of aid is as important as obtaining aid”
Ronnie De Mel, one of the most seasoned politicians in the country
and one time finance minister who has participated and led Sri Lanka to
12 aid group meetings, says the donor conference that was concluded last
week in Tokyo was successful to ‘some extent.’ He says any money
coming into the country at this juncture would be beneficial. However,
he says in the past Sri Lanka has obtained more financial assistance
from such donor countries. He says one must not forget that the 1980 US
dollar was not the same as the 2003 US dollar. “The rates have changed
considerably. With this huge change of rates, in actual fact, I wish to
point out that the sum obtained works out to about one billion US
dollars per year only,” he told The Sunday Leader in an interview.
Following are excerpts;
By Wilson Gnanadass
Q: The donor conference has just concluded with Sri Lanka receiving a
substantial aid package. Do you think it is good for the development of
A: All governments in Sri Lanka have regularly gone to aid
consortium meetings and obtained aid for the economic development of the
country. I have myself led the Sri Lankan delegation to 12 such aid
group meetings, 10 of which were held in Paris and two in Tokyo.
Therefore this is not the first aid group meeting held in Tokyo as some
people wrongly assume. These aid group meetings are normally under the
aegis of the World Bank (WB). The WB regularly holds such meetings for
several countries like ours in Asia, Africa and Latin America. What was
somewhat special in this meeting was that it was not called by the WB
alone but co-sponsored by Japan, USA the EU and the WB. The aid package
was about four billion US dollars spread over a four-year period from
2003 to 2006 both years inclusive.
While congratulating Ranil Wickremesinghe in getting considerable aid for
Sri Lanka, I wish to point out that the sum obtained works out to about
one billion US dollars per year only. In certain years in the period
1977 to 1988 Sri Lanka obtained as much as two billion US dollars and a
little over this amount per year both from the aid
consortium and from
certain countries which gave us aid outside the consortium. Also we must
not forget that the 1980 US dollar was not the same as the 2003 US
dollar. In 1980 the Victoria dam and power station
cost us only 100 million US dollars. Now it cannot be built for
even one billion US dollars. The same with the port, airport,
Lunugamvehera and many other things we did then. Therefore all these
things have relative values and four billion US dollars over four years
though a considerable sum does not go all the way that money did in the
1970s and 1980s when we embarked upon the biggest economic progress
programme in Sri Lanka’s history.
Q: Sri Lanka could not utilise some portion of the aid received
previously from donor countries properly thus resulting in a lot of
money going back to the donors. Now how do you think such money should
A: Utilisation of aid is as important as obtaining aid. In the old
days Sri Lanka utilised upto 50% of the aid and our utilisation record
was among the best in the world. This had dropped to nine per cent in
recent times. In my opinion this is entirely due to red
tape, bureaucratic procedures, and unnecessary delays in
feasibility studies, technical evaluations
and tendering, and above all to multiplication of ministries,
departments and authorities responsible for the ultimate utilisation of
the aid received.
In the old days everything was concentrated in the Ministry of Finance
and Planning which dealt with the functions of about five ministries
today, in addition to the
Ministry of Policy Development which is now under the Prime Minister.
Everything was done under one roof in one ministry with a weekly meeting
with the President who also summoned any line ministries concerned if
there were any delays. The entire machinery of government at that time
was conducive to much quicker action with regard to economic development
than today. For example the southern express way has now taken more than
12 years and has still not started although all the money is available.
Q: What are your views of the Tokyo declaration and the aims and
objectives of the aid conference?
A: I must indeed congratulate the donors on the Tokyo declaration,
which in my opinion is an exemplary document. In the midst of all media
hype and propaganda eye wash surrounding the aid consortium meeting, the
declaration stands out as an excellent document. The donors have very
clearly stated the three main aims of giving substantial aid to Sri
Lanka. One for peace and the furtherance of the peace process and to
bring it to a successful conclusion soon. Two, for
quick economic growth and the creation of jobs. Three,
to reduce poverty in the country. In addition to these the aim
which has been clearly stated in the Tokyo declaration,
the reconstruction, rehabilitation and relief to the north and
east plays a significant role in the aid consortium objectives. In this
connection I would like to point out that although the present
government has made a significant and worthwhile contribution to bring
about peace in the north east in the last one and a half years, its
record in the area of creating jobs and reducing poverty has been
Q: A common allegation leveled against successive governments is that
they don’t utilise the money received from donor countries properly.
Why is this?
A: Some of the aid received by Sri Lanka over the years has been
properly utilised and has indeed
benefited the country. Our dams, power stations, thermal power plants,
ports, airports, telecom, urban development, large irrigation schemes,
rehabilitation of plantations, some hospitals, universities
etc., have been built or expanded only because we obtained the
necessary foreign aid. At the same time some of the aid has been misused
or badly utilised due largely to corruption, lack of transparency and
accountability, unsatisfactory planning even above all political
interference. For example I obtained all the money for the Lunugamvehera
scheme in Hambantota District which should have irrigated 30,000 acres
for both seasons and given a satisfactory life to 15,000 farmer
families. Due to political interfenrece the dam was cited in a
particular political constituency when it should have been cited much
higher up stream. As a
result the project has not given the agriculture benefit it should have
given. In the same way I obtained all the money for the Nilwala ganga
scheme in Matara District which should have prevented all floods and
enabled the cultivation of 30,000 acres in that district which gets
inundated by floods several times a year.
Q: How do you view the LTTE’s total rejection of all proposals put
forward by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Are they indications of
a resumption of war?
A: It is very unfortunate that the LTTE has totally rejected the
Tokyo proposals. I strongly hope that a way will soon be found for them
to come back and the peace process which we all desire. I don’t think
this will lead to a resumption of war. Because even the LTTE will
realise the futility of such an exercise. A way must be found to bring
about reconciliation between their idea of a politico-administrative
interim structure and the development oriented interim structure
proposed by the government.
After all there was provisions for an interim council in the Indo Lanka
Agreement which both Chandrika Kumaratunga and her husband Vijaya
supported in 1987. There was similar provision for an interim council
and also interim cabinet in the constitution of August 2001 proposed by
the PA government and rejected by the UNP. So the interim council idea
is not a new thing. And there are various ways of finding a solution if
there is a will.
Q: Tamil parties say an interim council could be set up outside the
constitution like how the ceasefire agreement was framed for the sake of
finding a solution. Do you think it is possible?
A: A ceasefire agreement is something that is quite different from
a constitution. No ceasefire agreement anywhere in the world comes
within the ambit of the constitution of a country. It is only a
temporary military expedient to cease fighting temporarily which may
also lead eventually to a permanent peace. It is quite different from a
politico-administrative structure like an interim council, which will
require a two-thirds majority in parliament in my opinion. Without
provoking, annoying and ignoring the President in every way possible the
government should make every endeavour to discuss all matters with
President Kumaratunga and arrive at a consensus with her in matters of
this nature. This is the only way forward to a lasting peace in this
Q: Some of the left parties including the main opposition and majority
of the Sinhalese in the south charge that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe
is trying to divide the country by giving ‘Eelam’ to the Tigers. Do
you also subscribe to these sentiments ?
A: I have always been for peace in Sri Lanka. I will never change
my stand on this subject. Without peace this country can never go
forward economically or in any other way.
Q: As a politician with many years of experience what do you think
needs to be done to bring
Sri Lanka a lasting peace?
A: We had a solution in 1987 and it was sabotaged by some of the
leaders of our own party, which was the UNP then. President Kumaratunga
came very near to a solution and it was again sabotaged by the UNP. This
is not in any way an insoluble problem. We can solve this problem
without dividing our country. If we do not take this path of peace and
reconciliation soon, we may end up by eventually dividing Sri Lanka.