the forces during the conflict. It was to make it clear the absurdity of such allegations that I noted in some detail my contribution during those years. But I must also hope there will be similar reactions from those in the military who maintained high standards during a period of intense conflict, and that the majority of you who uphold the doctrine your training inculcates, of care for civilians, will work together to ensure that such incidents are not repeated. And you should also think about the damage such incidents do to the forces as a whole, and guard yourselves also against those who inflict this.
To return to what I had set down, let me begin by noting a recent comment by a senior public servant recently on the manner in which planning had as it were gone out of fashion. He noted that we did have careful national planning in the sixties and seventies, and this was encouraged by the then dominant international agencies such as the United Nations. But you will recall that around that period a different perspective on development began to dominate, namely the idea that the state sector had grown too powerful and was not able to deliver.
The private sector was seen then, not just as the engine of growth, but as the arbiter with regard to development. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund took over as preferred mentors, and centralized planning became a bad word.
This reaction was understandable, given the excessive statism that then governed not just the Communist world but also many countries which functioned on socialist principles. However, just as the state, which had moved from its responsibility to ensure the provision of basic services to all citizens to the notion that it should have a monopoly on the provision of such services, had allowed its reach to exceed its grasp, so too the reaction was excessive. In the free for all that many countries saw as the necessary antidote to unnecessary controls, the idea that the state needed to regulate activity and direct it towards particular goals was forgotten. Sadly the World Bank and the IMF, delighted when they saw countries willing to move, failed to provide advice that was balanced, and forgot about the safety mechanisms that were also essential.
If I might digress for a moment to a political aspect of this, thought put very simplistically, the position was put very clearly by John Rawls in his ‘Theory of Justice’, which came out in the early seventies, as a healthy corrective to the unbridled free marketeering that was then becoming fashionable. Rawls suggested the very simple model of a cake that was divided unequally. A rigid Socialist perspective was that the cake had to be divided up equally. This was what government had to achieve. Unfortunately, when this was done, with no incentives for economic activity, the cake remained the same size. As population increased along with expectations, what was available for each became, and seemed, much less, and dissatisfaction with statism proliferated.
In sharp contrast to that approach, Capitalists believed that the role of government was to ensure that the cake expanded. Its primary responsibility was to facilitate economic activity, on the principle that, as the cake grew in size, everyone would get a bigger share.
Unfortunately this does not always happen, and the unbridled free play of market forces can lead often to the weakest going to the wall. That is why the Liberal view of government is that, while it must encourage economic activity, with the private sector being best equipped to promote growth, it must also ensure both equality of opportunity, and that no one is left with no share at all of the cake. Rawls called this the Maxi-Min Principle, namely that the state had to do the most for the worst off. Others could be left by and large to look after themselves and, with unnecessary restraints removed, they would engage in productive economic activity. But there should be no forgetting of the basic responsibility of the state to promote targeted development, with emphasis on the deprived.
The effects of unregulated market activity can be seen in the way the Jayewardene government introduced some of its reforms. While I think we must be thankful that he did ensure a greater role for the private sector, sadly he kept many controls in place, which led to crony capitalism and rent seeking, rather than the free play of market forces. An obvious example of where he created chaos can be seen in the transport sector where, as the distinguished economist Indrajith Coomaraswamy recently put it, privatization simply meant the issuing of licenses, with no planning that would ensure adequate services for the public. Whereas in other countries, where the bulk of transport services are provided by the private sector, we have well regulated bus stations and coordination that ensures essential transport services are maintained, in Sri Lanka we have a grotesque free for all, with continuing tensions, and strikes that need to be resolved through government intervention.
How hopeless the transport situation is came home to me in the North where, while there is comparative satisfaction over the provision of infrastructure, roads and electricity and water, there is universal anguish about transport. In some areas there is no national transport service, while of course the private sector does not service rural areas to any appreciable extent. Hardest hit in this regard are children, who have to walk miles to school.
Writing to the Ministries of Transport, Central and Provincial, received no response, so I finally brought the matter up with the President, who understood at once, and suggested a remedy in his budget speech. He proposed that basic transport services, for school children and – he added, sensibly – for markets, be supplied at Divisional Level. Unfortunately nothing was done about this, and it is only after much writing that I have at last got an acknowledgment that some planning and action in this regard is needed.
Here is an area which cries out for planning and coordination. To add to the problem, as you may know, government has long been planning rationalization with regard to schools. Over 1500 schools have fewer than 50 students, and a slightly lesser figure have between 50 and 100. Nearly 2000 have fewer than 200 students, ie nearly half the 9,700 or so schools in the country are small schools.
Efforts to close some of these are met with dogmatic refusal. Such refusal is based on the totally acceptable principle that no child should be without an easily accessible school. But such access can also be provided by regular transport services. And given that the purpose of school is education, there is no point in keeping on with schools where there are hardly any teachers, and where very little learning takes place – as I saw for instance in even the Ratnapura District, where there were three small schools within striking distance of each other, each with inadequate numbers of teachers in attendance. Combining these schools while providing regular transport would not only save the government a lot of money, it would also ensure a better education for youngsters now grossly neglected.
But such measures require planning and coordination, which the compartmentalized fashion in which our government works renders impossible. We need on the contrary to encourage local planning with regard to local services, which are supposed to be the purview of local authorities. But, as I was told recently, no politician since S W R D Bandaranaike seems to have been interested in local government. And, though I was flattered to be cited as an exception to this – and I should add that I think Mr Premadasa also thought on similar lines – I am not really a politician. In any case, as you are aware, decisions are no longer made by politicians in Parliament, nor do they concern themselves with policy, which is why I hope the seminar you are having here will function as a catalyst for at least some changes.
At a recent meeting at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute, one of the few government institutions supposed to contribute to development that still does its job satisfactorily – the only other I can think of is the Institute of Policy Studies, whereas other think tanks are totally moribund – I was struck by some of the points that emerged in a discussion on a Child Centred Budget Analysis that the Child Rights Advocacy Network had prepared.
There was some nervousness that the panel discussion might seem critical of government, and that indeed is an occupational hazard in this country, namely that criticism is taken personally. I should add that this is understandable, since many people engage in harsh attacks on government about matters on which they were conspicuously silent when problems occurred under other regimes that they preferred. However this has led to a paucity of objective criticism as well as an unwillingness on the part of government to listen to suggestions intended to improve the situation rather than point fingers.
With regard to the situation of children, given that problems are the result of practices that had been going on for years, it was clear that the purpose was not to attack the work of the present government, and the panel discussing the issue indeed included no one seen as politically partisan. Our work rather was to identify how things could be improved. In assessing this, we noted the absence in this country of clear cut mechanisms of coordination, as well as a continuing failure to develop structures that will facilitate not only service delivery, but monitoring of such delivery.
An example of the confusion that continues can be seen in the failure of government, over half a century and more, to produce a clear and updated job description for Grama Niladharis. As you know, these are the first interface between government and the people, and it would seem vital therefore not only that they know exactly what they should do, but also that they should understand their relationship to other levels of government, and ensure follow up with regard to matters brought to their attention. Given that they have no decision making powers, beyond those of routine assessments, it is the more vital that they know exactly how they should proceed in areas requiring other inputs.
As it stands, the only official document Grama Niladharis receive is a diary which incorporates their duties, but these are those that were laid down in British times. I will read swiftly through the list, and you will realize that some of these have now been superseded by the establishment of other government agencies, such as the Forestry Department, with a wider provenance.
Initial responses to illegal activities
Assistance in emergencies
Registering of persons
Valuations of less than Rs 5,000
Provision of IDs
Provision of Certificates
This problem was addressed recently by the UN, which has prepared a Handbook which is quite helpful, but this has no official status. The Minister, who was bemused about my concern regarding this problem, had not even been told about this Handbook – and I should note that, while I fully appreciate the work of the UN in trying to improve the situation, the Handbook should have been prepared after a comprehensive planning exercise that took note of the additional responsibilities these officials now have. In addition, I should note, it would have made sense to institute consultative mechanisms – which is one of the more important aspects of the Mahinda Chintanaya that has not been implemented – to ensure that government is more responsive to people. But sadly there is no interest in structural reform, nor I believe is there understanding of modern administrative principles, which require that we treat people as agents rather than tools. Instead we go on with the old British system of administration, which I hasten to add the British have long changed.
The keys to modern administration, as you understand so well in the army, are coordination and regular consultation, with emphasis on goals rather than processes. For this purpose we need to entrench discussion mechanisms, and also reports and monitoring. We also need to enhance training, to encourage individuals to work in groups, with common aims, while also leaving room for individual initiatives, so long as these are understood by colleagues and sustainable.
Such an approach to work is found in the military, but sadly it has been almost totally destroyed in our education system. At its simplest, we no longer provide education, but rather we provide buildings which are used for a few hours each day to fill children full of facts, rather on the lines of the Victorian education that Dickens caricatured, which took no account of skills and attitudes. Meanwhile, I should note, Britain was developing a very effective education system through its private schools (confusingly known as public schools, though for good reason, since they were widely accessible and were a great instrument of social mobility), which developed character and initiative. The emphasis on exams that we have sanctified, not least because we have limited tertiary education so that entry is appallingly competitive, actually spells the death of education in any real sense, since that should be about personality development. Knowledge, and the ability to access knowledge, is an essential part of this, but thinking skills and socialization are as important for productive employment and the entrepreneurship – in both the public and the private sector – that a modern economy needs.
The absence from our schools of the training that we need is obvious from the usual response in rural areas to my question as to whether they do extra-curricular activities. The answer usually is about the Sports Meet, which is not extra-curricular at all, but is a mechanism by which the Education Ministry wastes the time of students during the first term, while allowing most teachers to relax in the Staff Room (or at home) during school hours.
What I mean rather is regular sports after school, and cultural activities, and social service activities such as Scouting and Guiding and Cadeting and Debating. These we have in abundance in the few large urban schools that dominate our education system (about 500 altogether, that have over 1500 students each), and that is why parents will commit crimes to get their children admitted to them. But we have not bothered to make it clear to Principals in rural areas that promoting extra-curricular activities will not only make schooling more enjoyable, it will also immeasurably enhance the skills and capacities of students and make them more enjoyable.
I mention this because it is the key to the enormous success of the training programmes you conduct for young people. I know there has been harsh criticism of them, but I have found general satisfaction in the young people who participated – including the graduate trainees who were taken into government service with no proper planning, and expressed something positive only about the inspiration you provided them with about how they should be working. I should add that the recent sad death of a Principal will be used to attack you even more, and perhaps that should lead you to engage in more careful planning and preparation. But I should also note that such planning should focus also on extending such training to the school system in general, since the outcomes in terms of skills and attitudes should be available to all in the system, principals and teachers as well as students.
I should note too that it is not mainly the physical aspect of the training that should be stressed. Though that is important, what is more important is the working together towards goals that you can encourage. The ability to assess a situation, to look at different solutions for problems and work out what would be most practicable, the willingness to check on progress towards the desired goals and make adjustments when necessary, and also always to be conscious of the various human elements that are part of any situation, are vital skills and it is practice with a purpose that we should ensure, not simply theoretical knowledge.
Training in this fashion is what you in the army are used to, but I fear that this hardly happens in our administrative service. That still works through the lecture mode, with little opportunity for discussion, and less for practical projects and team work. Recently I have been running a lot of workshops, with the support of the UN, for local officials, both elected and appointed, and I was both pleased at how appreciative they were, and astonished at their assertions that such interactive sessions were unusual.
In the rest of the world however such training is the norm, which is why I have suggested that we need to work with other countries to improve the Administrative Service, with particular attention to Development Administration. But my suggestion that we learn from India has been interpreted in terms of arranging a few scholarships, whereas what we should be doing is using experienced trainers to replicate on a large scale here the type of project oriented training that Indian administrators receive constantly during their careers.
In the last section of this talk I intend to move to a different area of concern, which will make clear the need to improve planning capacity for the purpose of Nation Building. My focus will be a debate that seems to me unnecessary, since it arises from a failure to look at the actual constitutional position in this country, and instead concentrates on emotional responses to theoretical positions.
I refer to the debate about the 13th Amendment, which it is claimed is damaging to the country because it could lead to separatism, and also because it could lead to misuse of power contrary to the interests of the country as a whole by Provincial governments.
I would agree that we must guard against separatism, and that is why the Liberal Party has consistently been opposed to the provisions for merger of two Provinces that the 13th Amendment included. I should note that we are the only consistent party in this regard, because others in 1987 either accepted the Amendment wholesale, or else repudiated it.
Our opposition to merger was because it took away from the basic rationale for devolution, namely that power belongs to the people and should therefore be exercised by the smallest units possible. This is known as the principle of subsidiarity, which means for instance that people should be entitled to make any decisions themselves about their personal lives insofar as they do not harm others. Conversely, at the other end of the scale, decisions about national security or foreign or monetary policy need to be made by a Central Government.
The provision for merger should we believe be abolished. However, given that it is seen as important by some sections of the populace, this should be accompanied by measures that assure them that majoritarianism will not hold sway. In this regard the obvious thing to introduce instead is what the President has pledged, namely a Second Chamber, which should be based on equal representation for each province. Unfortunately I think only he and I are interested in this commitment.
Once the merger is forgotten, we should allow for power to be exercised by smaller units, not only the Province but also Local Government, which is much closer to the people, and should look after all community concerns – which should I believe include basic health and education, and transport, in addition to the other responsibilities that are placed in that sphere now. But we should also remember that there is no reason to worry about abuse of such power, since the Constitution very clearly states that National Policy on all subjects remains at the Centre.
I had thought that I was the only person to have realized the importance of this provision, but I find now that a fairly thoughtful man called Neville Ladduwahetty has also drawn attention to this. Unfortunately we have not, over the last quarter of a century, made clear the need to ensure that this provision is honoured. And I found that, in trying to explain this to even lawyers, there was a block about understanding, though the present Attorney General appreciated at once the implications of the provision.
For implicit in the power to make policy is the obligation to monitor the implementation of such policy. With regard for instance to education or health or matters such as child protection, you cannot have different standards in different parts of the country. It is therefore incumbent on central government not only to establish clear policy guidelines, but also to ensure that these are followed.
To refer to an example that I have had much to do with recently, we find that there are no mechanisms in place to ensure that the rights of children – including rights to education and health as well as protection – are safeguarded systematically. I should note that much good work is done by individuals and by institutions, both central and provincial, but there is no coordinating mechanism and no entrenched monitoring systems.
The Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, who is both efficient and imaginative, has now instructed that Women and Children’s Units be set up in every Divisional Secretariat, but ensuring this is done is not easy, not least because the instructions have to come from another Ministry (which therefore has the responsibility of ensuring that they are followed). Coordination will involve officials from other agencies, such as the Police, and I was astonished to find that, in some places, there was hardly any interaction between the Women and Children’s Desks of Police Stations and the officials responsible for Women and Children in each District or Division. We are trying now to ensure that regular coordination meetings are held, but this seems to require better organization, as well as reporting mechanisms to ensure effective action, than government has at present.
My argument then is that, if government can get its act together, it will define policies clearly, and have agencies in place to monitor that these are followed. Actual implementation can then be left to provincial or local authorities, with an obligation on them however to report on not just their actions, but also the goals they have set and progress towards these goals.
Clarity about the difference between responsibility for national policy and responsibility for implementation will also help to reduce the duplication from which we now suffer. At present we have far too many agencies, the functions of which overlap, which leads to confusion as well as waste. At the Committee on Public Enterprises, which under its current Chairman has been perhaps the only Parliamentary Committee to act in terms the responsibilities it is supposed to fulfil, we have recommended the closure of several useless agencies, though I have to say – contrary to the optimism of the Chairman – that I suspect very few will actually be shut down. This is tragic, in a context in which some branches of government do not even have money to pay salaries on time, but whether even necessity will prompt what common sense should have enforced a long time ago remains to be seen.
The difficulty government has with regard to planning, as opposed to simply letting things drift along, became apparent when, in perhaps the saddest decision of 2010 (sadder even than the decision not to have a dedicated Ministry of Human Rights), the Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation was abolished. Perhaps I was to blame for this, because I had done a paper together with its Secretary, the most senior and I think the best Secretary we have, to suggest that its functions should be strengthened.
The Secretary was then sent out to grass as it were, to the Ministry of Science and Technology, where her skills were wasted until the government belatedly realized that hardly anything had been done about implementation of the Action Plan about implementing the Recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. She was put in effective charge of that, and I was told by the more sympathetic of our international locutors that, for the first time, they were hearing from government the language they had been hoping for. Since however she needs the authority of a Ministry to move more swiftly, as we must do if we are not to be crucified by hostile nations in the next few months, I have suggested that there should be a Ministry for the purpose.
This can look after Human Rights as well as Reconciliation, since I also been worried recently about slow progress on implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan. This is despite general willingness about the Plan, but the lack of effective coordination mechanisms means that getting people to work together, on legal reforms for instance, or using rehabilitation as the President has suggested for minor offences instead of incarceration, or protection mechanisms for migrant workers, is more difficult than it should be. A Ministry however, under someone with experience in the field such as Mahinda Samarasinghe, or even the President, could achieve much, if it has a good Secretary in place who understands policy as well as plan implementation.
But public servants such as that are old and few, and it is imperative that we train up a new generation able to take over and indeed improve delivery. I hasten to add that there are very able young people in various positions in the administrative service, in Ministries as well as District and Divisional Secretariats, but the ethos according to which they work must be developed, to encourage results based activity as well as systematic monitoring and reporting.
A strong administrative service will also be able to deal firmly, but sympathetically, with politicians of all colours. Again, I find that there are no institutional mechanisms in place to ensure coordination between elected and appointed local officials. Though what are termed District and Divisional Development Committees meet, I hear nothing but complaints about what happens there, the people saying that decisions are ignored, officials saying that decisions are changed, and no systems in place to report back to the people – or to the officials – about what is finally decided. Also, sadly, no efforts seem to have been made to give opposition politicians their due place in such structures – which I should note is also damaging to government, since it allows all failures to be laid at the door of government. Unfortunately it may be too late for remedies in this respect now. But we certainly need, for political as well as administrative reasons, to concentrate on coordination and training and mechanisms to establish the fundamental importance of national policy and ensuring its implementation nationwide. In this respect the armed forces have a vital role to play, and I hope that you will contribute as much to policy planning in this regard as to implementation and training.