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Ranaviraja's Volte Face - A view from afar

Somaweera Sirisinghe writing from Auckland, New Zealand

Tilakaratne Ranaviraja, the senior-most public servant in the front-line of post-tsunami relief and rehabilitation created a furore on 2nd February 2005 by announcing Sri Lanka government's failure in the relief effort to reach the majority of affected people. The World Press picked up this story and Sri Lanka was thus thrust into an unenviable position in the eyes of the international community and the donors, causing serious damage to its credibility. Indolently watching six-days of intense damage that reverberated across the globe, he is now on damage control mode, issuing press statements accusing distortion by privately owned media.

Why did he, in the first place waited for six days to make the correction? Was he so naïve to play into the hands of the media supplying the fodder the World Press was waiting for? It cannot be so because he is no stranger to the principle of protecting the reputation of Sri Lanka having served in a senior diplomatic position in our embassy in the US.

Did he lack the experience and the 'nous' to talk to the press? Did he have a different agenda? Or was it an attempt to pass the buck? These are the questions that come into the mind of any observer.

Ranaviraja is reported to be one of the few very senior career public servants still serving beyond the extended age of retirement. Together with colleagues such as the present Secretary to the President, the Chairman of Petroleum Corporation and the Chairman of NHDA, he counts more than 37 years in the professional state administration service. He now asserts that that his reference to only 30% receiving food assistance is not about the first phase of emergency relief operations but about the second phase. This belated rebuttal makes very poor defence because it simply does not make sense. If only 30% are receiving food in the second phase when the aid machinery had enough time to establish itself, how can one maintains that it was very much better before? Besides, even the state controlled English language media did not make a conspicuous differentiation.

The plausible explanation lies somewhere else. Ranaviraja occupied (and still occupies) some key positions in emergency relief administration. On one hand he is the Commissioner-General of Essential Services (CGES) - the ultimate person responsible for emergency relief. On 3 January 2005 when the President appointed three Task Forces it was this very same Ranaviraja who was appointed as the head of the Task Force in charge of Logistics and Law and Order (TAFLOL). Facilitation of the movement of relief items that include food to the beneficiaries was his responsibility. The President on 4 January 2005 appointed 12 District Co-ordinators from senior ranks of the armed forces under the charge of the Navy Chief to direct relief distribution in the districts. Ranaviraja as the Secretary of the Ministry of Law and Order was in a commanding position to work with them and the district administration.

Ranaviraja therefore, is largely responsible for any failure of delivery. According to his press statement a study concluded on February 1 found that only 30% of the 960,000 eligible people have received state assistance. If there was a massive failure of such magnitude to reach the beneficiaries, by virtue of the role entrusted to him as the CGE and as the head of post-tsunami TAFLOL, he must be held responsible for the fiasco. Neither the composition of the basket of state assistance nor the phase of the relief programme can mitigate the circumstances.

It is in this context that the Presidential order issued to him to achieve a target of 70% in five working days can be seen as a reprimand as well as a challenge thrown to a culpable person to make amends.

Then why did he meet the press and briefed them with story lines that could be easily misinterpreted by the media? Noting his fondness to make headline-grabbing statements in the past (with regard to the Police Commission and as the Chairman of the Central Environment Authority), the question is whether Ranaviraja used the press conference to camouflage his culpability by firing off blanks into the air?

Ranaviraja's predicament is a lesson to others in the public service. When occupying a high position, it is humility rather than an over grown self-esteem that makes you successful. One cannot have a profound sense of self-belief or a deep conviction that you are always right. Maintaining high self-esteem with a corresponding lack of self-doubt does not necessarily make a good performer or an achiever.

By the time he refuted the news reports the damage has already been done. The belated rebuttal and the letter he has sent to the Ministers, Deputy Ministers and Members of Parliament on 8 February is only a sign of him being hauled over the coals.

However, this saga overshadows a bigger and more critical issue. Side by side with this development the administrative and supervisory structure built by the government to execute the relief and recovery programme lay in ruins. The much-heralded CNO (Centre for National Operations) and the three hi-fi Task Forces are no more. They have been merged into a TAFOR (Task Force on Relief). The line ministries have been asked to step into the scene. It looks as if we are back where we started trying to kick-start the journey, once again.

There should be a multitude of reasons for this development. Viewing the collapse of the relief administration outfit from afar, one can only conjecture the following.

Failure of the Meritocracy: Executive Heads of States who are responsible and accountable to the people for governing tend to turn to the "Meritocracy" rather than the "bureaucracy" driven by the desire to achieve quick and effective results. Meritocracy refers to a form of social system in which power goes to those with superior intellect or a system of government based on rule by ability; merit roughly meaning intelligence plus effort. Tony Blair has made much of his commitment to what he regularly describes as meritocracy (clearly differentiated from much maligned bureaucracy). Hence President Kumaratunga cannot be blamed for assigning key roles in disaster relief and recovery to Mano Tittawela and Dr Tara de Mel &Co. That is her prerogative. Unfortunately this model cannot work effectively in a disaster recovery situation where the meritocracy has to connect up with the bureaucracy, the political and social leaders in the field and a vast number of populace in agony awaiting relief after a traumatic experience. Despite the merits, the intellect and the effort the meritocracy in this instance is doomed to fail.

Failure of the private sector big guns to make an impact: The three Task Forces were graced by some big names from the private sector. (To my recollection there were only two from the public service - Ranaviraja and the Secretary to the Prime Minister). Unfortunately many in the private sector fail to understand why government is not run the way they run companies. The simple reason is that a government has to deal with many complex matters dealing with a larger number of stakeholders working through a maze of criss-crossing hierarchies. Therefore it is not surprising that those gentlemen with very good intentions were unable to make an impact in disaster relief and recovery exercise that involved live people trying to pick up pieces of their shattered lives recovering from a historic disaster instead of the usual factors of production they were used to handle dexterously.

Failure to mobilise the district administration and to lead the activity with a unity of purpose: The Task Force approach works well where deliberation and interaction of experts and administrators is aimed towards formulating strategies or roadmaps working under normal stress-free circumstances. But it is not a good prescription to direct administrative action in a disaster recovery situation.

Distribution of disaster relief and execution of rehabilitation and reconstruction needs to be directed by a single command that has a unity of purpose. It should be able to mobilise the whole district administration from top down to the village level with clear-cut roles and responsibilities demarcated and assigned. A very good example is how the Commissioner of Elections conducts a general election mobilising the total public service and the police force, sometimes getting the assistance of the armed forces. The mobilisation requires the active involvement of the entire state machinery reporting to a single authority for the specific task. The meticulous planning that is needed for such an exercise is only known to the Commissioner and his senior staff.

How to avoid another failure: Now the ball is back with the Commissioner -General of Essential Services (CGES), the line ministries and the district administration. The present CGES, Ranaviraja should be relieved form all other responsibilities to lead the relief and recovery programme. He should be empowered to mobilise the whole government machinery as the Commissioner of Elections does. Reduction of the role of the GA to a nominal statutory position and the rise of the District Secretary with his primary responsibility to the Provincial Council and its political masters can hinder a centrally directed relief and recovery operation. It should be the first priority task of the CGES to select the most appropriate person out of the two to lead the district programme reporting direct to him. Dispersed loyalties at district level should be eliminated at any cost. Without sorting out the administrative machinery required at district and village level no effort is going to succeed.


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