Wigneswaran on Good Governance

wigneswaran    “Democratizing the North : A Dialogue on Governance, Development and Vulnerability.”

By  C.V Wigneswaran.

New Year 2014 is starting well for us. The War had got us into a cocoon in which we  managed howsoever we could, not really appreciating the changes taking place locally and globally all around us. We failed to appreciate the nuances of political or administrative terminology too. We are thankful to ICES for coming forward to help us to get out of our niche by introducing to us the processes that are functioning in the field of Governance and Development not forgetting to identify areas of vulnerability.

The term “good governance” is a loaded term. It is viewed in the modem Sri Lankan context as a term used to criticize or stifle or malign a regime even if that regime itself may pay lip service to the term. Espousing “good governance” would be met with a cheer in certain quarters of our society and would be decried as an instrument of Western conspiracy in others. The more restrained may refer to it as a Western philosophic terminology that requires a home grown alternative. These variegated views arise because each person has his or her own conditioned background and agenda whether in espousing good governance or seeking to undermine its significance. Let me be candid and state that my views on good governance are shaped no doubt by the challenges that we face in the Northern Province.

Good governance has many facets and it may be useful to clarify the different ways in which we could understand it. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP) defines good governance as “the process of decision making and the process by which decisions are implemented (or not implemented)”. Put differently, good governance is about how we make decisions. The UNESCAP identifies the following eight characteristics of good governance viz

1. Participatory
2. Consensus oriented
3. Accountable
4. Transparent
5. Responsive
6. Effective and efficient
7. Equitable and inclusive
8. Follows the rule of law

Good governance could also be understood as the successful relationship between the different stakeholders in society. Sam Agere notes in the Commonwealth publication “Promoting Good Governance – Principles, Practices and Perspectives” that good governance could be understood through the following Governance structures:

  • the relationship between governments and citizens
  • the relationship between governments and markets
  • the relationship between governments and the voluntary or private sector
  • the relationship between elected (politicians) and appointed (civil servants)
  • the relationship between local government institutions and urban and rural dwellers
  • the relationship between the legislature and the executive
  • the relationship between nation states and international institutions.

In other words, good governance is about the intricate web of interconnection that forms the fabric of society and how well those connections function in relation to and in conjunction with each other.

For me good governance is then about three Ds which encapsulate the different ideas discussed – Dialogue, Duty and Discipline. I will try to explain my view of good governance in the context of the special challenges that we have faced in Sri Lanka, and in particular the Northern Provincial Council.

First and foremost good governance is about Dialogue. Dialogue between the various stakeholders as discussed earlier – the government, its different branches, the Executive, Legislature and the Judiciary, its citizens, the market regulators, civil servants and even other countries, multinationals and INGOs. Without proper dialogue, there can be no communication of interests or needs. There can be no sharing of concerns. Without a governing entity being privy to the needs of its polity it can hardly be expected to address their concerns. Recently when I asked my colleagues in the Provincial Council to obtain the needs and wants of their respective constituents, some farmers in Vavuniya had said that this was the first time that those who govern had asked them what their wants and needs and problems are. In other words our governing entities hitherto had foisted their selective decisions on the people.

This is where my democracy bias comes in. It is possible to have an efficient and sometimes even effective system of governance, even without a democratic framework. There could be a philosopher – king who may be able to lead his people towards the light. But in my view, the probability of having philosopher – kings who can put the interests of their people above their own in today’s context is miniscule. More importantly, the extremely complex society in which we live makes it extremely difficult for a central authority to divine the needs of all groups of people and govern them accordingly. Inevitably, the governance regime will be captured by a powerful few to ‘the detriment of the many. This is why we need a democratic framework, where the peoples’ wishes are represented and addressed. The rationale for such a framework is dialogue.

Two important issues, particularly relevant to the Northern Provincial Council, should be understood in the context of dialogue.

Firstly dialogue cannot be one – way but both ways. Take for example a Military set up where soldiers are expected to carry out orders without question based on the grand strategy of the commanders. One cannot wage war by deliberating or voting on battlefield strategies. That requires a different mindset and understandably so.

A democratic framework is fundamentally different – for the source of power and the beneficiaries are the People. The governance structures are the framework for the trustees of those structures to deliver benefits to the people. This framework is important as it displaces the traditional idea of the governor and the governed and replaces it with a collaborative structure of a trusteeship. This is why I have been requesting for the removal of the Army from the Northern Province. Five years have passed since the end of the war and the same Army who killed and maimed our people during the war have been allowed to stay back here. The security of the Northern People far from being ensured has been aggravated. Several IDPs have not been repositioned in their residences. Their houses are the dwelling quarters of the Armed Men. People’s lands taken over in acres by the Army are cultivated by them with adequate financial help from the Government. The locals have to purchase produce from their own personal lands cultivated by Armed Men. One could go on expatiating on the effect such stationing of the Military among the civilians has had on their community and personal life. Women and children are the persons worst affected.

It will not be therefore surprising that the polity will not appreciate investment in certain areas when its priorities lie elsewhere. For instance, for a Northern populace that yearns for security, freedom of movement and expression, educational facilities, the opportunity to make a living and health facilities will not be in a position to appreciate highways or hotels. Good governance would mandate that there is two ­-way communication and that the needs of the people are first ascertained. Despite our limited resources the Northern Provincial Council is attempting to carry out a comprehensive and professional needs’ assessment to understand all the problems faced by the people. The need for a comprehensive and professional needs’ assessment is to ensure that we engage in dialogue with all segments of society and not just with the vocal or visible elements. We are hoping to carry out this endeavour with the help of the Government and several international agencies.

The second important element of dialogue is understanding that it is dependent on context. Discourse is always shaped and understood by the context in which it is held. It is but natural for a country coming out of a separatist war to be suspicious of discourse espousing freedom. Similarly, it is natural for a society broken and brutalized by war to be wary of purported civilian rule with a military face. There has been much spoken on the Northern Provincial Council requesting a civilian Governor. At the recent productive dialogues we have had, we have tried to explain, that the post – war context of the Northern Province require a different approach. We have tried to explain that the Northern citizen is faced with several problems at the root of which is the Military that does not speak her language, understand her culture or share her religious views. Imagine a citizen whose lands are occupied by the Military, who sees verdant vegetation being grown on her land by outsiders brought in by the military, who sell it to her at a profit, whose movement and speech is monitored and controlled by the Military, whose sisters and daughters have been subject to despicable acts by them, whose economic activities are curtailed by the Military’s involvement in those activities, who sees the Military give protection to armed Para Military groups to intimidate the citizenry further, and ask her the question, whether the context permits proper dialogue, if the head of the governance structure in the Province symbolises that very same Military?

The issue is not whether a Military person can carry out civil administration or whether there is a possibility that chauvinistic civilians who could be worse might take over as Governors – the issue is whether governance can take place when the context inhibits dialogue. It is time we focused on the larger picture of context. It is only then we can hope for a meaningful system of governance.

Once proper dialogue is in place the next step is to perform the various Duties that constitute governance. The most fundamental aspect in carrying out Duties is the approach that we adopt. In my view, a dispassionate and professional approach or disinterested devotion to duty is key to ensuring that the duties are discharged diligently.

The specific duties themselves, involve planning, first and foremost, for without a proper plan the issues ascertained through dialogue cannot be addressed. The work would have to be professional to ensure that the duties are discharged efficiently and effectively. By efficiency I mean that minimum resources are expended in discharging their duties and by effectiveness I mean the extent to which the objectives are satisfactorily met. It is in the above context that we at the Northern Provincial Council are hoping to have short – term, medium – term and long – term action plans based on the comprehensive needs’ assessments carried out. Ad – hoc commitments and ventures are inefficient. Of course one cannot allow perfection to be the enemy of the good. We have to try and work out some projects parallel to the process of a comprehensive plan.

A natural corollary of Duty based approach is meritocracy. In order to ensure efficiency and effectiveness one needs to have trained professionals. Merely because someone is the grand – daughter of some person doesn’t qualify that person to hold a particular post. Lineage may be relevant to eulogies, but has no role to play in a meritocracy. The idea of duty is the idea of a meritocracy. The Northern Province has seen tremendous brain drain and requires trained professionals to assist in its recovery. Given the extraordinary circumstance of post – war recovery, the need for professionals is particularly felt. It is for this reason that we have initialed dialogue with the government to facilitate the return of Sri Lankans who have obtained foreign citizenship. As part of our aim to ensure that dialogue is two – way process we have expressly noted that there is a possibility that the Government may have security concerns and have welcomed the establishment of a fair security procedure to screen those who wish to return and help those who are less fortunate.

Democracy plays a role in this aspect of Governance as well. It is natural that given limited resources not all the needs of all the people can be addressed. But the idea should not be simply about doing the largest good for the largest number at the expense of a weak minority. A proper understanding of a democracy takes a Rawlsian view that ensures at the very least a minimum requirement for the least advantaged. Steps will have to be taken to protect the most vulnerable. John Rawls (1921 – 2002) maintained that inequalities in society can only be justified if they produce increased benefits for the entire society and only if those previously the most disadvantaged members of society are no worse off as a result of any inequalities.

It is important to bear in mind that the discharge of duty involves continuous dialogue as well. It is only if we have continuous feedback from the people that we may know if our governance is positive. The process of dialogue will therefore have to continue.

The final element of governance is Discipline. By discipline I mean the ability to ensure that the duties are discharged properly. Thus discipline will require transparency in action. We would welcome laws which involve the Freedom of Information so that people could be privy to the workings of the administration. The first element of discipline is knowing that everything that is done is visible to the public. The second aspect is accountability. If a person who is responsible for mismanagement or corruption is not held accountable there can be no hope for good governance. Imagine a scenario where a person is found to be responsible for causing millions of Rupees of loss to the State either through inefficiency or corruption. If no action is taken against such a person or if such a person is merely transferred to another Ministry, there is no incentive for people to work efficiently or refrain from corruption.

Fundamental to the idea of accountability is the existence of the Rule of law. For this an independent judiciary and a robust Bar are crucial. I have spoken at length on the problems faced in this regard in Sri Lanka at numerous other forums and do not consider it necessary to dwell on this aspect.

No system of Governance is fool proof. As Joseph Stiglitz points out regulatory capture in the United States has led to rising inequality and discontent. Good governance is a work in progress and an aspiration. It cannot be obtained through accident but through design. It is a process that requires great deal of attention and professional approach, supported by the public. I hope discussions such as this would encourage people to move from a system of patronage towards a system of professional Governance.

I thank the organizers for inviting me and thank the audience for their patient hearing

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