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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Devolution must however not be romanticised. It will have its own power struggles

Bishop Duleep de Chickera
 Since the end of the civil war in May 2009, there has been an unprecedented emphasis on what is popularly known as development. The most visible signs of this type of development are the improvement to roads and bridges, the construction of harbours and airports, the building of big hotels and resorts, and the cleaning up and landscaping of our cities.

At least two arguments support this understanding of development. They are both connected with the war. It is claimed to be our best chance of catching up with the rest of the world after the set back of decades of war.
And it is argued to be an act of justice for those deprived of development and who have waited so patiently for so long because of the war. An extension of the justice argument spills over into reconciliation. If we are now able to give our unstinted attention to development, this means that we have been set free from conflict and are able to benefit together from this shift.

This article addresses the impact of development on the civilian victims of War (CVW) of the previous acute war zones in the North and East and its wider consequences on justice, devolution and reconciliation. It ends by offering a model of leadership.

Development and reconciliation

Good governance in any post, civil-war situation, will see the return to normalcy of CVW as its highest priority. Since the war in our own country caused unimaginable devastation to human lives and the infra-structure, a serious and speedy programme of rehabilitation was expected as the right way forward. This programme would have had to include housing and the basic amenities as well as the restoration of livelihoods and health and educational facilities for the CVW, as a first step. Being equal citizens of the country, CVW would have to be treated with respect through this process. In practice such respect would demonstrate sorrow for all they had been through and an eagerness to help them restore their broken lives with dignity.

Consequently any programme of national development that ran parallel with rehabilitation would be expected to include the CVW. While experts and investments would certainly have to be brought in from elsewhere, the human resources and contribution of the CVW would also require recognition. Equipping the CVW with micro credit capital and organisational skills so that they too would become part of the process of national development and own and benefit from it directly would have laid an excellent foundation in our journey towards national  

reconciliation. –  Fresh wounds

Sadly what happened was very different. The rehabilitation of CVW was sluggish and is still incomplete. In comparison the development of the infrastructure, growth of business enterprises and the consolidation of security systems received priority and efficient attention. Through this thrust the presence and needs of the CVW were simply bypassed.

Those least affected by the war, benefiting economically after the war, whether individuals or corporates; while the CVW struggled to return to a secure, dignified and self- supportive life style in their own villages, was, in the words of a student “the infliction of a second wound before the first had healed”.
These wounds widened the gap between the powerful and the vulnerable. To many this was a sign that the war was not over. It had simply changed its face. Just like it was under the LTTE and just like what it was during the civil war, those in the wrong place due to no fault of theirs’ were discovering that their sufferings seemed never to end. Exclusive development was seen as another oppressive measure.
In such a situation when a section of the population reaps the benefits of development under easier and welcoming conditions and the CVW wrestle with the quest for basic human need, the space for reconciliation shrinks. For if reconciliation is to take place in any human circumstance it has to take place amongst those with equal dignity and equal opportunity.

Development trumps -democracy

The danger in this type of exclusive development continuing unchecked and unquestioned is that it is likely to spread to the more sensitive area of governance. The ability to bypass the needs and dignity of the most vulnerable in the development agenda could be taken as a signal to bypass the right to devolved governance of the regions.
It is in the light of this trend that the energy behind the Divi Neguma Bill and the mounting pressure to abolish the Provincial Councils, need to be understood. They are both attempts by the central government to neutralise whatever economic and political power conferred by the constitution, still remains with the periphery; and to complete the overall control of the centre.

Ironically the underperformance of the current Provincial Councils, heavily manipulated by the centre, serves as a reminder that the best chance of social justice for the economically and politically vulnerable depends on a more substantial system of devolution. The current style of centre dominated politics has lost the ability to do justice and serve the people. The recurrent and growing unrest in all spheres of national life testify to this lack and demand sensitive attention.
Justice through devolution

Consequently the option is not to abolish the existing system of devolution but to redesign it. The division of responsibility between centre and region within a united and sovereign nation is a matter for political consensus and our best minds on constitutional law. But lessons learnt over our painful past will require the entrenchment of a firm principle in the constitution. This is that power devolved to the regions will have to be done in such a way that change and amendments will require the consent of both the centre and periphery. In addition constitutional provision and safeguards will be necessary to prevent policies at the centre as well as the region from excluding and wounding the poorest and most vulnerable.

Devolution must however not be romanticised. It will have its own power struggles and set-backs and will require strong checks and balances if it is to serve the people. In-spite of this it is still our best chance of doing justice by all so that reconciliation will become real.
Difficult democratic options

What has been said so far can be put differently. Development alone and however purposeful, can never be an option for democratic governance. The two can and must go hand in hand all the time. If exclusive development takes a lead especially in a post war situation, democratic governance, and with it the chances of justice and reconciliation will gradually erode.

The call for good governance calls for a national review. From the people’s perspective good governance is about striving to do the right thing all the time. From the politician’s perspective governance is about staying in power. But the two, good governance and staying in power are not exclusive; they are possible at the same time. Discovering this delicate balance has everything to do with the style of leadership of those who govern.
Leader as servant

Christ offered the world a new model of leadership. He preferred to call those in authority servants whose primary priority it is to ensure the betterment of those under their care. The essence of this teaching is conveyed in a memorable instance when the Guru, washed the feet of his disciples.

To touch the weary feet of those in your care with refreshing water is to demonstrate three commitments. Since feet indicate the context in which a person is placed; there is a commitment to respect the identity of the other.

Since feet carry the burdens of the body; there is a commitment to liberate the other from hardship and oppression. And since feet enables mobility; there is a commitment to prevent the other from being marginalised or left behind and to accompany the other into the future.

Respect, support and accompaniment in relation to those they care for are to be the qualities of the leader as servant. But for this to happen, the leader as servant must be willing to stoop. Ironically it is when one stoops to touch the feet that one’s ear is drawn closer to the others lips. Stooping brings the added bonus of hearing the other.

Staying with the right thing
Those in positions of political authority especially, are called to stoop to respect, support, accompany and hear those in their care, especially the most vulnerable. This can be done directly, as the LLRC Commissioners did when they heard first-hand the stories of the CVW, or through representatives, which is a helpful side to party politics. But what those who govern nations should never do is to allow political disagreement with the stance and behaviour of other political parties to obstruct the legitimate welfare and rights of all those under their care.
It is this perspective mostly, that ensures good governance; and where there is good governance servant leaders do not have to worry about how they can stay in power. They simply have to strive to keep doing the right thing.
With Peace and Blessings to all.
Development, Democracy and Devolution – Sri Lanka’s 3 Dimensional Dilemma  by Bishop Duleep de Chickera


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