[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.

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Going beyond “Poor Journalism” that ignores the poor

Sri Lankan Media Fellows on Poverty and Development with their mentors and CEPA coordinators at orientation workshop in Colombo, 24 Sep 2016

Sri Lankan Media Fellows on Poverty and Development with their mentors and CEPA coordinators at orientation workshop in Colombo, 24 Sep 2016

“For me as an editor, there is a compelling case for engaging with poverty. Increasing education and literacy is related to increasing the size of my readership. Our main audiences are indeed drawn from the middle classes, business and policymakers. But these groups cannot live in isolation. The welfare of the many is in the interests of the people who read the Daily Star.”

So says Mahfuz Anam, Editor and Publisher of The Daily Star newspaper in Bangladesh. I quoted him in my presentation to the orientation workshop for Media Fellows on Poverty and Development, held in Colombo on 24 September 2016.

Alas, many media gatekeepers in Sri Lanka and across South Asia don’t share Anam’s broad view. I can still remember talking to a Singaporean manager of one of Sri Lanka’s first private TV stations in the late 1990s. He was interested in international development related TV content, he told me, “but not depressing and miserable stuff about poverty – our viewers don’t want that!”

Most media, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, have narrowly defined poverty negatively. Those media that occasionally allows some coverage of poverty mostly skim a few selected issues, doing fleeting reporting on obvious topics like street children, beggars or poverty reduction assistance from the government. The complexity of poverty and under-development is hardly investigated or captured in the media.

Even when an exceptional journalist ventures into exploring these issues in some depth and detail, their media products also often inadvertently contain society’s widespread stereotyping on poverty and inequality. For example:

  • Black and white images are used when colour is easily available (as if the poor live in B&W).
  • Focus is mostly or entirely on the rural poor (never mind many poor people now live in cities and towns).

The Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), a non-profit think tank has launched the Media Fellowship Programme on Poverty and Development to inspire and support better media coverage of these issues. The programme is co-funded by UNESCO and CEPA.

Under this, 20 competitively selected journalists – drawn from print, broadcast and web media outlets in Sinhala, Tamil and English languages – are to be given a better understanding of the many dimensions of poverty.

These Media Fellows will have the opportunity to research and produce a story of their choice in depth and detail, but on the understanding that their media outlet will carry their story. Along the way, they will benefit from face-to-face interactions with senior journalists and development researchers, and also receive a grant to cover their field visit costs.

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at orientation workshop for Media Fellows on Poverty and Development at CEPA, 24 Sep 2016

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at orientation workshop for Media Fellows on Poverty and Development at CEPA, 24 Sep 2016

I am part of the five member expert panel guiding these Media Fellows. Others on the panel are senior journalist and political commentator Kusal Perera; Chief Editor of Daily Express newspaper Hana Ibrahim; Chief Editor of Echelon biz magazine Shamindra Kulamannage; and Consultant Editor of Sudar Oli newspaper, Arun Arokianathan.

At the orientation workshop, Shamindra Kulamannage and I both made presentations on media coverage of poverty. Mine was a broad-sweep exploration of the topic, with many examples and insights from having been in media and development spheres for over 25 years.

Here is my PPT:

More photos from the orientation workshop:

 

 

Details of CEPA Media Fellowship Programme on Poverty and Development

List of 20 Media Fellows on Poverty and Development

Changing Climate and Changing Minds: Challenges of Communicating Climate Change

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at national conference on Sri Lanka's readiness for implementing the Paris Agreement. BMICH Colombo, 8 September 2016

Nalaka Gunawardene speaks at national conference on Sri Lanka’s readiness for implementing the Paris Agreement. BMICH Colombo, 8 September 2016

Climate change COP21 in December 2015 adopted the Paris Agreement to avoid, mitigate and adapt to climate change. Among many other solutions, Sri Lanka’s “intended nationally determined contribution” (INDC) has agreed to reduce 7% emissions from energy and transport and 23% conditional reductions by 2030.

Sri Lanka’s Centre for Environmental Justice in collaboration with the government’s Climate Change Secretariat, UNDP and Janathakshan held a national conference on “SRI LANKA’S READINESS FOR IMPLEMENTING PARIS CLIMATE AGREEMENT” on 7 and 8 September 2016 in Colombo. It was attended by over 200 representatives from government, civil society and corporate sectors.

I was asked to speak in Session 5: Climate Solutions, on “Climate communication and Behaviour changes”. This is a summary of what I said, and the PowerPoint presentation used.

L to R: Nalaka Gunawardene; Nalin Munasinghe, National Programme Manager at Sri Lanka UN-REDD Programme, and Uchita de Zoysa

L to R: Nalaka Gunawardene; Nalin Munasinghe, National Programme Manager at Sri Lanka UN-REDD Programme, and Uchita de Zoysa

As climate change impacts are felt more widely, the imperative for action is greater than ever. Telling the climate story in accurate and accessible ways should be an essential part of our climate response.

That response is currently organised around two ‘planks’: mitigation and adaptation. Climate communication can be the ‘third plank’ that strengthens the first two.

Encouragingly, more journalists, broadcasters, researchers and advocacy groups are taking up this challenge. They urgently need more media and public spaces — as well as greater resources — to sustain public engagement.

Sri Lanka’s Information, Education and Communication (IEC) Strategy for Climate Change Adaptation, which I was principally involved in preparing in 2010-11, has recognized how “IEC action can lead to better informed decisions and enlightened choices in both climate change mitigation and adaptation”.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which Sri Lanka has signed and ratified, recognizes the importance of IEC. It calls for “improving awareness and understanding of climate change, and creating solutions to facilitate access to information on a changing climate” to winning public support for climate related policies.

The UNFCCC, through its Article 6, and its Kyoto Protocol, through its Article 10 (e), call on governments “to educate, empower and engage all stakeholders and major groups on policies relating to climate change”.

When strategically carried out, IEC can be a powerful force for change on both the ‘supply’ and ‘demand’ sides of climate adaptation and climate related public information. In this analogy:

  • ‘supply’ involves providing authentic, relevant and timely information to all those who need it, in languages and formats they can readily use; and
  • ‘demand’ means inspiring more individuals and entities to look for specific knowledge and skills that can help make themselves more climate resilient.

These two sides of the equation can positively reinforce each other, contributing significantly to Sri Lanka’s fight against climate change.

To be effective, climate communication also needs to strike a balance between alarmism and complacence. We have to place climate concerns within wider development and social justice debates. We must also localise and personalise as much as possible.

Dr M Sanjayan, vice president of development and communications strategy at Conservation International, a leading advocacy group, says environmentalists and scientists have failed to build sufficient urgency for action on climate change. He feels we need new communication approaches.

The Lankan-born science communicator wrote in 2013: “By focusing on strong narratives about peoples’ lives in the present rather than the future; by keeping stories local and action-oriented (solvable); and by harnessing the power of narrative and emotion, we have a better chance to build widespread public support for solutions.”

Thoughts on Realising Peace, Reconciliation and Ending Violence: Remarks at WCY 2014

World Conference of Youth 2014: Colombo, Sri Lanka

World Conference on Youth 2014: Colombo, Sri Lanka

When I was invited to speak at World Conference on Youth 2014, being held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, this week, I accepted on one condition: that I don’t have to ‘clear’ my remarks with anyone before delivering. (This precaution was necessary as the host government of Sri Lanka is not known for its capacity to accommodate divergent or dissenting points of view.)

The organisers — Ministry of Youth Affairs & Skills Development —  kept their word, and I just spoke at a session on Realising Peace, Reconciliation and Ending Violence. The theme is apt, especially in view of forthcoming fifth anniversary of the end of Sri Lanks civil war.

Alas, we had no opportunity to discuss any of the speeches due to sessions starting late. But I was able to engage several youth delegates, both from Sri Lanka and around the world, who apparently shared my idealism.

Here then is the text of my remarks (slightly ad-libbed during delivery):

Knotted gun sculpture at UN Headquarters in New York, made by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd - Photo by Dhara Gunawardene, 2011

Knotted gun sculpture at UN Headquarters in New York, made by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd – Photo by Dhara Gunawardene, 2011

Theme: Realising Peace, Reconciliation and Ending Violence

Remarks by Nalaka Gunawardene

Science writer, columnist and blogger          

I thank the organisers for this opportunity.

Participating today reminds me of the IDEALISM, HOPE & PASSION with which I took part in similar events in my own youth – which was not that long ago!

In particular, I remember two instances:

A quarter century ago, as an undergraduate, I took part in an Asian regional Model United Nations conference held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The topic assigned to our group was VIOLENCE WITHIN AND BETWEEN SOCIETIES.

In all eagerness, we explored big questions such as:

  • Do we humans have an evolutionary inclination for aggression and violence?
  • What socio-economic factors trigger youth unrest and insurrection?
  • How does culture aggravate or mitigate conflicts?

For several days, a few dozen of us from across Asia discussed and debated this and other key concerns.

Five years later, as a young journalist, I had the opportunity to attend the World Youth Leadership Summit, held at the UN headquarters in New York. In the fall of 1995, around 200 of us from around the world came together to discuss the state of the world – and our role in shaping its future!

Again, a key topic that occupied our minds was the RISING VIOLENCE WITHIN OUR SOCIETIES. Not just civil wars and crime — but also INSTITUTIONALISED DISCRIMINATION and STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE.

These discussions enhanced my understanding of violence, which has become more SOPHISTICATED and INSIDIOUS in today’s world.

STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE as a concept was introduced in 1969 by the Norwegian sociologist and peace researcher Johan Galtung. He defined it as: “any form of violence where some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs”.

There are many examples of STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE in our societies. Among them:

  • institutionalized elitism;
  • ethno-centrism;
  • racism;
  • sexism; and
  • nationalism

STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE affects people differently in various social structures, and is closely linked to SOCIAL INJUSTICE.

So, in a broad sense, campaigns for HUMAN RIGHTS & SOCIAL JUSTICE are attempts to resist – and ideally, reduce – structural violence. These mass movements include:

  • the CIVIL RIGHTS movement in the US;
  • WOMEN’S RIGHTS movement worldwide;
  • ANTI-APARTHEID struggles in South Africa;
  • current global efforts to reduce absolute POVERTY; and
  • the on-going struggle for recognizing rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups.

While fewer people are dying today in conflicts between nations, or even those within nations, we cannot rejoice: we still have many faces of STRUCTURAL VIOLENCE and SYSTEMIC VIOLENCE.

So did we save the world in the Fall of 1995 through all our eager and idealistic discussions at the UN Headquarters?

No, we didn’t. Our world is still an UNJUST, UNFAIR and UNSAFE place for too many human beings.

But experiences and exposure like that probably SAVED ME – from becoming an uncritical and unquestioning peddler of the dominant narrative. It opened my mind – to question rhetoric and spin, coming from governments, UN agencies and even civil society.

That is probably the greatest benefit of conferences like this:

  • opening of our minds;
  • deepening of our understanding & empathy; and
  • broadening of our perspectives.

I wish I could tell you that Sri Lanka offers a fine example of post-war RECONCILIATION. But our reality is actually more complex and complicated.

Five years ago this month, we witnessed the end of Sri Lanka’s CIVIL WAR which last for over 25 years. As a diverse nation and a pluralistic society, our people felt many different emotions about that defining moment.

One sentiment most of us shared was a HUGE SENSE OF RELIEF. And some of us also felt a huge sense of RESPONSIBILITY –

  • for HOW the war was ended; and
  • the enormous rebuilding and healing that had to be done.

Five Years later…

The factors that led to the violent conflict still remain largely unaddressed. These include concerns about governance, political power sharing, and economic benefit sharing – issues that youth feel strongly about.

In the past 40 years – in my lifetime – similar concerns have triggered two other youth insurrections in Sri Lanka — in 1971 and in the late 1980s. Both were suppressed violently by the state in the name of law and order. The scars of those wounds have not yet healed either.

In this sense, many of us have three layers of scars from recent violence. And we realise, belatedly, how HEALING involves more our HEARTS than our MINDS.

We know that PEACE is much more than the simple absence of hostility. Likewise, RECONCILIATION entails much more than a mere co-existence of groups who were once engaged in a conflict.

RECONCILIATION cannot be decreed by leaders……or legislated by governments. Technocratic solutions are helpful — but not sufficient — to achieve RECONCILIATION.

Progressive state policies can nurture RECONCILIATION — but in the end, TRUE HEALING must spring from all of us… individually and collectively.

It’s not EASY, and it’s not always POPULAR. But it’s a worthy goal to aspire to!

Building SUSTAINABLE PEACE requires time, effort – as well as a switch in our mindset. We must face HARD TRUTHS, acknowledge them, and hopefully, FORGIVE…

There is cultural conditioning that stands in the way. Historically, many societies have glorified war, weaponry and combat. AGGRESSION is often seen as a sign of strength…and of masculinity.

With this inertia of history and culture…can we replace confrontation and conflict with cooperation and collaboration?

The religious case for this is well known. But I hesitate to invoke religions as they have inspired so much hatred and violence.

In recent years, we have seen a growing body of scientific evidence and theories that argue that COLLABORATION HAS A GREATER SURVIVAL VALUE than aggression.

This is contrary to the long held Darwinian notion of the ‘survival of the fittest’. It now appears that virtues like KINDNESS, GENEROSITY and SHARING are more than just moral choices: they are useful EVOLUTIONARY TRAITS too!

The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello has been studying the EVOLUTION OF TOLERANCE & TRUST among human beings and the role it plays in today’s societies. He and other researchers have drawn attention to the evolutionary benefits of COLLABORATION and ALTRUISM.

There is no consensus yet among experts. Anthropologists, evolutionary biologists and sociologists keep debating about:

  • individual selection vs. group selection in evolution; and
  • whether aggression or collaboration has key survival value.

As Harvard biologist Edward O Wilson summed it up in his recent book, The Social Conquest of Earth:

“The human condition is an endemic turmoil rooted in the evolution processes that created us. The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be.”

So our big challenge is: How to tame our worst evolutionary baggage, and instead bring out our best as a species?

I don’t have any quick answer. But this is among the questions we must all keep asking – and keep looking for practical, thoughtful answers.

Dear friends,

It’s easier to have abundant IDEALISM, HOPE & PASSION when you’re 18 or 25 or even 30. It’s harder to retain these values when you’re approaching 50 — as I am, now. But I keep trying!

I wish you stimulating conversations. I hope you’ll find enough common ground — while not forcing any artificial consensus!

Thank you.