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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Costly UNDP ‘lessons’ for Sri Lanka Parliament

Image: Hon. Prime Minister with Hon. Mr. Mizukoshi Hideaki, Hon. Mahinda Amaraweera, Ms. Azusa Kubota and other dignitaries.

By Shamindra Ferdinando/The Island.

UNDP Resident Representative in Colombo, Azusa Kubota, accompanied international expert on parliamentary development, Kevin Deveaux, to meet Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena at the Parliament on 14th June. They were joined by Policy Expert and Head of Governance, UNDP Colombo, Chandrika Karunaratne.

Japanese national Kubota took over the UNDP mission in Colombo in January this year in the wake of the forced removal of Gotabaya Rajapaksa who handsomely won the last presidential election in November 2019. She had been the UNDP’s Resident Representative in Bhutan from 2019 to 2022.

According to a brief statement issued by Parliament, Deputy Speaker Ajith Rajapaksa, Deputy Chair of Committees Angajan Ramanathan, Secretary General of Parliament Kushani Rohanadeera, Assistant Secretary General Hansa Abeyratne and Speaker’s Foreign Affairs Coordinating Secretary Dr. Chamira Yapa Abeywardena were present on the occasion. Dr. Chamira Yapa Abeywardena is the Speaker’s son.

The trilingual media statement didn’t indicate as to why UNDP brought in the former Canadian lawmaker, a lawyer by profession here at a time Parliament is in deepening turmoil. There is no doubt the UNDP wants Deveaux to advise the Sri Lanka Parliament. Interestingly, the UNDP has engaged an ex-Canadian lawmaker for its high profile project here at a time controversy surrounds the Canadian Parliament passing a resolution, claiming Sri Lanka had committed genocide against its Tamils and a declaration of punitive sanctions against former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa over unsubstantiated war crimes allegations, especially during the last phase of the war to defeat “the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit” the LTTE.

Did Parliament seek UNDP’s assistance or did the UN intervene on its own? The UN has had a murky past here, especially during the war years when it only posted Westerners. One such Resident Representative even went to the extent of wanting to declare its compound in Colombo a refugee camp for Tamils obviously to create a new problem for Sri Lanka. Luckily for us our then much loved Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, later assassinated by the LTTE, had the guts to tell the world body, obviously manipulated by the West, where to get off.

Bankrupt Sri Lanka is at a crossroads. With political parties unable to reach consensus on a tangible recovery plan over a year after outspoken Governor of the Central Bank Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe acknowledged Sri Lanka’s inability to meet her obligations, Parliament seems to be the mother of all problems.

Responding to The Island query in this regard, Kubota has sent us the following response: Kevin Deveaux is here in his capacity as an expert consultant. Deveaux is also a former UNDP parliamentary development advisor supporting all of our programmes in the world. The former Canadian lawmaker is here as part of the integrated economic governance mission which looks at our current Parliament development programme and advises on future activities. As you know, we have a longstanding programme with the Parliament. The meeting was a courtesy call to initiate the exercise.”

UNDP’s efforts should be appreciated. However, UNDP Colombo that had funded projects implemented by Parliament here cannot be unaware of the pathetic status of Sri Lanka’s parliamentary democracy. Further funding wouldn’t make any difference as long as those at the helm lacked political will to take remedial measures. Sri Lankan leadership, regardless of who exercised the power at any given time since 1977, seems hell-bent on pursuing corrupt practices, regardless of consequences. The accusations exchanged between the government and Opposition benches repeatedly prove that Parliament is the worst offender and directly responsible for the unprecedented economic crisis.

Ali Sabri Raheem and the parliament 

Parliament standards hit a new low late last month when first time entrant Ali Sabri Raheem of the Muslim National Alliance (MNA), was caught trying to smuggle in gold and smartphones worth Rs 74 mn and Rs 4.2 mn respectively, through the VIP channel of the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA). The arrest was made after he arrived from Dubai, his sixth visit to that destination since 01 March, this year! The following day, he coolly entered Parliament and exercised his vote in support of the Opposition when the government successfully moved a resolution against the then Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission Janaka Ratnayake.

Having declared the UNDP’s involvement with Parliament for over a decade at an orientation workshop for youth representatives of Sectoral Oversight Committees of Parliament, at Waters Edge, Battaramulla, on 13 June this year, Kubota must surely be ashamed of the developing situation. Speaker Abeywardena has declared that he didn’t have the power to deal with the errant MP who seems to have visited Dubai more than his electorate Puttalam since March, this year.

Addressing the event at Waters Edge, Kubota explained the UNDP’s role here to the gathering. The audience included President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who also serves as the Minister of Finance as well as Defence, Premier Dinesh Gunawardena, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa. Kubota stressed that the UNDP backed initiatives to strengthen Parliament. Such initiatives were meant to foster democracy and promote what Kubota called sustainable and inclusive development.

The President’s Office quoted Kubota as having said that UNDP’s global collaboration with parliaments around the world focused on strengthening all their core functions. “These functions include lawmaking, oversight, representation and budget scrutiny. While doing so, we hope to further enhance the inclusivity and representation of the people. We promote a greater oversight of transparent governance processes and to improve the effectiveness of its functioning. The current programme we have with the Parliament of Sri Lanka is one of such flagship partnerships in the Asia Pacific region.”

How transparent is UN/UNDP?

We would beg to ask how transparent is the UN about its own internal governance, especially inside the UNDP in particular when it picks heads to third world countries.

It would be pertinent to ask the Speaker’s Office about the total amount of UNDP funds spent on various projects meant to strengthen Parliament over the past decade. Obviously, as Kubota disclosed at the Waters Edge event, the UNDP had intervened in Parliament during the tail end of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term. Had the UNDP funded projects achieved desired results? Perhaps, the UNDP should at least confidentially assert the situation.

What ails Parliament?

Utterly corrupt, extravagant and incorrigible political party system has ruined Parliament. That is the ugly truth. The parliamentary system has deteriorated to such an extent the Parliament now appears to have developed an in-built system to protect those engaged in corruption at every level even though the judiciary from time to time delivered far reaching judgments.

There cannot be a better example than the Supreme Court judgment (SC [FR] 209/2007) on Attorney-at-Law Vasudeva Nanayakkara MP vs the then Finance Minister K.N. Choksy PC and 30 others in respect of the controversial sale of shares of Lanka Marine Services Ltd (LMSL), a wholly owned profit-making company of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC). The three-judge bench comprising then Chief Justice Sarath Nanda Silva, R.A.N.G. Amaratunga and D. J de S. Balapatabendi, on 21 July, 2008 reversed the sale of LMSL shares to blue chip company John Keells Holdings Limited. The apex court found fault with Dr. P.B. Jayasundera for working in collusion with Susantha Ratnayake the then Chairman of John Keells for the benefit of the conglomerate and ordered him to pay half a million rupees to the State. Click the line for the LMSL judgment (https://whistleblower.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/LMS_SC_Judgment.pdf)

The saga of Dr. P.B. Jayasundera

By the time SC delivered this judgment Dr. P.B. Jayasundera who executed the deal during the UNP-led UNF government in his capacity as the Chairman of PERC (Public Enterprise Reforms Commission) served the President Mahinda Rajapaksa government as the Secretary to the Ministry of Finance. Petitioner Vasudeva Nanayakkara at the same time served as a member of the Cabinet. Dr. PBJ continued as the Finance Secretary till 2015 whereas Vasudeva Nanayakkara served as a Cabinet Minister. All forget that the Secretary to a particular ministry is the Chief Accounting Officer.

Unfortunately, our political party system conveniently forgot this judgment. Had political party leaders took notice of that judgment, they would have been accountable to Parliament. Unfortunately, the SLFP-led UPFA disregarded that judgment. In fact, the Rajapaksas brought back Dr. P.B. Jayasundera as the Secretary to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa following the November 2019 presidential election. Then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed Susantha Ratnayake as Chairman of BOI.

As the custodian of public funds, the Parliament should have acted on the LMSL judgment. The failure on the part of Parliament to go the whole hog should be examined, taking into consideration the fact that Vasudeva Nanayakkara couldn’t have moved the Supreme Court if not for the thorough inquiry conducted by the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) under the leadership of lawmaker Wijeyadasa Rajapakse. At the time Wijeyadasa Rajapakse investigated the LMSL deal, he hadn’t received the title of President’s Counsel.

Had there been a consensus among an honest group of MPs backed by the civil society, disclosures made by parliamentary watchdogs could have paved the way for lawsuits. Instead, political parties represented in Parliament seemed to have reached a general agreement that such disclosures wouldn’t end up in court cases. Strangely, the usual rabble-rousers, the plethora of Western funded NGOs, who scream bloody murder on issues of interest to their pay masters, were dead silent on issues like these

KJ’s USAID project

The UNDP’s impact on Parliament cannot be discussed without taking into consideration an unprecedented agreement between the USAID and Parliament finalized in 2016.

In early March, 2016 USAID (United States Agency for International Development) sponsored a conference for members of the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) and the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and officials from the Finance Ministry and the Auditor General’s Department.

The conference was meant to help strengthen overall transparency, accountability and effectiveness of governance. At the time of the launch of the project, Karu Jayasuriya served as the Speaker with the UPFA’s Lasantha Alagiyawanna and JVP’s Sunil Handunnetti as Chairmen of COPA and COPE, respectively.

Unfortunately such projects didn’t make any difference. Recently Lasantha Alagiyawanna, who had been re-elected as the Chairman of COPA, declared that instructions issued by him in 2016 to revenue collecting authorities hadn’t been carried out even in 2023. Therefore, the public can safely assume that successive governments allowed the deterioration of public finance by turning a blind eye to rampant corruption at every level.

USAID projects here align with their much-touted free and open Indo-Pacific -in other words countering growing Chinese influence in the region.

In late Novenber 2016, USAID launched a Rs. 1.92 billion (USD 13 mn) three-year partnership with Parliament here to strengthen accountability and democratic governance in Sri Lanka. The US Embassy quoted USAID Mission Director Andrew Sisson at that time as having said: “This project broadens our support to the independent commissions, ministries, and provincial and local levels of government.”

USD 13 mn project

Among those present were Chairs of the Sectoral Oversight Committees and Independent Commissions. Did the USAID and Parliament achieve intended targets? If those high profile projects were successful, Sri Lanka wouldn’t be in its current sorry state. Having to kneel before the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for the 17th time, Sri Lanka is experiencing its worst post-independence crisis. Perhaps Parliament and USAID should disclose a comprehensive audit on the USD 13 mn project against the backdrop of its failure. The US Embassy is on record as having said that the project enhanced capacity building of the Sectoral Oversight Committees and staff, and improvement to the Parliament’s Standing Orders.

Karu Jayasuriya, now the Chairman of NMSJ (National Movement for Social Justice)l owed the country an explanation regarding the status of foreign-funded projects implemented during his tenure as the Speaker.

Impact of other projects

It would be pertinent to ask those at the helm of government leadership whether various foreign funded projects improved good governance and achieved their other objectives. Perusal of USAID overview of Sri Lanka pertaining to governance indicated the ongoing projects and funds made available [1] USD 19 mn social cohesion and reconciliation project implemented by Global Communities (July 2018-Dec, 2023) [2] Analysis of social cohesion and reconciliation implemented by US Institute of Peace at a cost of USD 700,000 (Aug, 2018-Feb, 2024) [3] USD 15 mn project implemented by Chemonics International Inc. to strengthen the justice sector, including the Justice Ministry and Office of Attorney General (Sept. 2021-Sept. 2026) [4] USD 17 mn project carried out by National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute and International Foundation for Electoral System in support of Parliament and other government institutions, including the Election Commission ( June 2020 – June 2024) [5] USD 14 mn worth project in support of civil society meant to achieve good governance reforms and strengthen accountability. Implemented by Management Systems International (Feb. 2018-Aug. 2024) [6] USD 7.9 mn scheme to strengthen media implemented by International Research and Exchanges Board Inc. (Aug. 2017-April 2023) [7] SAFE Foundation implemented programme at a cost of USD 3.9 mn aimed at combating human trafficking (Oct. 2021-Sept. 2026) [8] USD 1.6 mn project to enhance protection for those threatened by gender-based violence (Oct. 2021-Sept. 2026). Implementing agency Women-on-Need [9] USD 3.6 mn project for the benefit of plantation community implemented by Institute of Social Development (June 2022-June 2027) and [10] a staggering USD 19 mn project meant to strengthen the civil society unnamed private agencies (Sept. 2022-August 2027). Click the line for USAID statement: :https://www.usaid.gov/sri-lanka/democracy-human-rights-and-governance

Sri Lanka needs to keep track of foreign funding for various projects in line with overall national security objectives. There is no denying the fact these high profile projects haven’t achieved intended objectives those engaged in the NGO industry benefited immensely. The recipients of massive foreign funding during the war to secure a negotiated settlement ended up richer while the LTTE leadership perished on the Vanni east front thanks to the numerous sacrifices made by our security forces. A Norwegian government study released in 2011 disclosed the vast amounts provided to well over a dozen NGOs to facilitate a negotiated settlement with the LTTE leadership that was utterly confident of a convincing battlefield victory over the Army.

Foreign investments here, both in the public and private sectors have to be closely examined to ensure funds are not misused. In respect of EU and USAID funding, it would be pertinent to ask whether those who implemented those projects achieved desired goals. Any foreign funding should be investigated taking into consideration the 2016 revelation that the US funded the 2015 change of government here, having earlier failed to ensure General Sarath Fonseka’s victory at the 2010 presidential poll.

No less a person than the then US Secretary of State John Kerry revealed in 2016 that the State Department spent a staggering USD 585 mn ‘to restore democracy’ in Nigeria, Burma and Sri Lanka in 2014/2015. Who in the NGO and civil society network did receive US funds here? What were the projects utilized by the sponsors and did any political party or political party leaders receive funds?

President Wickremesinghe meets UNDP head Kubota at the Presidential Secretariat on 16 June(Pic courtesy PMD)

Close on the heels of Colombo-based UNDP Resident Representative Azusa Kubota’s meet with Speaker Abeywardena, in the company of International expert on parliamentary development Kevin Deveaux, she held talks with President Ranil Wickremesinghe on Friday (16 June). The discussion centered on UNDP help to build capacity of the Parliamentary Oversight Committees and youth engagement in public policy. The President’s Office last week rejected a controversial report on the proposed privatization of national telecommunication provider Sri LankaTelecom (SLT) by the Sectoral Oversight Committee (SOC) on National Security. The SOC report has placed the government in an embarrassing position. Instead of addressing the issues raised by SOC, chaired by retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera, MP, the government has simply rejected it out of hand on the basis of former Public Security Minister Weerasekera’s failure to consult the relevant security authorities.

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