Colombo Telegraph

Only Citizens, Civil Society, Media & Judiciary Can Assure Yahapālanaya!

By Chandra Jayaratne

Chandra Jayaratne

The solemn pledge of fostering ‘Yahapalanaya’- Good Governance-, was the key political commitment that led to the regime changes of January and August 2015. Voters defied the pressures before them to rally round and vote for the realization of a dream; a dream of enjoying sustainably the national resources, within a structure of governance that upheld peace, harmony, equity, inclusiveness, anti-corruption and rule of law as cornerstones of good governance. These good governance principles were to be the first priority of the executive, legislature, and the judiciary.

The shattering of such dreams began with the bond scam of 2015. The coming to light of continuing conflicts of interests, related party transactions and the violations of the rule of law, for personal benefits and in search of political aspirations/connections have left the citizens totally disillusioned.

The news reports of Sirasa/Shakthi/MTV island wide survey under “Sri Lanka Free against Corruption” project, reflects clearly the undisputed citizen’s assessment, of the state affairs of governance then and now and the non delivery of the promise by the ‘Yahapalanaya’ by the regime elected by the votes of citizens. The citizens’ comments clearly presents what should be done to correct the unacceptable governance regime fostered on them by the political leaders, legislators, the executive and their henchpersons. They even suggest the use of a polpiththa (a baton) to threaten and beat up errant politicians and officials.

The Good Governance Guide describes good governance as follows:

WHAT IS GOOD GOVERNANCE?

Good governance is about the processes for making and implementing decisions. It’s not about making ‘correct’ decisions, but about the best possible process for making those decisions.

Good decision-making processes, and therefore good governance, share several characteristics. All have a positive effect on various aspects of local government including consultation policies and practices, meeting procedures, service quality protocols, councillor and officer conduct, role clarification and good working relationships.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN CHARACTERISTICS OF GOOD GOVERNANCE?

Good governance is accountable

Accountability is a fundamental requirement of good governance. Local government has an obligation to report, explain and be answerable for the consequences of decisions it has made on behalf of the community it represents.

Good governance is transparent

People should be able to follow and understand the decision-making process. This means that they will be able to clearly see how and why a decision was made – what information, advice and consultation council considered, and which legislative requirements (when relevant) council followed.

Good governance follows the rule of law

This means that decisions are consistent with relevant legislation or common law and are within the powers of council. In the case of Victorian local government, relevant legislation includes the Local Government Act 1989 and other legislation such as the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008, and the Equal Opportunity Act 2010.

Good governance is responsive

Local government should always try to serve the needs of the entire community while balancing competing interests in a timely, appropriate and responsive manner.

Good governance is equitable and inclusive

A community’s wellbeing results from all of its members feeling their interests have been considered by council in the decision-making process. This means that all groups, particularly the most vulnerable, should have opportunities to participate in the process.

Good governance is effective and efficient

Local government should implement decisions and follow processes that make the best use of the available people, resources and time to ensure the best possible results for their community.

Good governance is participatory

Anyone affected by or interested in a decision should have the opportunity to participate in the process for making that decision. This can happen in several ways – community members may be provided with information, asked for their opinion, given the opportunity to make recommendations or, in some cases, be part of the actual decision-making process.

A news report in Sunday Times of 20th August 2017 refers to “The Government will construct 50,000 brick and mortar type houses in the Northern and Eastern Provinces under a new project….The prospective owners will decide the kind of housing they prefer…..  issues related to housing in the North were a priority issue since thousands were rendered homeless – the result of the separatist war. During a visit to the North, Premier Wickremesinghe said the people in the area had told him they preferred brick-and-mortar houses and not prefabricated ones.”

The above purported government decision and action can be a good case study to demonstrate, how to assure good governance within a third world Asian democracy and support the hypothesis that Only Citizens, Civil Society, Media and Judiciary Can Assure ‘Yahapalanaya’!

A large number of homeless persons of the North and East, who became homeless due to the conflict and war, yet remained in that state; and outside the reach of the government initiated housing programmes. This situation was despite the ready hand of humanitarian assistance offered by the international community led by the Indian government, the international and local NGO’s, the Diaspora and philanthropists. Their needs were not being attended to with speed and meeting their specific needs

Following a visit to Sri Lanka by a VIP business leader, the Minister responsible for Re-settlement, proposed a purported magic wand created dream of a solution, obviously made from an ivory tower looking at a mirror, with the solution fitting the needs of decision makers and their business contacts, and certainly not the impacted homeless householders. The Minister, his coterie of supporters, and even professionals and advisors, tried their utmost using various strategies and tactics, to push through a non transparent deal, possibly tainted by conflicts of interests and related party interests.

The proposed solution was unacceptable to the homeless householders, as it did not deliver a house fitting their environmental needs and challenges, customs, traditions and living conditions desired by householders, and especially the need to preserve value intact for generations to follow. Sweeteners offered by way of internet, TV s and furniture and fittings as added benefits, did not move the prospective householders and it only showed the margins built in to the deal sufficient to finance these added benefits.

The peoples’ needs were consistently highlighted and the deal opposed by the political leaders representing the people affected and they organized consultations, public demonstrations, appeals, and even legal action.

The civil society developed an alternative proposal which was in line with the time tested solution in form, structure and implementation process. This proposal also met all the values and needs of the impacted householders. This solution was backed up by a financing proposal from an investment bank, with funding sources entirely raised in Sri Lanka, as against the original proposal of long term commercial loan backed solution of the Minister. Further the civil society proposal mitigated the long term foreign exchange rate led risks and their solution was designed to enhance participative decision making and oversight and above all options for significant local value addition and livelihood options for people of the region without such opportunities. Lastly, this solution was assessed as superior by technical specialists and was to cost the state approximately 60% of the costs incurred with the imported pre-fabricated structures.

The alternative proposal was attempted to be blocked on various counts, some of which were total misrepresentations and others like the lack of capacity, lack of local materials and labour were only obvious red herrings.

The impacted citizens, whenever an opportunity arose, during the visits of political leaders to the relevant areas, made their opposition to the undemocratic and unacceptable solution clearly articulated. The local people’s representatives took a principled stand and consistently articulated their opposition, expressing the voice of the people. Caring media and civil society were also relentless in their critique and advocacy.

Whilst accommodating the egos of connected politicians and possible non transparent commitments with a partial order to the favoured foreign supplier, a partially acceptable solution appears now ready to be progressed. The impacted persons in this solution may yet be at the mercy of local contractors, as international NGO’s with expertise and commitment to assure quality outcomes and provide participatory links to the affected householders are missing as stakeholders in the proposed structure.

The lesson from this case study is that, without consistent vigilance, voice of advocacy, public pressure, demonstrations, naming and shaming, ‘sathyagraha’ campaigns, holding political masters and the executive to account and voting out or recalling elected representatives (when permitted by the Constitution) leveraging collective initiatives of citizens, civil society and media (including judicial interventions where appropriate), no set of politicians and the executives  will ever abide by Yahapanaya- Good Governance guidelines described earlier.

In order that the remaining critical promises are delivered by the political masters, the citizens, civil society and media, must next focus their attention to develop collective strategic actions, in advocating for following essential reforms:

1. By necessary Constitutional amendments 

a) take away the present rights of Ministers to subject the Secretaries of Ministries, (who are the Chief Accounting Officer of the Ministries)  to issue directions and control the management of the affairs of the Ministries and exercise / interfere in the supervision over the departments of government and other institutions and engage in decisions connected with recruitment, transfers and disciplinary action of officers in the Ministries

b) Permit a system of recall of legislators in line with best practices

c) Empower the Auditor General to Audit all state enterprises and their subsidiaries

2. Adopt early the National Audit Bill including therein provisions empowering the Auditor General to impose surcharges on the chief accounting officers of Ministries

3. Adopt Codes of Ethics and Conduct biding the Cabinet  and the legislators including therein provisions covering declarations of interests and related party transactions and setting out mandatory individual collective responsibilities of the cabinet and legislators

4. Adopt essential reforms to update and strengthen the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Act and Bribery and Corruption Act,

5. Enact a Proceeds of Crime Act with Provision for Unexplained Wealth Orders

6. Ensure all professionals and employees in the public and private sectors are bound by codes of ethics and conduct that require them to report on Non Compliance With Laws and Regulations and give such whistle blowers full protection under the Whistle Blower and Witness Protection Laws

The case study under reference must also raise amber light signals in the eyes of politicians and the executive that where the citizens, civil society and media are alert, they have little chance to ‘doosra’ the public with bad governance.

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