Kasturi’s Progress: 1933 – 2017

W D K (Kasturiratne) Gunawardene as a young man (left) and at 80

Kasturi was born in another century in what now feels like an entirely different country. It was called Ceylon, a British colony, and the year was 1933.

Kasturi’s was a very ordinary life, which was mostly dedicated to education. But it was punctuated at various points by key events of his country and people. Tracing his life thus offers us some glimpses of his nation’s turbulent times.

At age two, he survived malaria during the major epidemic of 1933-35 which killed as estimated 80,000 to 100,000 Lankans. (He lived to see malaria being eradicated from Sri Lanka by 2016.)

At nine, he saw the Japanese air raid of Colombo and suburbs (1942), and lived through the various rations, restrictions and disruptions of World War II.

At 15, as a schoolboy he walked to Colombo’s Torrington square to personally bear witness to Ceylon becoming independent (1948). The following day, he wrote the best essay in class in which he outlined high hopes and dreams for his now self-governing nation.

At 20, he entered the University of Ceylon and was among the first students to experience the newly established Peradeniya campus where he studied history and Sinhala language. From the scenic hills, he would see the political transformation of 1956, as well as the cultural revival heralded by Maname (landmark Sinhala drama) and Rekava (landmark Sinhala movie).

At 25, as a fresh graduate entering the world, he witnessed the 1958 ethnic riots that foreshadowed the Sinhala-Tamil ethnic conflict that consumed his nation for the next half century. Among much else, it evaporated young Kasturi’s dreams of an inter-racial marriage.

At 50, as a teacher and father, he saw the far worse anti-Tamil pogrom of 1983. For the next quarter century, he would watch in horror — and guilt — as his generation’s collective blunders consumed the next generation’s future.

At 76, as a senior citizen still active in social work and literacy circles, he saw Sri Lanka’s civil war being ended brutally (2009). He had the audacity to hope once more, even if only cautiously. And yet again, his and many others’ hopes were dashed as political opportunism and corruption soon trumped over true healing and nation building. The nation was polarised beyond recognition.

At 82, he voted for a common opposition candidate (January 2015) and for political parties (Aug 2015) who pledged good governance (yaha-palanaya). That was his last public gesture, after having voted at all national elections during his time, and having spent 25 years as a public servant. He played by all the rules, but was let down by the system.

At 84, as he coped with a corroding cancer, Kasturi watched in dismay the much-touted promise of yaha-palana being squandered and betrayed. On 13 September 2017, he departed as a deeply disappointed man who remained highly apologetic for many wrong-turns taken by his generation.

Kasturi isn’t a figment of my imagination. Neither is he a composite character. Until yesterday, Kasturi was all too real. He was my father, whom we returned to the Earth today at a simple funeral. – Nalaka Gunawardene

Note: An earlier, and longer version of this was published in May 2014, and can be accessed at: http://groundviews.org/2014/05/07/kasturis-progress/

 

Nalaka Gunawardene (left) and his father Kasturiratne Gunawardene on the latter’s 83rd birthday, on 5 February 2016

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[op-ed] Disaster Management in Sri Lanka: Never say ‘Never Again’?

Text of my op-ed article published in Weekend Express newspaper on 2 June 2017

In Sri Lanka, never say  ‘never again’?

By Nalaka Gunawardene

 

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera

Never Again!

We as a nation collectively uttered these words as we raised our heads after the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004. That mega-disaster, which caught our government unawares and society unprepared, devastated many coastal areas, killing around 40,000 and displacing over a million people.

Even a 30 minute early warning could have saved many of those lost lives, by simply asking them to run inland, away from the waves. But there was no such warning.

Badly shaken by that experience, the then government reformed disaster related laws and institutions. Until then, dealing with disaster response was lumped under social services. The new system created a dedicated ministry for disaster management, with emphasis on disaster risk reduction (DRR).

Living amidst multiple hazards is unavoidable, but preparedness can vastly reduce impacts when disasters do occur. That is DRR in a nutshell.

But in immature democracies like ours, we must never say never again. Our political parties and politicians lack the will and commitment required to meet these long-term objectives. Our governance systems are not fully capable of keeping ourselves safe from Nature’s wrath.

Disaster resilience is not a technocratic quick fix but the composite outcome of a myriad actions. Good governance is the vital ‘lubricant’ that makes everything come together and work well. Without governance, we risk slipping back into business as usual, continuing our apathy, greed and short-termism.

This big picture level reality could well be why disaster response has been patchy and uncoordinated in both May 2016 and last week.

Fundamental issues

As the flood waters recede in affected parts of Sri Lanka, familiar questions are being asked again. Did the government’s disaster management machinery fail to warn the communities at risk? Or were the hazard warnings issued but poorly communicated? And once disaster occurred, could the relief response have been better handled? Are we making enough use of technological tools?

These are valid questions that deserve honest answers and wide ranging debate. But having been associated with disaster communication for a quarter century, I get a strong sense of déjà vu when I hear them.

Finger pointing won’t get us very far, even though public anger is justified where governmental lapses are evident. We need to move beyond the blame game to identify core issues and then address them.

In my view, two high level issues are climate resilience and improved governance.

DRR is easier said than done in the best of times, and in recent years human-made climate change has made it much harder. Global warming is disrupting familiar weather patterns and causing more frequent and intense weather. What used to be weather extremes occurring once in 25 or 50 years in the past now happens every few years.

Climate imperatives

The UN’s climate panel (IPCC) says that global average temperatures could rise by somewhere between 2 degree and 6 degrees Centigrade by 2100. This would trigger many disruptions, including erratic monsoons, the seasonal oceanic winds that deliver most of our annual rains.

Sri Lanka has been oscillating between droughts and floods during the past few years. This time, in fact, both disasters are happening concurrently. This week, the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) confirmed that more than 440,500 people in the Northern Province are adversely affected due by the severe drought that had persisted over many months.

That is more than two thirds of the total number of 646,500 people affected by floods and landslides in the South, as counted on June 1. But slowly-unfolding droughts never get the kind of press that floods inspire.

One thing is clear: disaster management can succeed today only if climate realities are factored in. And coping with climate change’s now inevitable impacts, a process known as climate adaptation, requires technical knowledge combined with proper governance of both natural resources and human systems.

Sri Lanka: Not only oscillating between droughts and floods, but now also having both disasters at the same time. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera

Adapt or Perish

Sri Lanka joined the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992. But 25 years on, climate considerations are not fully factored into our development planning and public investments. State agencies in charge of roads, railways, irrigation works and utilities don’t appear to realise the need to ‘insure’ their installations and operations from climate impacts.

Climate adaptation is not something that the disaster ministry and DMC alone can accomplish. It needs to be a common factor that runs across the entire government, from agriculture and health to power and transport. It needs to be the bedrock of DRR.

In the wake of the latest disaster, technical agencies are highlighting the need to upgrade their systems by acquiring costly equipment. Yet massive big money or high tech systems alone cannot ensure public safety or create resilience.

We need aware and empowered local communities matched by efficient local government bodies. This combination has worked well, for example, in the Philippines, now hailed as a global leader in DRR.

See also:

Better Governance: The Biggest Lesson of 2004 Tsunami. Groundviews.org, 26 Dec 2009.

Nalaka Gunawardene is a science writer and independent media researcher. He is active on Twitter as @NalakaG

[Op-ed] April Fools, All Year Round? A Call for Fact-Checking Our Media & Politics

Text of my op-ed article published in Weekend Express newspaper on 7 April 2017.

April Fools All Year Round? Op-ed by Nalaka Gunawardene, Weekend Express, 7 April 2017

April Fools, All Year Round?

By Nalaka Gunawardene

April 1 is observed in many countries as a day for fooling people with practical jokes and harmless fabrications. This aspect of popular culture can be traced back to the times of ancient Greece.

There is now a new twist to this tradition. Every day is beginning to feel like April Fools’ Day in the age of Internet pranks, clever satire and fake news!

Sadly, many among us who apply some measure of skepticism on April 1 are not as vigilant for the rest of the year.

Ah, how I miss the time when intentional misleading was largely confined to just one day. I’m old enough to remember how some Lankan newspapers used to carry elaborate – and seemingly plausible – stories on their front pages on April Fools’ day. The now defunct Sun and Weekend excelled in that delightful art of the tall tale. Of course, they owned up the following day, poking fun at readers who were fooled.

During the past two decades, our media landscape has become a great deal more diverse. Today we have 24/7 SMS news services, all-news TV channels, numerous websites and, of course, millions using social media to spread information (or misinformation) instantaneously.

But does more necessarily mean better? That is a highly debatable question. We seem to have too much media, but not enough journalism! At least journalism of the classical kind where facts are sacred and comment is free (yet informed).

That kind of journalism still exists, but along with so much else. Today’s global cacophony has democratized the media (which is to be celebrated). At the same time, it spawned veritable cottage industries of fake news, conspiracy theories and gossip peddlers.

Image source – American Journalism Review, 21 April 2015

Fact checking

What is to be done? The long term solution is to raise media literacy skills in everyone, so that people consume media and social media with due diligence.

That takes time and effort. Since misinformation is polluting the public mind and even undermining democratic processes, we must also look for other, faster solutions.

One such coping strategy is fact checking. It literally means verifying information – before or after publication – in the media.

In a growing number of countries, mainstream media outlets practise fact checking as an integral part of their commitment to professionalism. They seek to balance accuracy with speed, which has been made more challenging by the never-ending news cycle.

In other cases, independent researchers or civil society groups are keeping track of news media content after publication. In the United States, where the practice is well developed, several groups are devoted to such post-hoc fact checking. These include FactCheck, PolitiFact, and NewsTrust’s Truth Squad. They fact check the media as well as statements by politicians and other public figures.

In 2015, fact checking organisations formed a world network and this year, they observed the inaugural International Fact Checking Day.

Not coincidentally, the chosen date was April 2. (See details at: http://factcheckingday.com)

The initiative is a collaboration by fact checkers and journalism organisations from around the world, “with a goal to enlist the public in the fight against misinformation in all its forms.”

“International Fact Checking Day is not a single event but a rallying cry for more facts — and fact checking — in politics, journalism and everyday life,” says Alexios Mantzarlis, director of the International Fact-Checking Network at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies in the US.

Oops!

Pinocchios

One visual icon for the Fact-Checking Day is Pinocchio, the fictional puppet character whose nose grew long each time he uttered a lie.

We in Sri Lanka urgently need a professional, non-partisan fact checking service to save us from the alarming proliferation of Pinocchios in public life. Not just our politicians, but also many academics and activists who peddle outdated statistics, outlandish claims or outright conspiracy theories.

Take, for example, the recent claim by a retired professor of political science that 94 Members of Parliament had not even passed the GCE Ordinary Level exam. Apparently no one asked for his source at the press conference (maybe because it fed a preconceived notion). Later, when a (rare?) skeptical journalist checked with him, he said he’d “read it in a newspaper some time ago” — and couldn’t name the publication.

A simple Google search shows that an MP (Buddhika Pathirana) had cited this exact number in September 2014 – about the last Parliament!

Given the state of our media, which often takes down dictation rather than asks hard questions, fact checking is best done by a research group outside the media industry.

A useful model could be South Asia Check, an independent, non-partisan initiative by Panos South Asia anchored in Kathmandu. It “aims to promote accuracy and accountability in public debate” by examining statements and claims made by public figures in Nepal and occasionally, across South Asia (http://southasiacheck.org).

See also: Getting it Right: Fact-Checking in the Digital Age: American Journalism Review, 21 April 2015

South Asia Check – home page captured on 10 April 2017

Nalaka Gunawardene is a science writer and independent media researcher. He is active on Twitter as @NalakaG

#NewConstLK: ව්‍යවස්ථාව හරියට හදා ගනිමු – ලක් වැසි සැමට රැකවරණය සළසමු!

Nalaka Gunawardene sums up why a new Constitution is needed for Sri Lanka. Purawesi Balaya video, April 2017

 

I have just recorded a short (3.5 min) video for Purawesi Balaya (Citizen Power) advocacy group as part of their citizens’ campaign demanding a new Constitution for Sri Lanka to replace the existing one adopted in 1978.

Here is what I say (not a verbatim transcript, but an approximation):

ව්‍යවස්ථාව හරියට හදා ගනිමු! ලක් වැසි සැමට රැකවරණය සළසමු

ව්‍යවස්ථාව යනු රටක ඉහළම නීතියයි. උත්තරීතර නීතියයි.

එය හරියට හදා ගැනීම රටේ නිසි රාජ්‍ය පාලනයට, නීතියේ ආධිපත්‍යයට මෙන්ම ප්‍රජාතන්ත්‍රවාදයට ද ඉතා වැදගත්.

උපමිතියකින් මෙය පැහැදිළි කළොත්, රාජ්‍යය නිවෙසක් නම් ව්‍යවස්ථාව යනු එහි වහලයයි.

නිවසේ කෙතරම් විසිතුරු හා වටිනා බඩු තිබුණත්, නිවැසියන් කෙතරම් අගනා ඇඳුම් ඇන්දත් හරිහමන් වහලයක් නැත්නම් සියල්ල නිරාවරණය වෙලා. ඒ කියන්නේ නිවැසියන් හා එහි සියල්ල අනතුරේ!

ශ්‍රී ලංකා රාජ්‍යයේ දැන් පවතින ‘වහලය’ කල් පැන ගිය එකක්. බොහෝ සිදුරු හා පළුදු සහිතයි. සමහර ජන කොටස්වලට හා සුළුතරයන්ට රැකවරණය හොඳටම මදි. සියලු ජනයා යම් යම් ලෙසින් අන්නරක්ෂිතයි.

අපි කුමක් කරමුද?

පරණ වූ ‘වහලය’ තැනින් තැන සිදුරු වසමින් සිටිමුද?

වසින වෙලාවට ලීක් වන තැන්වල යටින් බාල්දි තබමින්, දුව පනිමින් කල් ගෙවමුද?

නැත්නම් වහලයක් අලුතෙන්ම හදා ගනිමුද?

වහලයක් ගසන්නේ පරම්පරාවක් දෙකක් කල් පවතින්න. අලුත් ව්‍යවස්ථාවක් හදන්නෙත් එලෙසම හොඳට කලක් වැඩ ගන්නයි.

එසේ හදන විට පැරණි වැරදිම දැන දැන යළිත් කරනවාද? මෙයයි අප හමුවේ තිබෙන තීරණාත්මක අභියෝගය.

සිතන පතන, පොදු උන්නතිය තකන පුරවැසියකු ලෙස මා ප්‍රමුඛතා තුනක් දකිනවා අලුත් ව්‍යවස්ථාවක් සම්පාදනයේදී අවධානය යොමු කළ යුතු.

Incumbent Maithripala Sirisena is the 5th president of Sri Lanka who has given an election pledge to abolish Executive Presidency, says Purawesi Balaya (Citizen Power), March 2017

පළමුවැන්න: පරිනත රාජ්‍යයක නිසි ලෙස බල විභජනයක් හා බල තුලනයක් තිබිය යුතුයි. එනම් ව්‍යවස්ථාදායකය හෙවත් පාර්ලිමේන්තුවත්, විධායකයත්, අධිකරණයත් අතර නිසි තුලනයක් අවශ්‍යයි. විධායකයට අධික ලෙස බලතල තිබීම මේ තුලනයට හානිකරයි. විධායක ජනාධිපති ධුරය අහෝසි කරනවා යයි මැතිවරණ පොරොන්දු දී බලයට පත් වූ මේ රජය එම පොරොන්දුව දැන් ඉටු කළ යුතුයි.

දෙවැන්න: රට තුළ බලය විමධ්‍යගත කිරීම තවමත් කැරෙන්නේ දෙගිඩියාවෙන්. අපට යා හැකි කුඩාම බිම් මට්ටමේ ඒකකය දක්වාම බලය ගෙන යාමට ව්‍යවස්ථාවෙන් මග පෙන්වීමක් ඕනෑ. එය උතුරට – දකුණට – බටහිරට හා නැගෙනහිරට එක සේ බලය බෙදා දිය යුතුයි.

තෙවැන්න: මානව අයිතිවාසිකම් පිළිබඳ අවබෝධය අද බෙහෙවින් පුළුල් වෙලා. හැත්තෑ අටේ ව්‍යවස්ථාව සම්මත කරන කාලයත් එක්ක බැලුවත් අද වන විට ලෝකය ගොඩක් ඉස්සරහට ඇවිත්. ඒ කාලයේ තිබුණාට වඩා වෙනස් විදියේ අභියෝගත් අද මතු වෙලා තියෙනවා. හැත්තෑ ගණන්වල මඳ වශයෙන් ලෝකය කතා කළ ලිංගික සුළුතරයන්ගේ අයිතිවාසිකම් වාගේ දේවල් අද නොතකා හරින්න බෑ. ඒ අයගේ අයිතිවාසිකම් රැක ගැනීම රාජ්‍යයේ වගකීමක් වෙලා තියෙනවා. මේ නිසා වඩා ප්‍රශස්ත මානව හිමිකම් මාලාවක් හා ඒවා සුරකින රාමුවක්  නව ව්‍යවස්ථාවෙන්  රටට දිය හැකියි – දිය යුතුයි කියා මා සිතනවා.

Watch other videos on Purawesi Balaya YouTube channel

 

[op-ed] Sri Lanka’s RTI Law: Will the Government ‘Walk the Talk’?

First published in International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) South Asia blog on 3 March 2017.

Sri Lanka’s RTI Law: Will the Government ‘Walk the Talk’?

by Nalaka Gunawardene

Taking stock of the first month of implementation of Sri Lanka's Right to Information (RTI) law - by Nalaka Gunawardene

Taking stock of the first month of implementation of Sri Lanka’s Right to Information (RTI) law – by Nalaka Gunawardene

Sri Lanka’s new Right to Information (RTI) Law, adopted through a rare Parliamentary consensus in June 2016, became fully operational on 3 February 2017.

From that day, the island nation’s 21 million citizens can exercise their legal right to public information held by various layers and arms of government.

One month is too soon to know how this law is changing a society that has never been able to question their rulers – monarchs, colonials or elected governments – for 25 centuries. But early signs are encouraging.

Sri Lanka’s 22-year advocacy for RTI was led by journalists, lawyers, civil society activists and a few progressive politicians. If it wasn’t a very grassroots campaign, ordinary citizens are beginning to seize the opportunity now.

RTI can be assessed from its ‘supply side’ as well as the ‘demand side’. States are primarily responsible for supplying it, i.e. ensuring that all public authorities are prepared and able to respond to information requests. The demand side is left for citizens, who may act as individuals or in groups.

In Sri Lanka, both these sides are getting into speed, but it still is a bumpy road.

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror

Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror

During February, we noticed uneven levels of RTI preparedness across the 52 government ministries, 82 departments, 386 state corporations and hundreds of other ‘public authorities’ covered by the RTI Act. After a six month preparatory phase, some institutions were ready to process citizen requests from Day One.  But many were still confused, and a few even turned away early applicants.

One such violator of the law was the Ministry of Health that refused to accept an RTI application for information on numbers affected by Chronic Kidney Disease and treatment being given.

Such teething problems are not surprising — turning the big ship of government takes time and effort. We can only hope that all public authorities, across central, provincial and local government, will soon be ready to deal with citizen information requests efficiently and courteously.

Some, like the independent Election Commission, have already set a standard for this by processing an early request for audited financial reports of all registered political parties for the past five years.

On the demand side, citizens from all walks of life have shown considerable enthusiasm. By late February, according to Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, Director General of the Department of Information, more than 1,500 citizen RTI requests had been received. How many of these requests will ultimately succeed, we have to wait and see.

Reports in the media and social media indicate that the early RTI requests cover a wide range of matters linked to private grievances or public interest.

Citizens are turning to RTI law for answers that have eluded them for years. One request filed by a group of women in Batticaloa sought information on loved ones who disappeared during the 26-year-long civil war, a question shared by thousands of others. A youth group is helping people in the former conflict areas of the North to ask much land is still being occupied by the military, and how much of it is state-owned and privately-owned. Everywhere, poor people want clarity on how to access various state subsidies.

Under the RTI law, public authorities can’t play hide and seek with citizens. They must provide written answers in 14 days, or seek an extension of another 21 days.

To improve their chances and avoid hassle, citizens should ask their questions as precisely as possible, and know the right public authority to lodge their requests. Civil society groups can train citizens on this, even as they file RTI requests of their own.

That too is happening, with trade unions, professional bodies and other NGOs making RTI requests in the public interest. Some of these ask inconvenient yet necessary questions, for example on key political leaders’ asset declarations, and an official assessment of the civil war’s human and property damage (done in 2013).

Politicians and officials are used to dodging such queries under various pretexts, but the right use of RTI law by determined citizens can press them to open up – or else.

President Maithripala Sirisena was irked that a civil society group wanted to see his asset declaration. His government’s willingness to obey its own law will be a litmus test for yahapalana (good governance) pledges he made to voters in 2015.

The Right to Information Commission will play a decisive role in ensuring the law’s proper implementation. “These are early days for the Commission which is still operating in an interim capacity with a skeletal staff from temporary premises,” it said in a media statement on February 10.

The real proof of RTI – also a fundamental right added to Constitution in 2015 – will be in how much citizens use it to hold government accountable and to solve their pressing problems. Watch this space.

Science writer and media researcher Nalaka Gunawardene is active on Twitter as @NalakaG. Views in this post are his own.

One by one, Sri Lanka public agencies are displaying their RTI officer details as required by law. Example: http://www.pucsl.gov.lk saved on 24 Feb 2017

One by one, Sri Lanka public agencies are displaying their RTI officer details as required by law. Example: http://www.pucsl.gov.lk saved on 24 Feb 2017

Night of Ideas in Colombo: Panel on Freedom of Expression and Cartooning

L to R - Kianoush Ramezani, Nalaka Gunawardene, Gihan de Chickera at Night of Ideas in Colombo, 26 January 2017

L to R – Kianoush Ramezani, Nalaka Gunawardene, Gihan de Chickera at Night of Ideas in Colombo, 26 January 2017

On 26 January 2017, the Alliance Française de Kotte with the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka presented the first ever “Night of Ideas” held in Colombo. During that event, participants were invited to engage in discussions on ‘‘A World in common – Freedom of Expression (FOE)” in the presence of French and Sri Lankan cartoonists, journalists and intellectuals.

I was part of the panel that also included: Kianoush Ramezani, Founder and President of United Sketches (Paris), an Iranian artist and activist living and working in Paris since 2009 as a political refugee; and Gihan de Chickera, Political cartoonist at the Daily Mirror newspaper in Sri Lanka. The panel was moderated by Amal Jayasinghe, bureau chief of Agence France Presse (AFP) news agency.

Human Rights Lawyer and activist J C Weliamuna opens the Night of Ideas

Human Rights Lawyer and activist J C Weliamuna opens the Night of Ideas in Colombo, 26 January 2017

In my opening remarks, I paid a special tribute to Sri Lanka’s cartoonists and satirists who provided a rare outlet for political expression during the Rajapaksa regime’s Decade of Darkness (2005-2014).

I referred to my 2010 essay, titled ‘When making fun is no laughing matter’ where I had highlighted this vital aspect of FOE. Here is the gist of it:

A useful barometer of FOE and media freedom in a given society is the level of satire that prevails. Satire and parody are important forms of political commentary that rely on blurring the line between factual reporting and creative license to scorn and ridicule public figures.

Political satire is nothing new: it has been around for centuries, making fun of kings, emperors, popes and generals. Over time, satire has manifested in many oral, literary and theatrical traditions. In recent decades, satire has evolved into its own distinctive genre in print, on the airwaves and online.

Satire offers an effective – though not always fail-safe – cover for taking on authoritarian regimes that are intolerant of criticism, leave alone any dissent. No wonder the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc inspired so much black humour.

This particular dimension to political satire and caricature that isn’t widely appreciated in liberal democracies where freedom of expression is constitutionally guaranteed.

In immature democracies and autocracies, critical journalists and their editors take many risks in the line of work. When direct criticism becomes highly hazardous, satire and parody become important — and sometimes the only – ways for journalists get around draconian laws, stifling media regulations or trigger-happy goon squads…

Little wonder, then, that some of Sri Lanka’s sharpest political commentary is found in satire columns and cartoons. Much of what passes for political analysis in the media is actually gossip.

A good summary of our panel discussion reported by Daily News, 30 January 2017

Part of the audience for Night of Ideas at Alliance Française de Kotte, 26 Jan 2017

Part of the audience for Night of Ideas at Alliance Française de Kotte, 26 Jan 2017

Audience engages the panel during Night of Ideas at Alliance Française de Kotte, 26 Jan 2017

Audience engages the panel during Night of Ideas at Alliance Française de Kotte, 26 Jan 2017

Night of Ideas in Colombo - promotional brochure

Night of Ideas in Colombo – promotional brochure

 

[Op-ed]: Lankan Civil Society’s Unfinished Business in 2017

Sri Lanka's Prime Minister (left) and President trying to make the yaha-palanaya (good governance) jigsaw: Cartoon by Anjana Indrajith

Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister (left) and President trying to make the yaha-palanaya (good governance) jigsaw: Cartoon by Anjana Indrajith

As 2016 drew to a close, The Sunday Leader newspaper asked me for my views on Lankan civil society’s key challenges in 2017. I had a word limit of 350. Here is what I wrote, published in their edition of 1 January 2017:

Lankan Civil Society’s Unfinished Business in 2017

By Nalaka Gunawardene

Sections of Sri Lanka’s civil society were closely associated with the political changes that happened at the presidential and general elections in 2015. That was only natural as the notion of good governance had been articulated and promoted by civil society for years before Maithri and Ranil embraced it.

Now, as we enter 2017, civil society faces the twin challenges of holding the current government to account, and preventing yaha-palanaya ideal from being discredited by expedient politicians. At the same time, civil society must also become more professionalised and accountable.

‘Civil society’ is a basket term: it covers a variety of entities outside the government and corporate sectors. These include not only non-governmental organisations (NGOs) but also trade unions, student unions, professional associations (and federations), and community based or grassroots groups. Their specific mandates differ, but on the whole civil society strives for a better, safer and healthier society for everyone.

The path to such a society lies inevitably through a political process, which civil society cannot and should not avoid. Some argue that civil society’s role is limited to service delivery. In reality, worthy tasks like tree planting, vaccine promoting and microcredit distributing are all necessary, but not all sufficient if fundamentals are not in place. For lasting change to happen, civil society must engage with the core issues of governance, rights and social justice.

Ideally, however, civil society groups should not allow themselves to be used or subsumed by political parties. I would argue that responsible civil society groups now set the standards for our bickering and hesitant politicians to aspire to.

Take, for example, two progressive legal measures adopted during 2016: setting aside a 25% mandatory quota for women in local government elections, and legalising the Right to Information. Both these had long been advocated by enlightened civil society groups. They must now stay vigilant to ensure the laws are properly implemented.

Other ideals, like the March 12 Movement for ensuring clean candidates at all elections, need sustained advocacy. So Lankan civil society has plenty of unfinished business in 2017.

Nalaka Gunawardene writes on science, development and governance issues. He tweets from @NalakaG.

Note: Cartoons appearing here did not accompany the article published in The Sunday Leader.

After 18 months in office, Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena seems less keen on his electoral promises of good governance, which he articulated with lots of help from civil society. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror, 24 June 2016.

After 18 months in office, Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena seems less keen on his electoral promises of good governance, which he had articulated with lots of help from civil society. Cartoon by Gihan de Chickera, Daily Mirror, 24 June 2016.