16 June, 2024


Good Governance Is Not A Utopia!

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

Good governance or ‘Yahapalana’ is not and should not be a ‘utopia,’ to mean an ‘ideal state,’ which is according to some, ‘never reachable.’ Of course like democracy, the achievements of ‘good governance’ are measured and should be measured by the degree. Not in absolute terms, but in relative achievements. The measurements can be hazy or largely subjective, unless they are grounded on (measurable) objective criteria.

It is true that like democracy, there is no all agreeable definition on ‘good governance.’ But this ‘imperfection’ is not a reason to cynically discount the value of ‘good governance,’ whatever the reason. There are very clear cut principles and all modern democratic governments are expected to follow these principles. ‘Good governance’ is not just an ‘effective electoral slogan’ to hoodwink the masses and then consider it as a ‘lodestar’ to go to other destinations.

To describe ‘good governance’ as a utopia is simply misleading, whatever the intention. By doing so an enormous distances is unnecessarily created between the present reality and the objectives of ‘good governance.’ To borrow the Marxist terminology, more ‘scientific approach’ needs to be adopted instead of a ‘utopian’ conception, to make the objectives of good governance achievable.

The Case of Sri Lanka

The catalytic change in Sri Lanka in January 2015 came about by promising “A Compassionate ‘Maithri’ Governance.” That was the title of the manifesto (in English). Of course the present government or the President is undoubtedly ‘compassionate’ (relatively) compared to the brutality of the Rajapaksa administration. That is however not enough.

The title of the above manifesto didn’t say directly about ‘good governance.’ However it was synonymous. It didn’t say ‘government,’ but ‘governance.’ Governance means the process of government and not merely the structure or the personnel. The prognosis of the manifesto was correct and it was all about converting ‘bad governance’ into ‘good governance’ as stated follows.

“A large number of deviations such as the total breakdown of the rule of law, fraud, corruption, wastage, inability to identify national priorities, environmental degradation, moral and spiritual degradation have merged as obstacles to our country’s march forward.”

There were clear subtitles or sections on ‘good governance.’ On page 15, it talked about ‘a mechanism to supervise good governance’ with clear cut 10 promises or benchmarks. These didn’t appear ‘utopian’ but achievable targets, if the political will remains and if the leadership doesn’t backtrack.

That was in January. Then came the ‘UNF (Manifesto) for Good Governance’ for the August 2015 general elections in that particular name and title. Even if the President’s manifesto was for ‘compassionate governance,’ this was particularly on ‘good governance.’ It promised a new country in 60 months, and 7 months have already passed. Even giving one month allowance for preparation, this is 1/10 of the time period given.

Of course the main focus of the five point program of the UNF manifesto was on the ‘economy and its efficiency’ with equal focus on ‘fighting corruption and ensuring freedoms.’ In its section three on “Processes of Ensuring Freedoms” it was promised to “integrate the principles of good governance in the state structures in order to further strengthen democracy in the country.” I am not just saying, but quoting. It declared “Good governance institutions shall be the fourth pillar of the state structure” to mean the independent commissions in paragraph 13. It in fact gave an equal status to ‘independent commissions,’ right or wrong, alongside the other three pillars, the legislature, executive and the judiciary.

It is rather commendable that the UNF took ‘good governance’ seriously and announced its objectives very clearly. India is a previous country where ‘good governance’ took a prominent place in election campaigns of the BJP and Narendra Modi. However, this is not unknown to many developing countries particularly in Africa. Mary McNeil and Carmen Malena summarized some of these experiences in their “Demanding Good Governance: Lesson from Social Accountability Initiatives in Africa” (2010). Of course it is a World Bank publication.

The Concept

Before dealing with the concept, it should be noted that the proliferation of new information technology in Sri Lanka – the cell phone, SMS, internet and now the FB – has empowered particularly the youth who demand greater accountability from their political and elected leaders. Although the Rajapaksa regime partially managed to block these communication systems, that is something decisively boomeranged on them among other factors. Hopefully no one will be able to do so in the future. Today the print media also plays a vibrant role in this process, hopefully not in favour of a comeback of the ‘old regime.’

Origins of the concept of good governance is long standing. Although in recent times the sources of the concept are referred to the development and financial institutions like the World Bank, the IMF or the OECD, when Aristotle referred to ‘good polis’ he was talking about conditions that can ensure ‘good governance’ in those conditions. In most recent times, the UN, particularly the UNDP and the Human Rights Council have taken up the same mission. More than any external source, the urge for ‘good governance’ could be considered ingrained in the human nature (humans as political animals), flourishing under the modern favourable circumstances.

With these developments, two major facets have merged one in the ‘development sphere’ and the other in the political or the ‘democracy domain’ with a clear focus on human rights. In the case of Sri Lanka, it appears that people are mostly yearning for ‘good governance’ in the political sphere nevertheless overlapping on the development domain. For the purposes of the present article what can best be quoted is from a statement of the UNESCAP (UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific), titled “What is Good Governance?”

“Good governance has 8 major characteristics. It is participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law. It assumes that corruption is minimized, the views of the minorities are taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. It is also responsive to the present and future needs of society.”

Except for its little pessimistic conclusion, the ESCAP statement very usefully elaborates the 8 major characteristics which can be utilized in assessing the progress or regress of ‘good governance’ in any country.

An Assessment

In my opinion, our ‘Yahapalanaya’ has not taken a reverse cause ‘so far’ although it has stumbled or even blundered on some of the fundamental promises or benchmarks. It can still make a course correction, if there is political will. Mine is not a comprehensive assessment, but some initial impressions. To reiterate, the following are the main characteristics or benchmarks of ‘good governance.’
(1) Participation,
(2) Rule of Law,
(3) Transparency,
(4) Responsiveness,
(5) Consensus Orientation,
(6) Equity and Inclusiveness,
(7) Effectiveness and Efficiency, and
(8) Accountability.

It is obvious that some benchmarks intersect each other and some others might take a longer time to realize or fully realize. However, if some of the fundamentals are properly followed, like ‘democratic participation’ and ‘rule of law,’ others might follow without much difficulty in the political sphere. And even some of the weaknesses might be ‘overlooked’ for the time being for the ‘greater good.’ But this is not exactly the case today.

There are paradoxes in the ‘Yahapalana’ performance. There is a commendable orientation towards ‘consensus politics’ through the UNP-SLFP ‘national unity’ government, but unfortunately at the expense of certain aspects of ‘transparency and accountability.’ The understanding with the TNA is commendable, but it is still lukewarm or indeterminate. The nature of the ‘Mega-Cabinet,’ reminiscent of the Rajapaksa era, not only smacks ‘good governance’ but also has created ‘inefficiency and ineffectiveness’ with considerable economic lethargy and indolence. ‘Good governance’ is not only about politics, but also about economics.

For a dictator, a ‘Mega-Cabinet’ is no issue, but for representative democracy or ‘Yahapalanaya,’ it is a colossal liability. The consequences are already visible.

There is some political ‘transparency.’ But this is mostly forced upon them by the whistle-blowers and the media, than delivered by them willingly. However, on most of the exposed cases, the reactions so far have been ‘responsive.’

The major blot on ‘Yahapalana’ so far in my opinion is the appointment of defeated candidates or the ‘best-losers’ through the backdoor of the national list violating the country’s Constitution. Even if the Constitution is ambiguous on this matter (to me it is not), the ‘Moral Sense’ should have prevailed before doing so. The appointments infringe the basic tenets of our democracy, the Franchise of the People, even under the still authoritarian constitution.

This is why the initiatives by Nagananda Kodituwakku and the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) on the above matter should be supported.

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Latest comments

  • 6

    Thanks to good analysis. As always, I have a greater respect on Dr. Fernando.

    Even if he supported the most babaric regime at the begining, later he turned his mind to chase MR away. But I would never ever respect Mr. Jayathilaka for his performanace as of now.

    Day before y day i happened to listen to what Jayathilaka added to the LANKEN TV – being that pompous about the crowed present to Rajakashe rally held lately. We pefectly know that people of the country… specailly the crowds gather to places in colombo are just onlookers only.. they dont mean to support.. if this was not the case, Rajakshes shold have won the election last time.

    And the fact that Jayathilaka utters not a single word about the high sums of losses made by Rajaaskehs wonders me even today. Why ?

    • 4

      On the contrary, Dr Fernando is [Edited out] his much touted academic “credentials”.

      Yahapalanaya may be utopia or not, but the election promise of the American, British, Canasian, India, NGO led election campaign of 2015 was that they were going to create a Sri Lanka free of corruption, media freedom, and economic prosperity – A utopia by definition.

      Now the cheer leaders of Yahapalanaya like Dr Fernando, after seeing the non-performance on all these fronts by the new gang, must be feeling like the polecat who defeacated on a tin roof!

      No amount of white washing can hide the bad behaviour and theft of people like John Amaratunga, Sodom and Gomorrah created at the foreign ministry, hit and run murders by Champaka Ranawaka and media limits of Ranil Wickremesinghe. THey are no better than the “devil” they promised to replace.

      People like Fernando who are still trying to massage facts like these to promote their own egos should be ashamed of themselves.

    • 1

      Seriously… you havent experienced any barbaric the most darkest days of democracy plunder murder tyre pyres and all those thought provoking fancy words etc prior to the last 10 years !!!

  • 2

    ‘Good Governance is not Utopia!’
    I was mistaken; I thought it was because of the way you all (Yahapalana advocates) described it prior to the two major elections (approx.16 months ago.) Now when everything is upside down you come up with explanations, excuses, and lengthy clarifications.
    Anyways, Thanks for the belated ‘Hatara Hina’ clarification for us, the ignorant reader.
    Can you also please translate your new definition of Yahapalanaya in Sinhala and Tamil and explain it to the agitating and grieving farmers, laborers, doctors, women, school children, and other professionals.You don’t have to explain it to the Colombo business community; they have already experienced it with a series of Utopian budget proposals, low taxes, the appreciating Rupee, and electricity around the clock. They should feel it that way as a matter of fact!
    Unfortunately, during the ‘brightest day in Yahapalanaya’ the Colombo Stock Exchange felt it too well when they were compelled to stop their transactions and used the emergency staircase to come out of the building.
    Since you are a doc (like doc. Harsha the cabinet minister who writes on behalf of all his illiterate cabinet colleagues)could you go and speak to the suffering subjects of the Yahapalanaya, in addition to writing lengthy jokes. Please!

  • 2

    You can Change the Government, but you can’t Change the People.

    We have been Brainwashed to believe that the Sinhala/Buddhist, Rajapakse Government was the Best for Sri Lanka!

    It will indeed be Difficult, to Change this Mindset, into the All- Races-Inclusive Government that Yahapalanaya Envisages.

    • 1

      “the Sinhala/Buddhist, Rajapakse Government was the Best for Sri Lanka.”

      Yes, can’t you see around you and understand that its THE truth.
      Discard your stupid prejudices and compare the current country with the 2009-2115.

      Now can you see the truth? If not, get your brain examined.

  • 1

    The question before us not about definition of good governance. Nor is it about its attainability.
    Slogans and declarations are made to fire the imagination the public, motivate them and set them in motion.

    Complaints about ‘Yahapalanaya’ are of two kinds: one from opponents of the regime. and are essentially subjective. but that is no basis o be dismissive of serious concerns expressed by thgose who expected better from this regime.
    Even if we restricted to go by the “benchmarks of ‘good governance’” enumerated by the writer, namely,
    (1) Participation,
    (2) Rule of Law,
    (3) Transparency,
    (4) Responsiveness,
    (5) Consensus Orientation,
    (6) Equity and Inclusiveness,
    (7) Effectiveness and Efficiency, and
    (8) Accountability.
    How well has the new order performed on each? Not always better than the old one. Even, otherwise, better than before NEED NOT BE GOOD ENOUGH.

    Knowing the way the system has worked in the past several decades, the ones to blame are those who expect anything good to come out of the kind of politics and politicians we have, where even much respected leftists have been bribed to go easy on criticism.

    It is best to pay heed to complaints, even if harsh and unfair, than make excuses.

  • 1

    Dr Fernando states: “The major blot on ‘Yahapalana’ so far in my opinion is the appointment of defeated candidates or the ‘best-losers’ through the backdoor of the national list violating the country’s Constitution.”

    Very true. However, he neglected to mention the nepotism that continues with Yahapalanaya. The initial (and most glaring) one was the appointment of his brother by Maithripala almost soon after his ascendency.

    Others, like Ranatunga’s one, followed soon after.

    The antics of Maithripala’s children and allegations of his daughter’s (and her husband’s) move into businesses that will enable their relationships to attract contracts is also a blot on the ‘good governance’ scenario.

    Time to re-assess and, at the very least, try to reverse these decisions.

    Better late than never, or else ‘Yahapalanaya’ will be just another slogan with absolutely nothing to validate it.

  • 0

    There is a story told that in Lankawe the both Languages has equal usage. A government which is advertising that it will have equal justice for both races has named it as “Yahapalanaya” government. It was claimed that for long time the Tamil translation of the Yahapalanaya government’s election manifesto was not released in Tamil. Everybody knows why a government calls it as “Yahapalanaya” government sang the Sinhala Song’s translation in Tamil in colombo. One has to wonder if the translation of “Yahapalanaya” means “Rapist Army Protectors”. Because the only different thing Yahapalanaya government has done so far is protecting effectively the “every leader, every commander and every soldier” of the war criminals of Rapist army as they promised in the election time. Old royal thought UNHRC had come closer to put them on electric chair and ran away leaving the power behind. Other than that, Yahapalanaya Government has not done anything different from the Old Royals. There is no other element is present to evaluate why this is New Royals are Yahapalanaya, but the Old Royals isn’t. That is why for Tamils, as the government does not like to have its name used in Tamils, Yahapalanaya means protectors of Rapist Army.

  • 0

    Nice article Dr Fernando.

    By the time I got to end, all I could think of was my MP singing

    I Talk in everlasting words
    And dedicate them all to you
    And I will give you all my life
    if you should ever call to me to

    You think that I don’t even mean
    A single word I say

    It’s only words, and words are all I have
    To take your vote away

  • 0

    Laksiri Fernando

    It is good governance, not good government.

    Good Governance is expected not only by the government but also by the private Sector and the civil society including NGOs.

    But the government is required to spearhead and set an example for others to follow, Again as rightly pointed out it has to be measured not on absolute terms, but relatively by degrees.

    It is a process, never static, always dynamic and in constant motion.
    One bad move spoils everything. Let us be always optimistic. The performance of the civil society is rather disappointing. They must be the watchdog and proactive.

    But the example you quote for bad governance is not really valid. I am referring to the defeated candidates being appointed to the National List.it has a long history, it started with Mr A. Amirthalingam being appointed to the national list by TULF soon after the election in 1989.

    Hence the present government is not the sole culprit, they followed the numerous precedents set by others.

    However the question is whether the present government is really promoting good governance?

    Eternal vigilance by the people is the necessary and sufficient condition to ensure that the government is in the right track!

  • 0

    Excellent article as always by this author.

    What action by CPA is referred to here please:
    ”This is why the initiatives by Nagananda Kodituwakku and the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) on the above matter should be supported.”

  • 0

    What else so-called “good governance” is an Utopian of bourgeoisie democracy ,you do not believed, that after change line of political thinking .

    You are with and back by UNP-Ranil.W… MS and rotten politics of CBK of Neo-colonialist of New trend of SLFP.

    Under the system of capitalism “good governance” is Utopian politics, it want change under any rulers in power in state -Sri lanka

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