Sunday, June 5, 2011

The realization of a free & just society & a govt that speaks for all & is responsive to the voice of the people is the ideal we all seek...!!!

Information & ideas flow, innovative thinking key to good governance
June 4, 2011, 4:35 pm

Gnana Moonesinghe

Well entrenched dictators with seemingly endless life spans have suddenly been shaken to the roots of their 30/ 40 years of authoritarian rule. Many of them have planned dynastic longevity by grooming their offspring to succeed them. Secure with a loyal, well equipped military no threat was envisaged. The people even in oil rich countries in the Middle- East remained in poverty sheltered through religious fervour for solace of which the authorities made sure there was no short supply. This could have gone on but for the action of one man who having found no way of having his complaint registered in the police station decided to demonstrate his frustration by dousing himself with petrol and burning himself to death; he used the only option left to him, to commit suicide.

He lost his life but he achieved the attention of his countrymen. Tunisia where this happened erupted, followed by Egypt, Lybia, Syria and Lebanon. The spontaneous uprisings in such large numbers have shaken the governments; some have already been thrown out some are in the process of being removed. That it was an impressive shake up, among otherwise politically ‘silent’ people impressed the world to the possible potential of the surge. As time passes what seems to come as the awakening moment is that the unplanned protests had no quick fix plans for the future. If opportunists get control of the transition governments it can put to rest the hopes of the people who spearheaded the protests for change.

This brings us to a significant moment for our times - the absolute imperative to encourage the flow of new information from independent international sources for alternative systems of effective governance. All countries must recognize the power of ideas and the urgency to foster the culture of ideas; this type of intellectual activity remains the focus of think tanks that employ its energy and resources to work on selected subjects in order to generate ‘social capital’, discourage elitist group power and demonstrate ways and means of scrutinising government performance that would empower people to work towards good governance. Such resource centers have become vital at a time when retention of political power has become the end of political ambition and the growing trend of suspicion of intellectualism becomes the lingua franca of most administrations. Intellectualism is increasingly viewed as a contradiction to ‘simple’ thinking, opposing viewpoints have no place in the policy making dialogue.

Home grown ideas

In Sri Lanka home grown ideas and home grown systems and systems management are welcomed, the claim being that in the final analysis the people, and policy makers, and all others familiar with home grown ‘wisdom’ will find it easy to disseminate such ideas because such thought processes have the ‘localness’ that is considered feasible for adaptability. Home grown is equated to the inspiration provided from the collective wisdom of the indigenous people. This was one of the reasons for several politicians to raise opposition to the 1948 constitution as an imposition by the British and wanted it replaced with an autochthonous constitution, a Sri Lankan product as in the 1972 Constitution. The subsequent remedies by way of new constitutions and constitutional amendments have not provided the solutions on the expected scale to the politicians, bureaucrats or the civil society.

It is essential to emphasise to the politicians, the bureaucrats and the civil society, that in the modern world, ideas and exchange of ideas, has become the umbilical cord that creates the intellectual stimulus for linking the world of humanity to the world of innovative thinking. Interactions with such independent movements engaged in intellectual activity and absorption of what is essential for one’s personal, group or national requirements, helps humanity to forge ahead making gainful use of new ideas that is made available to them. Overdependence on home grown ideas, in sterile conditions without the injection of new thought waves from external sources, pigmy the growth of intellectualism in any country.

Sri Lanka, a developing country suffers from a patent shortfall in scholarship among the political leaders as well as among the bureaucrats and civil society largely due to the consequences of the language policy of 1956. Education in the vernacular was introduced without providing facilities for translations of available literature as well as of the new addition to the later publications that would have helped the students keep abreast with developments in the international knowledge systems. The students who came through with lean access to research guidance are those who are now in charge of positions of influence in the public sector. It is therefore imperative that responsible and competent Think Tanks make available for the policy makers and to the public, research focussed on subjects required by the government and the bureaucracy. Factual information based on acknowledged methods of scientific research and analysis will come in handy for policy making, to the day to day movements in administration and to the general public. This will increase the information flow in such short supply in the country. Options for choice based on academic research and the experience in other countries in similar situations will inflate the ‘knowledge fund’.

Think Tanks – source of dissemination of ideas for informed policy making.

It is in this context that this contribution attempts to assess the significance of organizations such as Think Tanks that can fill the vacuum in independent scholarly research. Think Tanks are usually organizations which engage in academic research that address public concerns in any area that is of interest to the public. There are different types of Think Tanks but what would be greatly appreciated in Sri Lanka would be those that can provide ‘policy relevant’ research that will benefit needs of the policy makers, bureaucrats, civil rights activists. True that the purely academic research oriented Think Tanks are capable of producing scholarly, objective research on matters selected by them and their publications are valuable to all because of their credibility as non partisan, independent, ‘cerebral’ organizations. However too often such research is accessed largely by the intellectual elite who are not always able to influence decision makers nor are they interested to ‘walk the talk’ down the corridors of the powerful in the country. On the other hand the think tanks engaged in research focussed on the immediate needs of the country can make their research available to politicians and policy makers. Such focussed information will be invaluable to civil rights organizations that are engaged in empowering the people. Information will be available on critical issues that will facilitate people to take knowledgeable and balanced decisions without being influenced by the rhetoric of the politician, or in default by the lack of information flow from the bureaucracy or the biased reporting in the media.

The role of Think Tanks will be to provide research that reflects divergent opinions and view points to the policy makers and to the public. This will show that there is just not one way but several others to reach the same goal. Braced with such information political leaders can weigh the value of different options and make their decisions. It will also show the leaders that it is not necessary to hold rigid view points and that one can on the basis of information at their command change one’s earlier held positions. Back tracking in view of weightier counsel is a sign of maturity and not weakness.

To be able to win the confidence of recipients the Think Tanks must have demonstrable strengths on their staff that should consist of men and women of academic excellence with practical experience. Of the notable Think Tanks we have in this country, many of them are independent institutions working in one or more chosen agendas. Sometimes some are viewed as being partial in their research because of their enthusiastic support of particular causes or policy line. This makes it difficult to give credibility to their findings, and ‘truth’ as presented by them becomes questionable. Under such circumstances governments select personnel to advice them from among trusted officials, friends and relations to ensure ‘loyalty’. With no time lost these positions become coveted powerful situations to be secured at all cost. Soon objectivity becomes the casualty and advice rendered is what is perceived to be acceptable to the powers rather than what is relevant and good for the country. In UK too, not long ago ‘special advisors" were appointed who were rather derogatorily referred to as ‘mere gatekeepers’. Of late it has been commented that there is recognition that ‘there is political utility in thinking, for few things are politically toxic than a lack of ideas’. This can apply to any country. (Thinking Capital)

It is therefore timely that we in Sri Lanka too open ourselves to fresh thought waves and encourage the establishment of Think Tanks manned by academia, members of the private sector and retired public servants recognised for their contributions to pubic policy and well known for their non partisanship and integrity. As in other places it will be useful to encourage visiting scholars as well as journalists, lawyers, private sector personnel, and members from the military to participate for specified periods. The hoped for end result will be to draw new thinking and high quality research material from the mix of diverse specialization, such a mix of scholarship and experience can produce.

The agenda for Sri Lanka will always cover the following:

* Tstrengthen democratic structures that will recognize the principle of equity for all and the establishment of a reasonably acceptable quality of life for its citizens from all walks of life.

* Independent bureaucracy subject to the rules of a public service commission and open to public scrutiny for the maintenance of efficiency and integrity free from temptations of corruption.

* MMore participatory governance responsive to people’s needs, where dissent is possible and citizens are equipped to assert their freedoms constitutionally, administratively and by public assertion.

* IIndependence of the judiciary and the aggressive imposition of the rule of law - protected from invasive intrusions through executive or administrative fiats.

* RResolve the twin challenge to Sri Lanka- the limited space available for equal access to economic opportunities and the absence of a concerted attempt to resolve the ethnic differences as priority number one.

* PPower sharing mechanisms aimed to unify the multi ethnic multi cultural communities into the national mould of inclusivity and ownership.

* SStructures and roles of institutions to work the democratic framework be clearly defined and insulated from political interference.

* EEncourage independence of the media where ‘facts are sacred and comment free’.

Think tanks should provide various policy lines available to the public and make choices open to both the government and policy makers. It is important to have leaders and the public responsive to research findings. "The political tsunami in Singapore ….. serves as a sounding board for the future political landscape in Southeast Asia. . … Economic performance that has led to double -digit development is no longer sufficient criteria to sustain power holding without democracy and acceptable governance." (Financial Review 24.5.2011 –The Island) The Singaporean predicament is not for want of information flow but a classic example of a failure by the political leaders to hear people’s voices as well as to a lack of political will to respond to ‘information flow.’

It is necessary that contributions to fresh ‘thinking’ be taken in the spirit it is given and be viewed without distrust. The realization of a free and just society and a government that speaks for all and is responsive to the voice of the people is the ideal we all seek and which the research programs of the Think Tanks should deliver.


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