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Sri Lanka: Searching for credible reformist

In this election what matters is not what promises are made by the candidates. But how credible their promises are given the past performance?


by Siri Gamage

It is the election season again in Sri Lanka. As usual before an election, candidates contesting to be the President are coming up with diagnosis of the problems facing the country and various solutions. Past experience shows that such promises remain only promises after the elections. Voters get frustrated with continuing difficulties they face due to the failures of governance. In this election, there seem to be a higher awareness about the plight of the nation in economic, political and social terms as revealed by the political platforms and slogans of all candidates, in particular those who are labelled as alternative to mainstream parties. Among others, problematic situations exist in fields such as the economy including production and marketing, polity (corruption and nepotism in political culture), education, health, justice and transport. A crucial aspect in this election therefore is which candidate presents the most credible reformist agenda? Credibility should be based not only on what is stated in the current platforms as promises but also the past performance.


Reforms in these fields can be divided into two segments: 1) short term and ongoing, 2) structural and long term. Institutions established for governance purposes to deal with various affairs need continuing reforms for efficiency, updating, re-orienting to meet current challenges and harness current opportunities. It is part of modern management practice. For a government as well as institutions affiliated to it, living within means is a prime responsibility. Pumping money to maintain some institutions when they overspend their budget allocations via supplementary proposals is not a good step-unless such proposals pertain to priority areas such as emergency services. Even in the economic sphere, it is reported that the country spends more that it generates in terms of national income to maintain government structure, its key personnel, and public services. It is also reported that there is a significant gap between the exports and imports in the sense that we import more than we export. Even items that can be produced within the country are being imported including basic food items. If this is so, something has gone wrong in terms of the national economic policy or the lack of it. Agricultural products can be produced in the country with necessary infrastructure, incentives and other facilities. If we look at Thailand for example, exporting vegetables and fruits is a multibillion dollar enterprise.I do not have to elaborate on what is wrong in the political system and culture as various candidates have been discussing this subject for some time prior to the election.

In terms of the politics and the role of main parties in the process of gaining power and exercising it after forming governments, there are many questions in the minds of the educated and not so educated public. Representative nature of the whole process has become an issue not only in Sri Lanka but also in advanced democracies. Party loyalty seems to play an overriding role in national and provincial affairs whereas the average citizen is left out from exerting any influence on elected representatives after the elections. In a country where the population is accustomed to listening rather than active /critical thinking, this situation has even become dire. Even the education system does not seem to inculcate a sense of citizen rights as it used to be in the past.While there are multiple layers of governance structures and personalities associated with these, the person seeking solutions for various problems have to undergo delay, lack of response, and frustration from service organisations including Pradesheeya Sabha. The operational system in most fields is such that to obtain a given service or to get out of a problem (e.g. traffic offences) one has to approach someone with power.

Thus, what we find is that on one hand there are established institutions by governments with tremendous level of expenditure, one has to rely on personal contacts or offering bribes to obtain the expected service in practical terms. This is unacceptable in modern society where as a country we have to move forward along with other nations in the region. In public and private organisations in developed countries, they employ frontline customer service personnel to solve such issues. While regular staff perform their duties, a properly trained person meets customers and ask about the purpose of his/her visit. Then he/she directs the customer to the appropriate staff. This can be seen in banks and government offices. Such steps can cut through delays, waste and miscommunications. Such measures require capacity development and enlightenment of institutional and political leaders.Structural reforms in institutions and their cultures require much more than employing customer service officers to meet and greet customers. Since independence we have established various institutions to manage governance task. Likewise, public service system is also in place with various changes. To my knowledge, no stock taking has occurred about the efficiency or otherwise of these institutions, their objectives and functions.

Ministers seem to consider the institutions under their control as feathers in their caps and in some instances as milking cows or personal fiefdoms rather than vehicles that are designed to achieve particular objectives under a national vision. Thus, some institutions have overgrown their purposes. Others have become liabilities on the national budget. If there is a serious review, some can be amalgamated, others abolished or truncated in terms of size and composition. Though the Prime Minister is an educated and experienced politician, I am not sure even he has implemented a rationalisation process in the governance institutions? During the recent past, it seems that we have lost our soul in the way the country is moving.

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While an unacceptable level of foreign debt has been incurred in the name of national development (some say for consumer purposes as well), complications and problems have multiplied as can be seen from the spread of drugs and crimes, breakdown of governance and deterioration of civic values and norms of behaviour, mutual respect and recognition. The factors that bind people together have been devalued and factors that divide have come to the fore. The gap between the rich and poor has increased tremendously. The top layer of society including the political class live lavish lifestyle costing millions to the tax payer while the middle class and those below are struggling to survive. In this context, ‘external orientation’ has become paramount to solve national, community and individual problems. Governments seek external solutions to domestic problems rather than exploring indigenous or local solutions. In this exercise, more and more dependencies are created. Communities and their organisations seek external support to solve their problems at the grassroots level. Thus, various NGOs have emerged for specific purposes.

Individuals are seeking education, migration and employment as a way to improve their personal stock. Education is highly oriented to external dependencies and educationists are also dependent on external knowledge and knowledge providers including those who provide English medium education via international agencies. Whereas a national education policy ought to be based on indigenous needs, imperatives, values and norms rather than the needs of external agencies, our educational policy especially at higher education level, seems to be oriented towards credentialism (granting degree certificates) rather than creativity and innovation. The latter should be a key plank of national development. The continuing brain drain is a net loss to the country but no serious plans or strategies are in place to address this situation.Even the problems in the health sector require fresh thinking, reforms and innovative ideas to make it more attuned with the needs of people. The habit of everybody seeking specialist consultations in the first sign of having a flu and obtaining loads of antibiotics is an example of what is wrong with the system in place. Overcrowding and delays in the public hospital system is evident everywhere. This affects patients as well as doctors.

Private sector involvement is necessary but the costs are beyond the reach of average Lankans. As some candidates explain, what we need is not more and more buildings but efficient services. Even in a country like Australia, residents of rural and regional areas away from major cities face various problems in the health sector. But governments come up with practical solutions including the employment of foreign doctors on contract basis. Development of regional hospitals with enhanced facilities and specialists is another step taken. Efficient ambulance service is also available.These are some aspects that need consideration by the voters when it comes to deciding who to vote this time. Equally policy makers and those supporting various candidates need to give attention to reforming existing structures, institutional cultures etc. in order to create better managed services for the people who have diverse needs depending on their personal circumstances. If everyone is pushed toward politicians or their affiliates by the systems and structures in place to find solutions to personal or community problems, it is going to create more frustrations and even alienation and migration. Managing our resources, including human resources, ought to be of paramount importance.

Selection and promotion methods, as well as incentives, need to be fair and reasonable to meet living expenses. Working people need to feel a sense of belonging and pride in their professions rather than being dictated to by the ministers or their executives. Therefore, in this election what matters is not what promises are made by the candidates. But how credible their promises are given the past performance? Voters need to look at the options available through various candidates carefully before making a judgement about who to vote for. The decision this time can alter the course of history in the country much more so than during the past 71 years.

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