By Udan Fernando –
Chairperson – Transparency International Sri Lanka, the Chief Guest, the Executive Director – Transparency International Sri Lanka, Ladies and gentlemen.
I consider it an honour to deliver the keynote address reviewing the latest Governance Report by Transparency International Sri Lanka. I thank you for this invitation. It’s a pleasure to be part of this gathering where you launch this report.
Let me make a general remark before I do my job proper.
Nobody — including the government, corporate or non-governmental organisaitons (NGOs) — are against governance as a concept, even good governance. Anybody would embrace it; subscribe to it. Some would even uphold it as a value, a standard and a norm.
[Indian example Modi slogan: minimum government, maximum governance]
Governance is not understood or misunderstood as a ‘foreign’, ‘western’ conspiratorial idea to destabilise the country. As such, there is reasonable consensus in society about the value of the concept. However, it becomes a problem when one questions the practice of governance. Such an effort can be construed as being conspiratorial. Therefore, assessing governance is a dangerous minefield to tread. One can easily be branded as a traitor or a betrayer, and the consequences can sometimes be dangerous. Against such a backdrop, bringing out a report on governance, dwelling on some touchy issues and crucial dimensions of the practice of governance is indeed a brave act. Therefore, Transparency International Sri Lanka needs to be congratulated for its commitment to speak out when a great majority is not speaking either out of fear or due to self-censorship.
My task, here this afternoon, is to give a brief review of the report.
Let me begin it in this way…
The report is called Sri Lanka Governance Report 2012/13. It carries seven chapters preceded by a preface that gives the background details and provides an introduction to the chapters. The chapters cover various themes pertaining to governance. The preface calls these ‘thematic areas of governance’. These themes are related to particular trends and incidents in Sri Lanka. As such, the report is well grounded on the realities and context in Sri Lanka. Therefore, it is not an abstract academic exercise in which issues are discussed at a conceptual level. I don’t suggest that a conceptual discussion per se is bad. Because of the rootedness, particularity and specificity, one cannot question legitimacy of this report.
The first chapter, after a short paragraph on defining governance, provides an overview of status of governance status. As part of this overview, the first chapter identifies 8 issues. Some of these issues are elaborated in further chapters. I will not go into details of the individual chapters. Rather, I would like to make some general observations, remarks and comments.
Governance is often understood as an abstract, and even an ambiguous and vague one. Therefore how can one assess it?
Assessing and Measuring governance is inherently a controversial and political exercise. I think we need to bear this mind. It is controversial and political because there is a great deal of normative considerations inherent in the very concept. Governance essentially and often involves sites or domains of power and authority which are vested in government, judiciary, bureaucracy, etc. These institutions have their own logic to perpetuate authority, stick on to power and vested interests to justify what they do or don’t do. Therefore, contestation, defence and denial are part and parcel of the response from such organizations. In Sri Lanka victimisation could also be possible for those who raise governance issues.
Methodologically, it is also a challenging task. Under methodology, defining and framing governance is crucial if you are following a sound scientific method. But it’s not an easy task because governance is a complex concept and therefore finding a universally accepted definition is not easy. I observed that this report had gone through the same experience. The report uses a definition in its first chapter from Kofi Annan which is rather broad and therefore covers practically everything under the sun! I don’t think that such a broad definition helps us to do justice to a study of this nature.
What you have tried to do is not really ‘measure’ governance but to do a general assessment by way of compiling a few essays on themes that you deem important and related to governance. And you have assigned various authors to write these essays.
I have the following comments that I would call constructive feedback.
If you claim that this report is a ‘premier publication of governance in Sri Lanka’, then you need to give thought to some of this feedback.
- Framing and demarcating governance. Governance is not just government and its agencies. Governance can also be of corporate institutions, NGOs, etc. What’s your demarcation? What’s your boundary? If you choose that it’s the government – and that’s fine – then you need to frame it further by defining the kind of institutions and processes that you are watching. The institutions could include the public administration, local government agencies and the judiciary.
- From a report of this stature, one would expect a methodological justification. You need to acknowledge the choices you have made – as opposed to others – and explain and justify why you do so. The methodological emphasis and rigour is relatively low in this report.
- It is up to you to decide whether you should follow a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods. Quantitative methods entail indices. This helps you to maintain consistency on what you observe over a period of time and it also allows comparison, even between countries.
- The lack of a conceptualisation and framework would lead the report to be labeled as subjective, arbitrary and even partisan and biased. Now, I must say that I am not a die-hard positivist who’s waving flag for objectivity. As I said before, governance is a normative consideration, therefore a position of a group matters. The position can be informed by the values, convictions, ethics and beliefs of the concerned organisation. However, having a sound framework would not make you sacrifice your norms. Instead, the framework would make your statement even stronger.
- The need to be more analytical and less descriptive. I am aware that I am making a sweeping statement here. For instance, the chapter on the impeachment of the Chief Justice. The chapter gives the full story, almost like a ball-to-ball commentary. It is only in the very last section that the lacunae in the law relating to impeachment is emphasised.
These are my comments. I hope you will receive them in the same spirit I offer them.
My comments do not discount the value of the essays. I am aware that the essays have been written by a panel of eminent people. I do not dispute their competence and qualifications. In fact, they need to be congratulated for their respective contributions. The bios of authors, appearing at the end of the book suggest that you have got the best.
In conclusion, I would say, that the very commitment to publish a report of this nature should be appreciated. It is indeed a bold gesture you make in a society which is characterised by fear to speak out, apathy and resignation. The report gives us a glimmer of hope that there are brave organisations, groups and individuals cannot be completely suppressed.
Once again, I congratulate you on launching this important publication. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to review your report.
*Speech/Review by Dr. Udan Fernando at the ceremony to launch the Sri Lanka Governance Report 2012-2013, at BMICH on 29th May, 2014.