15th June,  2003, Volume 9, Issue 48

















Well done, Ranil!

Four hundred and fifty billion rupees: that’s a lot of loola by anyone’s standards. One-tenth, in fact, the wealth of Bill Gates, the world’s richest man. And it is, by a good margin, way more than Ranil Wickremesinghe ever hoped for. Wickremesinghe must indeed be a happy man, for the international community has given him their stamp of confidence, even if some folks back home might have their moments of doubt.

Much of the past year has been spent by Wickremesinghe on securing this funding. Endless meetings reviewing the progress of each sector; countless committees striving to move things along. And progress there has been, though not as much many people hoped for.

For the space of a few weeks, Chandrika Kumaratunga and the LTTE became strange bedfellows in their attempts to undo the donor conference, with the Tigers boycotting and the President refusing even to provide a message of goodwill. The PA’s own Joseph Goebbels, Dr. Sarath Amunugama, lost no time in pouring cold water on the government’s achievement by saying it increased public debt. Well, Dr. Amunugama, wasn’t that precisely what the PA did, which is why interest rates were in their twenties for much of 1994-2001 period? What is more, isn’t it right that the borrowed money went not into development but into billion rupee luxury vehicle fleets for Kumaratunga and her brats to ride in? Dear Dr. Amunugama, pray put a sock in it.

The LTTE’s grand gesture to boycott the conference lost them an unique opportunity to take centre-stage in the process of their converting from a terrorist organisation to a political party. They will regret that childish decision, although there is good enough reason for their pique. What the Tigers have yet to learn is that posturing and threatening can get you only so far in the world of politics; parleying can get you almost anything.

As for Kumaratunga, her refusal to issue even a statement of support for the talks won her only scorn, with only the Vice President, World Bank, Meiko Nishimizu tacitly coming to her aid by refusing to lead the bank’s delegation to Tokyo and sending Country Director Peter Harold instead. Nishimizu’s patronising style towards non-Japanese Asians has been widely commented on within the government, on which her slight has not been lost. Nishimizu has already attracted adverse comment in Sri Lanka by insensitively helicoptering about the country on ‘poverty-reduction’ missions, with the bank’s aid to the poverty-stricken villages she lands in being significantly less than the cost of the ride. She has also chosen to dabble in local politics, making it widely known that she is a personal friend and admirer of Chandrika Kumaratunga.

For Wickremesinghe the conference was a major triumph also in a personal sense because he did stake his credibility on it. Notwithstanding that, the donors did have some words of caution, especially with regard to keeping the peace process on track. This is now the main challenge the government faces, given the LTTE’s demand for a hand in the administration of the north and east.

There can be no doubt that the UNF government has tested the patience of the people of the north and east to the extreme. Granted, there are no bullets in the air: but when you’ve said that, you’ve said everything. With 800,000 people still displaced a year-and-a-half after the government took office; almost no development activity having commenced; and schools, hospitals, roads and places of religious worship in a dreadful state, the north east has yet to see the economic dividends of peace.

The LTTE has watched the government bungling the administration of the north and east for 18 whole months, with no sense of urgency whatsoever. The Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Refugees Ministry, lead by Jayalath Jayawardena, is in a mess. Not even a cabinet ministry, it does not have a single executive agency under it and has no mechanism to actually do anything apart from channel money to GAs, notorious for their inefficiency. Then there is a non-cabinet Assisting Wanni Rehabilitation Ministry and a non-cabinet North and West Region Development Ministry, which are totally separate entities bearing no relation to the Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Refugees Ministry. Finally, eastern development is a separate subject under Rauf Hakeem’s Port Development and Shipping Ministry.

The sad fact is that there isn’t a single cabinet minister responsible for the vitally important job of rehabilitation and development in the north. And even more tragically, the two people appointed by Wickremesinghe to care for the north and east, Jayalath Jayawardena and Rauf Hakeem, have been found to be wanting in delivery.

The Tigers have every right to be annoyed with the government, given the mess it has made of administering the north and east. Seeing that the job could hardly have been done any worse, there can be no doubt that the LTTE can only do it better. Their demand for administrative power is therefore altogether justified.

One of the principal arguments for Eelam has been the claim by the Tamils that they have been victims of Sinhala mal-administration (which is quite separate from discrimination). Eelamists hold that while the Sinhalese are quite welcome to bungle their own future through laziness, corruption and inefficiency, there is no reason they should take the Tamils down with them. Given that the Tamils are as talented and hard-working a minority as minorities come, they naturally wish to break free of these shackles and go their own way. In this sense, the Tamil insurgency springs from the same sense of frustration with government incompetence and abuse as the JVP’s southern insurgency.

Wickremesinghe must come to grips with this fact and put together a clever design for the rehabilitation and development of the north and east. It is not too late, riding high on post-Tokyo euphoria, for him to make real and meaningful changes to the structure of his government. The needs of the hour are a single focused, cabinet-level ministry for north east rehabilitation and development, and meaningful engagement with the LTTE with regard to an interim administration. Hedging on these would be tantamount to shooting Tokyo — and himself — in the foot.

Wickremesinghe would also do well to pay heed to the cautions that all the donors have openly expressed with regard to his government’s capacity to utilise the aid that has been pledged, and the skepticism with which a significant fraction of the population have received the aid package. On the one hand, political dabbling in aid-funded projects, corruption and the inefficiency of the multifarious committees Wickremesinghe has established, have served significantly to retard aid utilisation. The four-month backlog of cabinet tenders sitting with the finance sub-committee chaired by K. N. Choksy, for one, is a telling example of inefficiency instigated by the Prime Minister himself. This is one of the primary impediments facing the aid utilisation process, and many funding streams have expired even as the committee has endlessly procrastinated.

At Tokyo, Wickremesinghe won a morale booster comparable only with that of J. R. Jayewardene in 1978, which set Sri Lanka on the path to development. Indeed, the 1978-82 period was the acme of economic growth in the country. Granted, mistakes were made, but the net result was unprecedented agricultural growth, half the country’s present-day electricity supply, a modern port and unprecedented private sector growth. Speeding up aid utilisation means cutting red tape and eliminating some of those committees. As a result, mistakes will be made, but it is better to make mistakes and have some progress rather than make none and have none.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and we would hate to have to tell Wickremesinghe a year from now that we were right after all — that his government was indeed as inefficient, corrupt and incompetent as we said it was. It is in his power, and his alone, to set things right, and there is no passing the buck. He needs urgently to establish a north east interim administration, restructure his ministries and put honest ministers in charge of key portfolios and, above all, put in place a set of ministry secretaries who can deliver. A tall order, but that is what the people of Sri Lanka have mandated him to do. Now, let’s get on with the job

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