The Development of a People Empowerment Programme for Sri Lanka

INTRODUCTION

The Citizen’s Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) was formed in April 2002 by a group of concerned citizens who had held, or were currently holding, posts involving a high degree of responsibility in the public and private sectors. CIMOGG was formally incorporated in November 2004 and is obliged to conform to the requirements of the Companies Act No 7 of 2007.

The fundamental principles which guide CIMOGG are that the People are sovereign and that virtually all the ills of the Country can be traced back to poor governance, lack of respect for the Rule of Law, discrimination of various kinds, and the non-implementation of the principle of subsidiarity (that is, that a central authority should perform only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level) and lack of accountability.

The first four years from the founding of CIMOGG were spent in trying to lobby Members of Parliament to persuade them to help introduce good governance practices, observance of the Rule of Law and the development of a generally-acceptable system of government based on subsidiarity. However, it became clear that virtually all Sri Lankan politicians are determined to preserve the status quo because it is only by doing so that they could continue to safeguard their personal and party interests, and thus make certain that their privileges and potential for enriching themselves would not be affected adversely.
The next stage in CIMOGG’s efforts involved writing letters to the press on matters relating to good governance and the Rule of Law, with suggestions for specific steps to be taken towards that end. It was hoped that the open attention drawn to these issues would shame our politicians into making at least a token effort to serve the public interest. Disappointingly, neither the Executive nor any of our MPs have responded by word or deed to any of the numerous CIMOGG press releases which have appeared since September 2005 in the newspapers. That is, they persist in violating the Constitution, the laws of this country, and our financial regulations, whenever it suits them, confirming the sad truth stated succinctly by Harry Browne: It is important to realise that, when you give power to politicians or bureaucrats, it will be used for what they want and not for what you want. In other words, although the Constitution states that the People are sovereign, and that their sovereignty is inalienable, the reality is that, when the People delegated their powers to Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary, what happened was that the People unwittingly surrendered almost all their powers to these entities.

Owing mostly to logistical and financial constraints, CIMOGG’s letters were sent only to the English language papers although it was recognised right from the outset that it was more important to work in Sinhala and Tamil. An effort was made some months ago to rectify this shortcoming by addressing a few letters to the Sinhala language press but these were not published. Why the Sinhala press is unwilling to publish articles on the same subjects as those which have appeared in the English press is a mystery that is being investigated by CIMOGG for future guidance. The Tamil press is yet to be assessed.

ANALYSIS

The vast majority of those citizens who are already well off, and almost all businessmen and top professionals, feel no pangs of conscience in looking only after themselves by collaborating with those in power to take advantage of their less influential fellow citizens in subtle and, not infrequently, corrupt ways. For all practical purposes, these powerful groups have no motivation to get into a confrontation with the powers that be or to call for any changes to advance the cause of good governance.

If we turn to the middle class, we find that, apart from a small and active minority, it is basically passive, centred around personal and family interests, and fearful of earning the wrath of the political establishment. Nevertheless, there are signs that it should not be too difficult to find significant numbers of public-spirited citizens within this group. Given non-partisan guidance, they could be catalysed to form effective groups which would lobby strongly for good governance.

Those who are poor feel that the only way that they can hope to get a share of the national cake is to become hangers-on and supporters of their chosen political patrons. All the same, there is no doubt that there are many among the poor who, if given unbiased information on important issues and assistance in organising themselves, will join hands with the middle class to press our politicians to work more for the People’s good and a little less in their own and their parties’ benefit.

It is vital, therefore, for good governance to be fostered, that the middle and less affluent classes are activated. However, CIMOGG does not believe that this can be done effectively through long-winded seminars at 5-star venues, periodic street demonstrations, fasts unto death, violent confrontations, burning and looting of public and private property, taking to arms, and similar activities because these are generally localised in impact, unlawful, counter-productive or even destructive at times. Moreover, the more robust forms of protest always provide the authorities with an excuse to use extreme methods to suppress the People’s will.
Logic and careful observation of effective lobbying suggests that the most sustainable method of influencing politicians would be to mobilise voters in a large number of geographically small population centres to form Citizens’ Committees (CitComs) that would act as pressure groups. Considering the many factors involved, the present Polling Station Areas (PSAs), where every resident is within walking distance of many other residents who are known to him/her, would be ideally suited for the formation of independent CitComs. Alternatively, the Grama Sevaka (Village Officer) Division, could be the primary unit for the formation of CitComs.

Depending on the location of the PSAs within the country, the CitComs would obviously include varying proportions of the well-to-do, the middle class and those of very limited means.
STRATEGY

Referring to the need to take action to change the world for the better, Bill Gates has said: “We do nothing because we do not know what to do”. It is CIMOGG’s aim to show the People what are the more important things that need to be done, and how they should be done.

The first step in forming the CitComs would be for CIMOGG to advertise in the media, in all three languages, asking those who are anxious and willing to spare a little time and effort to promote good governance to get in touch with CIMOGG. It would be stipulated that applicants should be voters and that they should not be current members of any political party.

Those responding would be encouraged and guided to form CitComs in their respective PSAs, which would be urged to meet at least once a fortnight for, say, two hours to discuss matters of local and national importance. Once a fortnight, CIMOGG would provide concise, non-partisan Information Sheets on issues of national and local significance, which the CitComs would utilise as the starting point of their discussions. What the CitComs would be expected to do would be to prepare a brief petition every two months or so, embodying their own ideas on how they would wish their District MPs to deal with the specific local or national issues raised by CIMOGG. The CitCom members would then go around their respective PSAs and try to get as many fellow voters as possible (preferably not less than 50 from a typical average of 1100 in each PSA) to sign these petitions and send copies to each of their 8-10 District MPs, calling upon the latter to press their parties and Parliament to accede to whatever is sought in each petition.
There is a total of about 10,700 PSAs in the country. Most of these PSAs have about 900-1300 voters each. If 50% of the PSAs get active and if the CitComs persuade just 10% of their fellow voters to sign up, there would be a total of over 500,000 voters signing these petitions once every two months. Thus, every one of the 220 or so elected MPs from the 25 Districts would receive petitions containing a total of around 20,000 signatures once every two months. It is CIMOGG’s conviction that this kind of lobby cannot be ignored by any MP, however thick-skinned.
To help make things easier at the start, CIMOGG would furnish a draft petition with each of the Information Sheets but it would be made absolutely clear that there is no obligation on the CitComs to follow the CIMOGG draft. They would be completely free to prepare their own petitions, which may even take up positions very different from those suggested by CIMOGG.

The CitComs would be urged to alternate between petitions dealing with national issues and those dealing with local issues so that the voters will progressively get to recognise more clearly the relationship between the two and the need to work at both levels simul-taneously.

Funding the Programme

Over the past five years or so, there has been an increasing tendency for NGOs, whether local or international, which are financed by foreign governments or organisations, to be severely criticised by divers public figures in Sri Lanka on the alleged grounds that they (the NGOs) are working to an anti-Sri Lankan or, at least, a pro-foreign agenda. Irrespective of how far this criticism may be justified, there are obvious dangers in looking for institutional sources of funding from abroad. Because of this, CIMOGG made some inquiries to ascertain whether local firms would be interested in helping foster good governance under their Corporate Social Responsibility programmes. What was discovered was that, whereas some of our firms would be willing to fund small projects with charitable objectives, they did not wish to fall foul of the political establishment by getting involved in promoting good governance even in a small way. By concentrating on charity, it allows them to feel good and project a benevolent image while carrying on with their self-serving arrangements with politicians of all colours. Sadly, the bigger and better-known social service organisations are also found to be interested only in their internal and international gubernatorial elections, their charitable works, dances and dinners – but not in good governance.

CIMOGG has, therefore, been compelled to carry on for the past six years by relying solely on the subscriptions collected from its own small membership and a few donations from well-wishers, which is quite minuscule.

It is also necessary to explain that CIMOGG has never had any infrastructure of its own. From the outset, it has employed facilities belonging to certain generous civil service organisations and individuals to carry on with its limited scope of activities. If it is to carry out the People Empowerment Programme of work outlined above, CIMOGG would need to have access to a sizeable annual injection of funds. In order not to attract uninformed and mala fide criticism for approaching foreign institutional sources for funding, it has been decided by the CIMOGG Council that the main thrust of its efforts should be to collect funds from Sri Lankan individuals, both in Sri Lanka and abroad, as well as those former Sri Lankans who have adopted some other nationality without losing their love for Sri Lanka altogether. Funding from independent foundations in which Sri Lankans are closely involved would also be welcome providing there are no strings attached and that it is given only for the purposes stated here.

Cost Of The Programme

A budgetary estimate for CIMOGG’s People Empowerment Programme has been worked out on the basis that no Office-Bearer or Member of the Council of CIMOGG would be paid any remuneration for the time they contribute to CIMOGG. Membership of CIMOGG will always to be on a strictly voluntary basis. No money would be used for the purchase of luxury vehicles or foreign travel or festivities in expensive hotels. The funding will be required only to be spent on renting a small office and equipping it with computers, telephones, faxes, photocopying facilities etc. The permanent staff would be an office manager, English/Sinhala translator, English/Tamil translator and two office assistants to deal with the mailing of 10,700 Information Sheets once every fortnight. Assuming that all the office equipment is secured on lease, the total cost of running the PEP has been worked out at US$90,000 annually.

It is well known that, among the 2 Million Sri Lankans or persons of Sri Lankan origin resident overseas, there are many who would like to help get Sri Lanka back on a disciplined track to social and economic advancement. Most of those who wish to help are driven by the thought that they were able to go and make a good living abroad thanks to the free education that was paid for by the indirect taxes collected from every citizen of Sri Lanka, from the poorest of the poor to the richest. Needless to say, for practical reasons, hardly anyone living abroad would be able to get involved directly in promoting good governance but virtually every one of them who comes to Sri Lanka from time to time shows great eagerness to support organisations such as CIMOGG which are active in this field. If just 20,000 of the 2 Million persons referred to above were to contribute US$5 annually to CIMOGG, the total funds collected would be US$100,000, which would just exceed the budget target and provide an enormous impetus to the task of informing and empowering the people of Sri Lanka.

For a selection of CIMOGG’s contributions to the Press and Relevance to Good Governance, click here

If you wish to support CIMOGG’s PEP, click here