Towards a more transparent government | Daily News

Towards a more transparent government

Lawmakers get behind new evaluation bill

When the news came out earlier this month that the last international operator at the Mattala International airport had stopped all of its services there, not many were surprised.

In the five years since it was built, Mattala has earned an infamous reputation as the “world’s emptiest airport.”

Minister Kabir Hashim.

At its peak, five airlines operated out of Mattala, and dropped out one by one due to high costs and frequent bird strikes.

When the final operator, Dubai-based Fly Dubai, pulled out on June 8, the news read more like a foregone conclusion.

One of the people who had long expected this outcome was Mylvaganam Thilakarajah, a Member of Parliament from the Nuwara Eliya District.

In fact, Thilakarajah saw the whole debacle as a case in point for a new system he and other MPs have been pushing in Parliament for the last few years: independent evaluations for public projects.

“If (the airport) had been evaluated before, the environmental people would have commented on this,” he said. “We would have learned about the threat of peacocks coming and hitting the wings.”

Thilakarajah and the other members of a group called the Sri Lanka Parliamentarians’ Forum for Evaluation have been lobbying for a national policy on evaluation.

They want an independent body, staffed by people with financial, technical, environmental, and cultural expertise, to evaluate all proposed projects before they commence, in order to give MPs a full picture of the risks and rewards associated with any given development.

MP Mylvaganam Thilakarajah, member of Sri Lanka Parliamentarians’ Forum for Evaluation.

“Every Parliament the world over should have an evaluation unit within it,” said Kabir Hashim, the Minister of Highways and Road Development, in a recent interview.

Hashim is the chair of the Global Parliamentarians’ Forum for Evaluation, as well as being a member of the Sri Lankan counterpart.

“We as a group have been putting pressure on the Speaker, on the Prime Minister,” Hashim said.

He said the future for evaluation looks brighter now. Sri Lanka will host an international evaluation conference in September, bringing specialists and Parliamentarians from about 100 other countries to discuss Parliamentary evaluation mechanisms.

Members of the Sri Lanka Parliamentarian’s Forum for Evaluation like Minister Hashim and MP Thilakarajah say that that international spotlight has applied much-needed pressure at home.

And with some key victories in recent months, they believe that Sri Lanka could finally be close to establishing an evaluation mechanism of its own.

The case for evaluation

If the Mattala Airport is a case in point for the need of evaluation, it is not alone.

Thilakarajah lists a variety of projects that he said he believes could’ve gone differently with a proper evaluation.

For example, there’s the cricket stadium in Dambulla.

The cricket board built the stadium there for the benefits of the dry-zone climate, Thilakarajah said.

“But after starting these cricket grounds, only now they are talking about the culture,” he said. “That is a Buddhist-based area. Now they are thinking about having alcohol there, dancing, cheer girls, now they’re thinking about that and avoiding having matches there.”

“So it doesn’t work properly, but they spent a lot to build it,” he added.

Or take the case of the disastrous Uma Oya project.

“They wanted to get the water to down south, that is Hambantota,” Thilakarajah said. “So now the Hambantota people get water, but there’s no water for Bandarawela.”

“All the houses in Bandarawela city, they all have cracks,” he added. “Once this channel was created, they don’t get water in their wells. Because of us.”

“(It’s) a completely man-made disaster,” he said.

Thilakarajah said that the Mattala, Dambulla, and Uma Oya projects all displayed the same problem.

“This is the issue that we have now: all the development proposals are political proposals,” he said.

“The government’s needs become the state’s needs, which means the party’s needs, which means political needs,” he said.“That’s how it gets deviated from the state to the party. So all the people’s money goes to political purposes.”

Thilakarajah and the members of the Sri Lanka Parliamentarians’ Forum for Evaluation think that if it were made mandatory to evaluate projects by a diverse and independent group of experts before they were finally approved, some of these ill-conceived developments could be stopped.

“If it is to come into practice, I think Sri Lanka’s development will be really changed,” he said.“Not at once, but in another 20-25 years, you can have the right path. Evaluation will give the right path in the development projects of our country.”

Forming a national policy

According to Minister Kabir Hashim, the political winds have shifted in favour of evaluation.

In 2013, as an Opposition MP, he proposed an evaluation mechanism for all government projects. It didn’t go anywhere.

But he said the fact that Sri Lanka is hosting the international evaluation conference in September brought attention to the issue at home.

Earlier this month, Prime Minster Ranil Wickremesinghe said that he would bring forward a National Evaluation Policy in July.

He told media that the policy would provide accountability in the efficiency, effectiveness, value, and sustainability of public projects, and emphasize evaluation as a requirement of development planning.

“This is a great achievement,” Minister Hashim said in an interview.

The evaluation body should be independent, he said, like an audit group, but analyze projects from a variety of angles. That way, consequences like potential environmental damage or social impacts could be discovered and discussed beforehand.

Hashim said that USAID has agreed to contribute significant funding to the creation of an independent evaluation office within Parliament, as well as technical staff expertise.

The Parliamentarians’ Forum hopes to have the new policy in place before the conference in September.

But Hashim said even then there will be an opportunity for Sri Lanka to shape its “evaluation culture,” because representatives of countries that have utilized evaluation as a tool will be there.

“South Africa (has) used evaluation as one of their key tools,” he said. “We’ve also found that Malaysia has a very sophisticated monitoring and evaluation and performance-budgeting system and that has helped (it) to utilize funds to the maximum and have most of their projects implemented successfully.”

Nepal, which was also a founding country of the Global Parliamentarians’ Forum for Evaluation, adopted an evaluation policy of its own last year, Hashim said.

“So already in South Asia, because of the Global Parliamentarians’ Forum, we’ve been able to influence two Parliaments,” he said.

Hashim said he doesn’t expect opposition to the bill’s passage in Sri Lanka.

“At the moment we have the support from a cross-section of political parties, which includes the opposition as well, and we are happy that the stakeholders are varied across and we have everyone on board,” he said.

“Nobody in their right minds could be against something like this,” he added.

Mattala International Airport, an example of a development project gone wrong.

Add new comment