Colombo Telegraph

Good Governance Is Not A Utopia!

By 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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