When I spoke out on social media recently for the rights of sexual minorities in Sri Lanka, some wanted to know why I cared for these ‘deviants’ – one even asked if I was ‘also one of them’.
I didn’t want to dignify such questions with an immediate answer. However, in my mind, it is quite clear why I stand for the rights of the LGBTQ community and other minorities – who are marginalised, in some cases persecuted, for simply being different.
I stand with all left-handed persons, or ‘lefties’, not because I am one of them but because I support their right to be the way they were born.
I share the cause of the disabled, not because I am currently living with a disability, but because I support their right to accessibility and full productive lives.
I call for governmental and societal protection of all displaced persons – from wars, disasters or other causes – not because I am currently displaced, but because I believe in their right to such support with dignity.
I march with women from all walks of life not because I am a woman, but because I fully share their cause for equality and justice. In their case, they are not a minority but the majority – and yet, very often, oppressed.
Similarly, I raise my voice for all sexual minorities in the LGBTQ community not because I am one of them, but because I am outraged by the institutionalised discrimination against them in Sri Lanka. I uphold their right to equality and to lead normal lives with their own sexual orientations and identities.
How much longer do we have to wait for a Lankan state that treats ALL its citizens as equal?
How much further must we wait for a Lankan society that does not discriminate against some of its own members who just happen to be differently inclined or differently-abled?
The South-East Asia Region of the World Health Organization (WHO-SEARO) held its 69th Regional Committee meeting in Colombo from 5 to 9 September 2016. The meeting of 15 ministers of health from the region took a close look at Sri Lanka’s public health system – which has been able to provide substantial value over the decades.
Yet, the public health system rares gets the credit it deserves: the media and citizens alike often highlight its shortcomings without acknowledging what it delivers, year after year.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala, appearing in the print issue of 4 Sep 2016), I salute the public health system of Sri Lanka that has accomplished much amidst various challenges.
Sri Lanka’s public hospitals and related field programmes – like public health inspectors, family health workers and specific disease control efforts — provide a broad range of preventive and curative services. In most cases, these are provided free to recipients, irrespective of their ability to pay.
This is sustained by taxes: Sri Lanka’s public health sector annually receives allocations equal to around 2% of the country’s GDP.
I quote from the recently released Sri Lanka National Health Accounts (2013) report. Its data analysis shows that the Government of Sri Lanka accounts for 55% of the total health care provision of the country. Considering all financial sources (public and private), the per capita current health expenditure of Sri Lanka in 2013 amounted to LKR 12,636 (97.2 US$).
In February 2013, I interviewed Imalka de Silva, the first Lankan woman to visit Antarctica. She accomplished this feat in March 2010 when she joined an international team who spent two weeks on an expedition to the frozen continent.
I have just interviewed an experienced Lankan mountaineering duo, Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala and Johann Peries, who plan to be the first Sri Lankans to reach the summit of Mt. Everest in the forthcoming Spring mountaineering season.
They have both individually and as a team successfully completed some of the world’s most challenging treks in Asia, Africa and Latin America – not to mention all key peaks in Sri Lanka.
Mount Everest is located in the Mahalangur mountain range in Nepal and Tibet, and its peak is 8,848 metres (29,029 ft) above sea level. It has so far been reached by over 4,000 people from many countries.
Professionally, Jayanthi is a women’s rights and gender expert while Johann is a hair and make-up designer and performing artist. They are dedicating this climb to their families, to the causes they advocate (conservation, gender equality and healthy living), and to every child, woman and man of Sri Lanka.
They plan to be part of a larger team led by International Mountain Guides (IMG), a globally renowned mountaineering company which has led several successful Mt. Everest expeditions over the past 30 years.
Read my full interview in The Sunday Observer (Sri Lanka), 28 Feb 2016:
Over the weekend of September 25 – 27, the United Nations headquarters in New York hosted the Sustainable Development Summit 2015. It was a high-level segment of the 70th UN General Assembly that was attended by many world leaders including Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena.
The UN, which turns 70 this year, is once again rallying its member governments to a lofty vision and ambitious goal: to embark on new paths to improve the lives of people everywhere.
For this, the Summit adopted a new and improved global task-list called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Prepared after two years of worldwide consultations, the SDGs offer a blueprint for development until 2030.
There are 17 SDGs tackling long-standing problems like ending poverty and reducing inequality to relatively newer challenges like creating more liveable cities and tackling climate change. These are broken down into 169 specific targets. Their implementation will formally begin on 1 January 2016.
The SDGs are to take over from the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, that have guided the development sector for 15 years. Sri Lanka was among the 189 countries that adopted the MDGs at the Millennium Summit the UN hosted in New York in September 2000. On that occasion, the country was represented by Lakshman Kadirgamar as Minister of Foreign Affairs.
The eight MDGs covered a broad spectrum of goals, from eradicating absolute poverty and hunger to combating HIV, and from ensuring all children attend primary school to saving mothers from dying during pregnancy and childbirth.
Much has happened in the nearly 5,500 days separating the adoption of the original MDGs and now, the successor SDGs. This month, as the world commits to ‘leaving no one behind’ (as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said), it is useful to look back, briefly.
Good ‘Report Card’
How has Sri Lanka pursued the MDGs while the country coped with a long drawn civil war, political change, and the fall-out of a global economic recession?
In fact, it has done reasonably well. In its human development efforts, Sri Lanka has quietly achieved a great deal. However, there are gaps that need attention, and some goals not yet met.
We might sum it up with a phrase that teachers are fond of using, even on good students: “You’re doing well – but can do better! Try harder!”
For the past 15 years, the MDGs have provided a framework for Sri Lanka’s national development programmes. Progress has been assessed every few years: the most recent ‘report card’ came out in March 2015.
The MDG Country Report 2014, prepared by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), is a joint publication by the Government of Sri Lanka and the United Nations in Sri Lanka. Data from the 2012 census and Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2012/13 have generated plenty of data to assess MDG situation across the country, including the war affected areas.
“Sri Lanka has already achieved the targets of 13 important MDG indicators out of 44 indicators relevant to Sri Lanka. Most of the other indicators are either ‘On Track’ or progressing well,” says IPS Executive Director Dr Saman Kelegama in his foreword to the report.
The report offers insights into how Sri Lanka’s ‘soft infrastructure’ — all the systems and institutions required to maintain the economic, health, cultural and social standards of a country – are faring.
Consider these highlights:
Sri Lanka’s overall income poverty rates, when measured using accepted statistical benchmarks, have come down from 2% in 2006/7 to 6.7% in 2012.
Unemployment rate has declined from 8% in 1993 to 3.9% in 2012. However, unemployment rate among women is twice as high as among men.
While food production keeps up with population growth, malnutrition is a concern. A fifth of all children under five are underweight. And half of all people still consume less than the minimum requirement of daily dietary energy.
Nearly all (99%) school going children enter primary school. At that stage, the numbers of boys and girls are equal. In secondary school and beyond (university), in fact, there now are more girls than boys.
More babies now survive their first year of life than ever before: infant mortality rate has come down to 9.4 among 1,000 live births (from 17.7 in 1991). Deaths among children under five have also been nearly halved (down from 2 in 1991 to 11.3 in 2009).
Fewer women die needlessly of complications arising from pregnancy and childbirth. The maternal mortality rate, which stood at 92 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990, plummeted to 33 by 2010. Doctors or skilled health workers are now present during almost all births.
Sri Lanka’s HIV infection levels have remained now, even though the number of cases is slowly increasing. Meanwhile, in a major public health triumph, the country has all but eradicated malaria: there have been no indigenous malaria cases since November 2012, and no malaria-related deaths since 2007.
More Lankans now have access to safe drinking water (up from 68% in 1990 to almost 90% in 2012-2013.)
These and other social development outcomes are the result of progressive policies that have been sustained for decades.
“Sri Lanka’s long history of investment in health, education and poverty alleviation programmes has translated into robust performance against the MDGs, and Sri Lanka has many lessons to share,” said Sri Lanka’s UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, Subinay Nandy, at the report’s launch in March 2015.
Mind the Gaps!
Despite these results, many gaps and challenges remain that need closer attention and action in the coming years.
One key concern is how some impressive national level statistics can eclipse disparities at provincial and district levels. The MDG data analysis clearly shows that all parts of Sri Lanka have not progressed equally well.
For example, while most districts have already cut income poverty rates in half, there are some exceptions. These include eight districts in the Northern and Eastern provinces, for which reliable data are not available to compare with earlier years, and the Monaragala District in Uva Province – where poverty has, in fact, increased in the past few years.
Likewise, many human development indicators are lower in the plantation estate sector, where 4.4% of the population lives. An example: while at least 90% of people in urban and rural areas can access safe drinking water, the rate in the estate sector is 46.3%.
Another major concern: the gap between rich and poor remains despite economic growth. “Income inequality has not changed, although many poor people managed to move out of poverty and improve their living conditions,” the MDG Progress report says.
In Gender Equality, Sri Lanka’s performance is mixed. There is no male-female disparity in education, and in fact, there are more literate women in the 15 to 24 age than men. But “these achievements have not helped in increasing the share of women in wage employment in the non-agricultural sector,” notes the report.
Disappointingly, women’s political participation is also very low. The last Parliament had 13 women members out of 225. That was 5.8% compared to the South Asian rate of 17.8% and global rate of 21.1%. The report has urged for “measures to encourage a substantial increase in the number of women in political offices”.
Of course, MDGs and human development are not just a numbers game. While measurable progress is important, quality matters too.
The MDG report highlights the urgent need to improve the quality and relevance of our public education. Among the policy measures needed are increasing opportunities for tertiary education, bridging the gap between education and employment, and reducing the skills mismatch in the labour market.
On the health front, too, there is unfinished – and never ending — business. Surveillance for infectious diseases cannot be relaxed. Even as malaria fades away, dengue has been spreading. Old diseases like tuberculosis (8,000 cases per year) stubbornly persist. A rise in non-communicable diseases – like heart attacks, stroke, cancers and asthma – poses a whole new set of public health challenges.
So the ‘well-performing’ nation of Sri Lanka still has plenty to do. It is just as important to sustain progress already achieved.
The new and broader SDGs will provide guidance in this process, but each country must set its own priorities and have its own monitoring systems. The spread of information and communications technologies (ICTs) has created new sources of real-time data that can help keep track of progress, or lack of it, more easily and faster.
Whereas MDGs covered mostly “safe” themes like poverty, primary education and child deaths, the SDGs take on topics such as governance, institutions, human rights, inequality, ageing and peace. This reflects how much international debates have changed since the late 1990s when the MDGs were developed mostly by diplomats and technocrats.
This time around, not only governments and academics but advocacy groups and activists have also been involved in hundreds of physical and virtual consultations to agree on SDGs. In total, more than seven million people have contributed their views.
As the government of Sri Lanka pursues the SDGs that it has just committed to in New York, we the people expect a similar consultative process.
Goodbye, closed development. Welcome, Open Development!
Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene wrote an earlier version of this for UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Sri Lanka’s new blog Kiyanna.lk. The views are his own, based on 25 years of development communication experience.
Sri Lanka’s mainstream media – especially in the Sinhala language (and perhaps in Tamil too?) – lacks sensitivity and restraint when reporting and/or commenting on incidents of violence – covering suicide, homicide, rape and child abuse – as well as on topics like mental illness and HIV/AIDS.
This is my cumulative impression having closely watched different print and broadcast media outlets for over a quarter century. It is good that some younger professionals recognise the need to improve in this respect – to correct the ways of industry seniors who have set bad precedents for long.
I was thus happy to speak at a recent public forum on sensitive media reporting, organised by Sri Lanka Young Journalists Association and held in Colombo on 9 June 2015. In my remarks, I tried to understand why large sections of Lankan media so lacks sensitivity, respect for privacy and respect for societal diversity. This is a complex sociological situation that I cannot fully explain, but among the reasons I cited are: cultural orthodoxy, gender insensitivity, heightened competition among media groups for market share; and an overall lack of professionalism.
I sum up my remarks, and some discussion points, in this week’s Ravaya column (published on 28 June 2015).
An impressive 81.52% of registered voters turned up, and their majority choice changed the regime. A well-oiled system that has been holding elections since 1931 proved its efficacy again. And if its integrity came under threat, the formidable Commissioner of Elections stood up for the due process.
As we pat ourselves on the back, however, let us remember: an election is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a vibrant democracy. There is much more to democracy than holding free and fair elections.
The ‘sufficient conditions’ include having public institutions that allow citizens the chance to participate in political process on an on-going basis; a guarantee that all people are equal before the law (independent and apolitical judiciary); respect for cultural, ethnic and religious diversity; and freedom of opinion without fearing any repercussions. Sri Lanka has much work to do on all these fronts.
Democracy itself, as practised for centuries, can do with some ‘upgrading’ to catch up with modern information societies.
Historically, people have responded to bad governance by changing governments at elections, or by occasionally overthrowing corrupt or despotic regimes through mass agitation.
Yet such ‘people power’ has its own limits: in country after country where one political party – or the entire political system — was replaced with another through popular vote (or revolt), people have been disappointed at how quickly the new brooms lose their bristles.
The solution must, therefore, lie in not just participating in elections (or revolutions), but in constantly engaging governments and keeping the pressure on them to govern well.
In practice, we citizens must juggle it along with our personal and professional lives. As information society advances, however, new tools and methods are becoming available to make it easier.
This relatively new approach involves citizens gathering data, systematically analysing it and then engaging (or confronting, when necessary) elected and other officials in government. Citizens across the developing world are using information to improve the use of common property resources (e.g. water, state land and electromagnetic spectrum, etc.), and management of funds collected through taxation or borrowed from international sources.
Such engagement enables citizens as well as civil society organisations (CSOs) to engage with policymakers and citizen service providers. Some call it social accountability (or SAcc), and others refer to it as participatory democracy. Whatever the label, the idea is to ensure greater accountability in how the public sector manages public funds and responds to citizens’ needs.
For this to work, citizens need to access public sector information – about budgets, expenditures, problems and performance. Over 100 countries now have laws guaranteeing people’s right to information (RTI). Sadly, Sri Lanka is lagging behind all other SAARC countries, five of which have already enacted RTI laws and two (Afghanistan and Bhutan) have draft bills under consideration. Attempts to introduce RTI in Sri Lanka were repeatedly thwarted by the previous government.
An early champion of social accountability was the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto who has been researching on poverty, development and governance issues. He says: “Supposedly in a democracy, if the majority of people are poor, then they set the criteria of what is right. Yet all those mechanisms that allow [society] to decide where the money goes — and that it is appropriately allocated — are not in place throughout the Third World.”
The result? “We take turns electing authoritarian governments. The country, therefore, is left to the [whims] of big-time interests, and whoever funded the elections or parties. We have no right of review or oversight. We have no way for the people’s voice to be heard — except for eight hours on election day!”
It is this important right of review and oversight in between elections that SAcc promotes. Call it an ‘insurance’ against democracy being subverted by big money, corrupt officials or special interest groups…
A dozen years ago, concerned by development investments being undermined by pervasive corruption and excessive bureaucracy, the World Bank started advocating SAcc. Their research shows how, even in the most hopeless situations, ordinary people often come together to collect their voice and exert pressure on governments to be responsive.
“Social accountability is about affirming and operationalising direct accountability relationships between citizens and the state. It refers to the broad range of actions and mechanisms beyond voting that citizens can use to hold the state to account,” says a World Bank sourcebook on the subject. (See: http://go.worldbank.org/Y0UDF953D0)
What does that mean in plain language? Seeking to go beyond theory and jargon, the Bank funded a global documentary in 2003, which I co-produced. Titled ‘Earth Report: People Power’ and first broadcast on BBC in February 2004, it featured four inspiring SAcc examples drawn from Brazil, India, Ireland and Malawi (online: http://goo.gl/xQnr9v).
These case studies, among the best at the time, showed how SAcc concepts could be adapted in different societies and economic systems
In Porto Alegre, Brazil, community members participate annually in a series of meetings to decide on the City Budget. This material is presented to Parliament which finds it difficult to refuse the recommendations — because over 20,000 have contribute to its preparation. As many or more watch how the budget is spent.
In Rajasthan, India, an advocacy group named MKSS holds a public meeting where the affidavits of local candidates standing for the state elections are available to the people. This ‘right to information’ extends all the way down to villages where people can find out about public spending.
In Ireland, the government has partnered with trade unions, employers, training institutions and community groups on a strategy to deal with problems affecting youth (such as school drop-outs and high unemployment). Citizens set priorities for social spending.
In Malawi, villagers participate in assessing local health clinics by scoring various elements of the service. A Health Village Committee then meets the service providers who also assess themselves. Together, they work out ways to improve the service.
During the last decade, many more examples have emerged – some driven by public intellectuals, others by civil society groups or socially responsible companies. Their issues, challenges and responses vary but everyone is looking for practical ways to sustain civic engagement in between elections.
The development community has long held romanticized views on grassroots empowerment. While SAcc builds on that, it is no castle in the air: the rise of digital technologies, web and social media allows better monitoring, analysis and dissemination. And government monopolies over public information have been breached — not just by progressive policies and RTI laws but also by efforts such as WikiLeaks.
Confronted by the growing flood of often technical information, citizens need to be well organised and skilled to use in the public interest. Evidence-based advocacy is harder than rhetorical protests.
Dr Bela Bhatia, then an associate fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in India, says on the film: “Ultimately the responsibility in a democracy is ours…and if today we have corrupt politicians, it is because we have allowed corruption to happen, to take root.”
Rather than debating endlessly on how things became so bad, SAcc promoters show a way forward – with emphasis on collaboration, not confrontation.
“It’s up to the governments to make up their mind whether they want to respect the more participatory model or invite more confrontation, to invite violence and perhaps ultimately the dismantling of the very democratic system,” says Bhatia.
How can we deepen our democracy with SAcc? Start with RTI, and see what happens.
In this week’s Ravaya column (in Sinhala), I pay tribute to South African writer and social activist Nadine Gordimer (1923-2014). I focus on how she never hesitated to speak out for justice, fairness and equality even when that elicited ridicule and harassment from her own government that quickly labeled her a ‘traitor’.
I also recall how I once listened to her speak, during the recording of a TV debate in Johannesburg in mid 2002, and how she later marched the streets with activists from all over the world demanding land rights for the poor.