From transparency to opacity

1 September 2016 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}




One of the most unfortunate things about establishing good governance in Sri Lanka is that its main advocates chose as flag-bearers people who neither knew nor cared about it. In a word, politicians.

The chosen champions were experts at walking around transparency and accountability.Expecting them to turn into saints the moment they were conferred with the one thing they consider a licence to flout all tenets of democracy, namely power, was naïve. A few weeks of ‘Yahapalanaya’ was time enough to disappoint the most optimistic. Perhaps they felt this was expected in the necessarily long process of instituting reforms and changing the political culture. The signs however, are not exactly encouraging. That’s about politicians. ‘To be expected,’ one might say. How about the advocates, though? Were they really interested in good governance or was it nothing more than a sellable term to attract advocacy-funds? One cannot fault them for being hopeful or for backing what was believed to be the best horse available to carry the nation to the splendid regions where democracy, good governance, reconciliation, peace and other such goodies are abundant. But what if intent was not honourable? What if good governance advocacy was just a part of a job description? More seriously, what if the high priests of good governance didn’t practise what they preached? Indeed, what if they violated the basic tenets at every turn? The silence of the advocates in the face of nepotism, allegations of corruption, waste and blatant flouting of all tenets of democracy, especially given that they were quite loud about decrying such things during the Rajapaksa years, is understandable.

‘Early days,’ is an explanation that’s been offered. Almost two years after what Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri hilariously calls ‘Low Intensity Revolution of January 8, 2015’ the ‘early days’ excuse is not getting much traction. It increasingly appears that they were not betting on this lot to deliver but rather used ‘good governance’ as a convenient slogan to help friends secure power. They would know. What we know is that the goodness of the good boys and girls advocating good governance is news as bad as the non-governance and poor-governance of the men and women they backed as standard-bearers. Here’s an example. Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), one of the many NGOs in the forefront of the battle against the ‘Rajapaksa tyranny,’ has been caught (once again) doing the no-no. Now TISL has been diagnosed with hoof-in-the-mouth on several occasions. In March 2011 it was reported that TISL had received Rs.174.79 million for election monitoring. TISL was challenged to take out full page ads in all the main newspapers detailing how much they got, from whom and when and what it was spent on. It was reported that among the donors were, Meyers Norris Penny Ltd RM (Canada), Canadian International Development Agency, Berghof Foundation (Germany), Facilitating Local Initiatives for Conflict Transformation (Germany), Stichting Cordaid (The Netherlands), Norwegian Embassy, Commission Des Communautes (Norway), ICT for Peace Foundation (Switzerland), Dep. F. Auswaert, Angelegenheiten (Switzerland), Swedish Embassy, Swedish International Development Agency, Goldman Sachs Grant (UK), Minority Rights GRP Ltd., BCA (UK), European Commission, Transparency International Division (UK), Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (UK), European Union, Diakonia (US), Forum of Federations/Forum Des (US), International Media Support (US), the Ford Foundation (US), Fredskorpset Bergen (US), National Endowment for Democracy (US), Partnership for Transparency Fund (US) and Academy for Educational Development (US). TISL kept quiet. No transparency. No accountability. All opaque.And now, TISL has been challenged from within. Some employees have alleged that the outfit is marked by the abuse of power, nepotism, favouritism and improper recruitment. Interestingly, among the complainants is an individual who headed a move to institute a whistle-blower policy which TISL had endorsed. The contract of that individual was not renewed when his term of employment ended. With respect to the submission, TISL has responded by appointing a committee to investigate the allegations, but one made of senior members of the administration, clearly a violation of the independence-principle, i.e. the present Chairperson and a former Chairperson, the latter being the ‘face’ of the outfit and its principal spokesperson for several years and therefore clearly implicated in the said wrongdoing. In Sinhala such moves are amusedly dismissed as ‘horage ammagen pena ahanava vage’ (It is like asking the mother of the thief to shed light on the theft). So where’s the accountability? Where’s the transparency? What does ‘good governance’ mean for TISL? What moral authority does TISL have to point fingers at violators of good governance principles and advocate the same if it thumbs its institutional nose at the cardinal principles? The TISL of course is not alone in this ‘game’.

 There are other physicians who are determined not to heal themselves even as they prescribe medicine for ailments they themselves are afflicted with. And this, perhaps, is (for the moment) the best insurance that this Government has in facing charges of ‘good governance humbuggery’ – the minders have skeletons and the minded can whisper, following President Maithripala Sirisena, ‘I know secrets about you’. It’s opaque, not transparent. And it’s the opacity that encourages wrongdoing, protects the wrongdoers and tragically turns the entire discourse of good governance into the joke that corrupt (and inept) politicians and officials would love people to laugh about.   

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. Blog: Twitter: malindasene.

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