Friday, 2 October 2015

Sustainability vs investment?

Last week the world’s governments adopted a new sustainable development agenda, and moved towards new ways of ‘doing development’ that if implemented,  will result in new partnerships between the global north and the global south, between private corporations, national governments and  international institutions, and between citizens and the state.   In Sri Lanka, the year 2015 saw us embark on a new phase of governance that aims to combat political patronage and corruption, emphasise accountability, and safeguard the rights of the people and respect their right to information and to equal treatment by the state.   The new regime that Sri Lankan citizens have elected into the legislature (supported also by a newly elected President) inherits a post-war society that has an average GDP growth of around 6-7%, a lower middle income status, dramatic reductions in poverty head count ratios, and a record of most MDGs achieved.  But it is also a society of considerable vulnerability, with many people hovering above the poverty line ready to be pushed back into poverty if faced with risk to life and livelihood; increasing income inequality with a high gini-co-efficient and about 50% of the total household income generated by the top 20% of households; continuing regional differences with GDP concentrated in the capital city and its environs, and workers in plantations and families in the  Batticoloa district as the poorest and most vulnerable; entrenched patriarchy and unequal gender relations;  a politicised bureaucracy and disregard for policies, laws and procedures. 

As we celebrate (or not) the global consensus on the Sustainable Development Goals, and obsess with the consequences of the UNHRC resolution for Sri Lanka, it would do well to think about the already many factors that can prick the bubble of sustainable and equitable development in Sri Lanka.   It is likely that the current paradigm of development adopted by successive governments since 1977, and likely to be strengthened rather than modified by Wickremesinghe-Samarawickreme led economic development plans with, among other things, its ambitions of megalopolises and bridges across the Palk Strait could make things worse not better.  One major factor of concern is that the government will not take into account what the UNISDR’s Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2015 (GAR 2015) calls “socially constructed disaster risk” within development, or more specifically, within a development that is driven by the market imperative and has scant regard for people, especially poor people.

Some  examples. Contrast the devastating landslide in Koslanda last year (and landslides are still happening in the Uva hills) that destroyed the homes of many workers in the tea plantations and claimed many lives with the evictions of families from high density housing in Colombo.  The plantation company in Meeriyabedde, Koslanda  and the local authorities knew it was a vulnerable site from the landslide data that was available at the local level, but did not prioritise the evacuation of these families.  The reason given was  that the families didn’t want to move.  In Colombo the families in Slave Island did not want to move either.  But here the  local  authorities brought in the military to forcibly evict  them because their  land had high economic value and had to be ‘cleared’ for  foreign investors. 

Another example is from Batticoloa, on Sri Lanka’s East Coast, one of the poorest areas of the country.  It has been targeted as a zone for high end tourism and the government has encouraged the private sector to develop tourist resorts.   CEPA colleagues, exploring employment in the tourism sector (itself a can full of worms) found that in an area where groundwater is scarce, the resorts are extracting water for their use, which are complete with desalination and purification plants, while just on the other side of the brand new main road, the villages are facing acute shortages of drinking water. 

And finally, the much publicised example of a lack of a publicly available EIA and no known disaster risk assessment of the Colombo Port City project’s impact on Sri Lanka’s coast.  That omission is serious enough, but there is also no environmental impact assessment of how the material being mined from the hinterland (the granite and the sand) for building the Port City will affect those areas. 

These are not three examples of bureaucratic oversights, but illustrations of the sad fact that attracting foreign investment takes priority over understanding and  acknowledging the risks inherent in development.  We hope that the proposed megalopolis development  (or Megapolis as we call it in the paradise isle) will not be implemented with the same level of impunity.

These examples illustrate that the Ministry of Disaster Management, and Disaster Management Centre set up in the heady post-tsunami days under the Hyogo Framework for Action, has little clout.  Despite considerable progress in developing early warning systems, disaster management plans (especially for the coast post-tsunami) and an established institutional framework for Disaster Management,  Sri Lanka has not been very effective in stemming the exacerbation of extensive risks which we know are less dramatic, less in the public eye and are disproportionately borne by poor people.  They illustrate many of the issues that the GAR brings out in its last chapters : the  political support for policies, plans  and investments that contribute to disaster risk accumulation, especially when they are seen to be essential for economic growth;  the limited support for managing the risks that are generated and accumulated on an ongoing basis; weak regulation; lack of capacity/apathy at local levels to deal with disaster risk; the issues of risk inequality; and the political and economic pressures of a globalised world.

Many of us working with poverty and inequality outside of the disaster risk reduction sector, are constantly arguing that development driven by the pursuit of unlimited economic growth is not the way to go to eradicate poverty, or reduce inequality, and that it cannot be sustainable. To use a famous quote attributed to Albert Einstein: We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.  IMHO the sustainable development goals, now also called the Global Goals, are not sufficient to provide an alternative,or to stimulate a paradigm shift.  

Given this lacuna, the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2015 can become a really powerful weapon to force governments and other stakeholders to think differently.  It provides a challenge to the dominant paradigm and shows, quite dramatically, with well presented data,  the consequences of carrying on business as usual.  Operationalising the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction which calls for all sectors and all levels of government, as well as the private sector and civil society to mainstream disaster risk reduction into all their plans and activities, is one way to move in the direction of achieving equity and sustainability.  

It remains to be seen whether  our newly elected government and the private sector with its new alliances,  will have the courage and the political will to transform the way they think and do things, so that there will be no repeat of disasters like Koslanda or developments like tourism in Batticaloa or the Port City.  Good governance needs to go beyond reducing corruption and nepotism to ensuring that the responsibility vested in government to protect people and their investments extends to issues of natural disaster.  It is doubtful that the new Minister for Disaster Management the Hon Anura Priyadharshana Yapa, will have greater political acumen and strength than his predecessors and be able to mainstream disaster risk reduction into investment decisions.  Obscure high cost projects like the proposed ‘megapolis’  raises doubts as to whether responsible elements in the legislature and bureaucracy are even beginning to think that way.  Ultimately, it may boil down, like everything else  to us citizens holding our government accountable.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

A reflection on Ray Wijewardene - post The Ray Award 2015

While one group of Colombo’s bold and beautiful gathered at the Lakshman Kadirigamar Institute for International  Relations and Strategic Studies to listen to a former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair,  protected by riot squads of Police who looked like they would welcome some excitement after almost an year of inaction, another section of Colombo’s bold and beautiful met at the Balmoral Room of the Kingsbury Hotel to celebrate the life of an important Sri Lankan, Deshamanya Vidyajothi  Ray Wijewardene, and to present The Ray  Award for Innovation 2015.  Just before both those events, yet another group, this time a group of Colombo’s intellectuals were at the Institute of Ethnic Studies (ICES) listening to Kumari Jayawardene, Farzana Haniffa, Ahilan Kadirgamar and Vijay Nagaraj  with Harini Amarasuriya moderating,  reflect on the past ethnic and religious riots, the impact it had on the individual and the collective, and speak about some of the causes and consequences, and explore ‘non-recurrence’.  It is not to say that the bold and the beautiful cannot also be intellectual or vice versa, or that those not yet able to let go of colonial apron strings and listening-to-a-spent-Labour-politician may not have preferred to get that feel-good-feeling-vicariously-through-Ray-and-younger-innovators (or vice versa). Just shows what a lot happens in Colombo on a Monday evening in August!

I was at the Balmoral, having missed the ICES event because of a clashing mixture of personal and professional activity. A video clip from an interview Ray had done with Sujatha Jayewardene on Rupavahini in 1990, brought the man back into the room.  It was as if he was there with us once more, with that characteristic stammer, and self-deprecating sense of humour.  I loved hearing  the story of how, at seven years, he decided to fly, using the umbrellas of the Buddhist priests who had come to his grandmother’s house for a dane (almsgiving) as parachutes as he jumped off the first floor balcony, landing repeatedly in the flower beds! This early landing experience was a prelude to other unusual landings made in the aircraft he built, such as on the lawn in front of the Town Hall (with the excuse that he needed to go to the toilet!) or on to Geoffrey Bawa’s roof in Lunuganga. 

I got to know (and love) Ray Wijewardene, when I was the Country Director of Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) now called Practical Action, an organization started by Fritz Schumacher of Small is Beautiful fame.  Ray was, like Schumacher, a thinker who dared to imagine a different world – and it was to this imagination that we at ITDG looked for inspiration.  Ray was a regular participant in all our discussions on renewable energy, alternate means of transport and the like. When I left ITDG to lead the team at the International Forum on Rural Transport and Development (IFRTD) in London, interactions with Ray became less frequent, though I tried to make it a point to meet him on my annual visits to Colombo.  Imagine my delight when it was Ray’s name that was drawn from that of many who had responded to a readership questionnaire in IFRTD’s newsletter, Forum News.   The draw entitled him to a prepaid flight ticket to South Africa.  Ray was delighted that he was able to visit the country (even with the penance of attending an IFRTD meeting as a condition), and in his characteristic old-world gentlemanly style insisted that he treat me and my colleague, Mike Noyes, to a slap up dinner.   To Ray, like my dad and others of that generation, chivalry came naturally, and while I do not necessarily bemoan its disappearance, I certainly loved the way it manifested itself so easily in their actions.

I believe Ray was a little bemused how I, a woman, could be so interested in technology – in micro hydro  or dendro energy, in alternate means of transport, in labour based road building etc – to head an organization like ITDG.  I don’t think I ever let on that my interest was not in the science, the electrics or the mechanics, but in the social aspects of technology development and use – for whom is technology being developed, and by whom. Ray may have twigged this somewhat when he attended a Balancing the Load workshop IFRTD organised in Marawila.  Balancing the Load was a programme of research in Asia and Africa , that looked at issues of gender, women and transport.  Many of the women participants came from a strong feminist background, and at one point in the workshop deliberations I found Ray and  John Diandas (another great in the field of transport) seated dejectedly on a step outside the meeting room,  “why do these women hate us (men) so much?” they wanted to know!

I have talked about Ray’s legacy in a previous blog post.  The presentations at the Balmoral last evening brought out memories of the man that he was – quick to flare up, but equally quick to apologise, a perfectionist able to learn from (and admit to) his mistakes, a scientist with no inclination towards ‘guru mushtiya’ or for hoarding knowledge but happy to share it with others, a great man who supported rather than patronised young people,  a man with a sense of humour and a naughty twinkle in his eye.  Ray was not anti-establishment in the sense that some revolutionaries are – but he engaged with the establishment critically, recognizing what many eminent Sri Lankans are still to recognize, that business as usual is no longer viable, that we need to re-imagine our economy, our development in the context of a changing planet. I was really pleased that the Ray Wijewardene Charitable Trust chose Otara Gunewardene as the Chief Guest, and that her message emphasised the need to respect our natural heritage.   I wish that there could have been more people reflecting on Ray than hosting the Blairs, and can only  hope that in this changed political environment, Ray’s work will provide a backdrop that will influence the politics and economics of the country he so truly loved.