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Diplomatic plums: applaud the naysayers

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by Sanjeewa Jayaweera

Several readers of the Sunday Island living in Sri Lanka and overseas reached out to me after reading my article “Sri Lanka should close down most of our overseas missions as a step towards reducing public expenditure.” Many expressed surprise about the number of overseas resident missions we have and the associated costs. The overriding message was, “we did not know.” To a large extent, that is one of the major causes of our current predicament.

Most of us exercise our vote once in five years, and that too in an imprudent manner and leave it at that. We feel that we have done our duty until the next election. After that, politicians are allowed to rule the roost. There is no public participation in debates involving how taxpayer money is spent. Although the media highlights corruption and wastage in government ranks, they quickly move on to the subsequent controversy and quietly forget the previous one.

Better Use of Honorary Consuls

A former High Commissioner’s suggestion is for GOSL (Govt. of Sri Lanka) to maximise the services of the many Honorary Consuls that we have appointed, to close down some of our overseas resident missions. It is an excellent idea if those in power are genuinely interested in curtailing public expenditure. According to our Foreign Ministry website, Sri Lanka has designated nearly 100 Honorary Consuls in various countries.

Many countries adopt the practice of appointing Honorary Consuls to represent their interests in another country. This practice is adopted to defray significant costs associated with establishing a resident overseas mission. An ambassador resident in a nearby country is then accredited to where an Honorary Counsel has been appointed.

As many as 68 countries have appointed Honorary Consuls in Sri Lanka. Many of those selected in Sri Lanka are well-known persons from the private sector who are undoubtedly commercially astute and competent in administrative matters. Therefore, one must assume that those Sri Lanka has selected to act as Honorary Consuls are also of good repute and capable of discharging their duties effectively.

As these are honorary positions, I believe GOSL does not make any payment as an allowance or reimbursement to cover expenses. However, I am confident that Sri Lankan taxpayers would not object to GOSL reimbursing costs or paying an allowance if we could significantly reduce public expenditure by closing down most of our overseas resident missions.

Do we need a Consulate General Offices in addition to Embassies?

I failed in my last article to mention that in addition to the 54 overseas resident missions, the GOSL maintains 13 Consulate General offices, of which 12 are in countries where we already have an Embassy/High Commission. The cost of these, too, is borne entirely by the GOSL. They are invariably staffed by persons posted from Colombo, although some of the junior positions at times are held by local staff of Sri Lankan origin.

Due to my familiarity with Germany, I was aghast to note that in addition to our Embassy in Berlin, the GOSL has also established a Consular General office in Frankfurt. My inquiries revealed that after the unification of West and East Germany, the Embassy was shifted from Bonn to Berlin. To manage the transition, the GOSL had temporarily converted the office in Bonn to a Consulate General. However, subsequently, for no justifiable reasons, a permanent Consulate General office was established in Frankfurt staffed with a cadre of about ten, including a large office and vehicles.

The cost of maintaining this office in 2010 was estimated at Euro 600,000, which now is estimated to be around Euro 800,000. In addition to the Embassy in Berlin and the Consulate General in Frankfurt, Sri Lanka is also served by six Honorary Consuls of great competence. Most of those born in Sri Lanka now living in Germany are German citizens, as Germany prohibits dual nationality. Therefore, there is limited consular work that the six Honorary Consuls can easily handle. At present Honorary, Consuls are only permitted to act as a post box. It seems previous Ambassadors have submitted recommendations to close the Consulate General office in Frankfurt, paving the way for saving taxpayer money, but those in Colombo are in deep slumber.

An appointment causing consternation down under

A video circulated on social media is being widely discussed by for those in Sri Lanka and those living down under. The reason for a lot of this nit picking was that the person featured in the video speaking very poor English had been appointed as our High Commissioner to Australia. Unfortunately, I am unable to verify the authenticity of the video. I must hasten to say that I am not one to equate intelligence with a persons ability to speak good English. However, one assumes that a person posted to a country where English is the official language would be fluent in that language if they are to discharge their duties effectively. I will, however, not blame the individual designated as the High Commissioner for accepting a job responsibility for which he lacks communication skills.

The long-suffering taxpayers of this country need to ask who initially nominated this person to this post and how the established checks and balances failed. The Parliamentary Committee of High Posts, which includes opposition members, would have rubber-stamped the appointment. Why the opposition members did not publicly oppose the selection is a pertinent question. One can only presume that the idiom “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” prevailed. Unfortunately, it now seems that some Members of Parliament, including those in opposition, are getting their children and relatives appointed to various positions in our overseas resident missions and do not want to rock the boat.

Dappula De Livera and Kumar Sangakkara declined DPL appointments

However, the Sri Lankan public needs to appreciate and applaud the former Attorney General Dappula De Livera for turning down his nomination as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Canada. According to the media, he had stated that he would prefer to remain in Sri Lanka and serve the people. In my mind, there is no doubt that the former Attorney General would have had the requisite skills and competence to do an excellent job in a country where we have been much maligned. However, he chose to turn his back on a prestigious position which would have also entitled him to bring home an expensive car on his return. There is cause for hope that a few good people are still left.

I am reminded of the occasion when former President Sirisena, speaking at the ceremony held on the retirement of the great Kumar Sangakkara, shocked many, including the player, by announcing his appointment as our High Commissioner to the UK. It was evident that Kumar had not bee previously consulted. It needed all his diplomatic skills to turn down the assignment citing his lack of knowledge and expertise in international relations. What happened then is typical of the cavalier and irresponsible approach in appointing our Ambassadors and High Commissioners.

Another news item worthy of discussion and analysis is the retirement of Ravinatha Aryasinha, our Ambassador to the USA. That he is a competent career diplomat with an excellent reputation is a fact. He has served our country well. Although public servants need to retire when they turn 60, many of them continue to be retained by the GOSL, presumably on contract for many years. The fact that the GOSL did not offer an extension of service to Ravinatha is lamentable. That he was sent overseas for just eight months reflects that the GOSL is not committed to reducing public expenditure. It isn’t easy to comprehend how Professor Nalin de Silva was appointed as Ambassador to Myanmar when he was 76 years old whilst one of our best diplomats is being put to pasture at the relatively young age of 60.

I must conclude by stating that reducing the number of overseas resident missions is not the only way to reduce public expenditure. It is undoubtedly a low hanging fruit, but there are numerous other ways and means by which the GOSL can reduce wasteful spending.

 



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Why Small Farms will be the backbone of food security

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The ecological axiom that: ‘Energy flow through a system tends to organise and simplify that system’, is abundantly clear in agriculture. As farms moved from small interdependent units, bounded by fences and hedgerows, to large cropping fields to accommodate machine management, we lose the biodiversity that once existed on that landscape and the biomass that provided the Ecosystem Services. This sacrifice was rationalised through the invocation of economic profit. The economic ‘profit’ gained by subsidies on fossil fuel and uncontrolled extraction from the Global Commons. The ‘development’ of agriculture has become a race to control the commodity market. The farmer ceased to be a feature of the farm. In a telling statement, the farmers of Sri Lanka sent the following statement to the CGIAR in 1998 :

‘We, the farmers of Sri Lanka would like to further thank the CGIAR, for taking an interest in us. We believe that we speak for all of our brothers and sisters the world over when we identify ourselves as a community who are integrally tied to the success of ensuring global food security. In fact it is our community who have contributed to the possibility of food security in every country since mankind evolved from a hunter-gather existence. We have watched for many years, as the progression of experts, scientists and development agents passed through our communities with some or another facet of the modern scientific world. We confess that at the start we were unsophisticated in matters of the outside world and welcomed this input. We followed advice and we planted as we were instructed. The result was a loss of the varieties of seeds that we carried with us through history, often spanning three or more millennia. The result was the complete dependence of high input crops that robbed us of crop independence. In addition, we farmers producers of food, respected for our ability to feed populations, were turned into the poisoners of land and living things, including fellow human beings. The result in Sri Lanka is that we suffer from social and cultural dislocation and suffer the highest pesticide- related death toll on the planet. Was this the legacy that you the agricultural scientists wanted to bring to us ? We think not. We think that you had good motives and intentions, but left things in the hands of narrowly educated, insensitive people.’

The diverse farm had to yield to production monoculture, which was made possible through the burning of fossil fuels. Ironically the burning of fossil fuels is the major reason for the current destabilised climate and threat to agriculture. One consequence of climate change is the predicted rise in global temperatures. If ambient temperatures exceed 40 degrees , which has become the reality in many places even today, food production will be compromised. All the food we eat originates with plants and plants produce using photosynthesis. Photosynthesis, or the capture of solar energy by plants, is done with chlorophyll, the thing that makes plants green and chlorophyll begins to break down after 40 degrees. Landscapes whose summer temperatures go beyond this limit will have smaller and smaller crops as the temperatures increase. The only solution to this oncoming crisis, is to begin introducing trees at strategic points on the landscape.

Trees and all other forms of vegetation cool the environment around them through the transpiration process, which takes place in the leaves. The water absorbed by the roots is sent up to the leaves which release it as vapor, cooling the air around it. Measurements on trees done by research institutions worldwide, indicate that an average large tree produces the cooling equivalent of eight room sized air conditioners running for 10 hours, a cooling yield 0f 1,250,000 Bthu per day. Plantations of trees have been recoded to have daytime temperatures at least 3 degrees below the ambient. This is an important aspect of Ecosystem Services that needs to be considered for adaptive agriculture.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realise the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer facing the headlights.

But placing trees in and around cropping areas becomes a problem in large cropping fields designed to accommodate machine management. The management of such trees and hedgerows requires needs that cannot be provided without human management. Agricultural landscapes will need management that will be adaptive to the changing climate. An example would be; small interdependent units bounded by fences and that increase biodiversity and the biomass while providing Ecosystem Services.

Investment in food security, should take climate change seriously. All new agricultural projects should address the heat thresholds of the planned crops. The Sri Lankan country statement at COP 21 stated that :

“We are aware that the optimum operating temperature of chlorophyll is at 37 deg C. In a warming world where temperatures will soar well above that, food production will be severely impacted.”

And that :

“We are aware that the critical Ecosystem services such as; production of Oxygen, sequestering of Carbon, water cycling and ambient cooling is carried out by the photosynthetic component of biomass. This is being lost at an exponential rate, due to the fact that these Ecosystem Services have not been valued, nor economically recognised.”

These statements cry out for the recognition of the role that small farms will have to play in the future. In a temperature compromised future, small farms with high standing biomass, through their cooler temperatures will continue to produce food in heat stressed periods. If such Ecosystem Services can be given a value, it will strengthen the economy of small farms and ensure local, sustainable food production into the future.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realize the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer in sheadlights.

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Encouraging signs, indeed!

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Derek and Manilal

Local entertainers can now breathe a sigh of relief…as the showbiz scene is showing signs of improving

Yes, it’s good to see Manilal Perera, the legendary singer, and Derek Wikramanayake, teaming up, as a duo, to oblige music lovers…during this pandemic era.

They will be seen in action, every Friday, at the Irish Pub, and on Sundays at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby.

The Irish Pub scene will be from 7.00 pm onwards, while at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby, action will also be from 7.00 pm onwards.

On November 1st, they are scheduled to do the roof top (25th floor) of the Movenpik hotel, in Colpetty, and, thereafter, at the same venue, every Saturday evening.

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Constructive dialogue beyond international community

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by Jehan Perera

Even as the country appears to be getting embroiled in more and more conflict, internally, where dialogue has broken down or not taken place at all, there has been the appearance of success, internationally. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be leading a delegation this week to Scotland to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Both the President, at the UN General Assembly in New York, and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris, at the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva seem to have made positive impacts on their audiences and, especially amongst the diplomatic community, with speeches that gave importance to national reconciliation, based on dialogue and international norms.

In a recent interview to the media Prof Peiris affirmed the value of dialogue in rebuilding international relations that have soured. He said, “The core message is that we believe in engagement at all times. There may be areas of disagreement from time to time. That is natural in bilateral relations, but our effort should always be to ascertain the areas of consensus and agreement. There are always areas where we could collaborate to the mutual advantage of both countries. And even if there are reservations with regard to particular methods, there are still abundant opportunities that are available for the enhancement of trade relations for investment opportunities, tourism, all of this. And I think this is succeeding because we are establishing a rapport and there is reciprocity. Countries are reaching out to us.”

Prof Peiris also said that upon his return from London, the President would engage in talks locally with opposition parties, the TNA and NGOs. He spoke positively about this dialogue, saying “The NGOs can certainly make a contribution. We like to benefit from their ideas. We will speak to opposition political parties. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to meet the Tamil National Alliance on his return from COP26, which we will attend at the invitation of the British Prime Minister. So be it the NGO community or the foreign diaspora or the parliamentary opposition in Sri Lanka. We want to engage with all of them and that is very much the way forward”

INTERNAL FRAGMENTATION

The concept of a whole-of-government approach is indicative of a more cohesive approach to governance by government ministries, the public administration and state apparatus in general to deal with problems. It suggests that the government should not be acting in one way with the international community and another way with the national community when it seeks to resolve problems. It is consistency that builds trust and the international community will trust the government to the extent that the national community trusts it. Dialogue may slow down decision making at a time when the country is facing major problems and is in a hurry to overcome them. However, the failure to engage in dialogue can cause further delays due to misunderstanding and a refusal to cooperate by those who are being sidelined.

There are signs of fragmentation within the government as a result of failure to dialogue within it. A senior minister, Susil Premajayantha, has been openly critical of the ongoing constitutional reform process. He has compared it to the past process undertaken by the previous government in which there was consultations at multiple levels. There is a need to change the present constitutional framework which is overly centralised and unsuitable to a multi ethnic, multi religious and plural society. More than four decades have passed since the present constitution was enacted. But the two major attempts that were made in the period 1997-2000 and again in 2016-2019 failed.

President Rajapaksa, who has confidence in his ability to stick to his goals despite all obstacles, has announced that a new constitution will be in place next year. The President is well situated to obtain success in his endeavours but he needs to be take the rest of his government along with him. Apart from being determined to achieve his goals, the President has won the trust of most people, and continues to have it, though it is getting eroded by the multiple problems that are facing the country and not seeing a resolution. The teachers’ strike, which is affecting hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, is now in its fourth month, with no sign of resolution. The crisis over the halting of the import of chemical fertiliser is undermining the position of farmers and consumers at the present time.

EARLY WARNING

An immediate cause for the complaints against the government is the lack of dialogue and consultation on all the burning issues that confront the country. This problem is accentuated by the appointment of persons with military experience to decision-making positions. The ethos of the military is to take decisions fast and to issue orders which have to be carried out by subordinates. The President’s early assertion that his spoken words should be taken as written circulars reflects this ethos. However, democratic governance is about getting the views of the people who are not subordinates but equals. When Minister Premajayantha lamented that he did not know about the direction of constitutional change, he was not alone as neither does the general public or academicians which is evidenced by the complete absence of discussion on the subject in the mass media.

The past two attempts at constitutional reform focused on the resolution of the ethnic conflict and assuaging the discontent of the ethnic and religious minorities. The constitutional change of 1997-2000 was for the purpose of providing a political solution that could end the war. The constitutional change of 2016-19 was to ensure that a war should not happen again. Constitutional reform is important to people as they believe that it will impact on how they are governed, their place within society and their equality as citizens. The ethnic and religious minorities will tend to prefer decentralised government as it will give them more power in those parts of the country in which they are predominant. On the other hand, that very fact can cause apprehension in the minds of the ethnic and religious majority that their place in the country will be undermined.

Unless the general public is brought aboard on the issue of constitutional change, it is unlikely they will support it. We all need to know what the main purpose of the proposed constitutional reform is. If the confidence of the different ethnic and religious communities is not obtained, the political support for constitutional change will also not be forthcoming as politicians tend to stand for causes that win them votes. Minister Premajayantha has usefully lit an early warning light when he said that politicians are not like lamp posts to agree to anything that the government puts before them. Even though the government has a 2/3 majority, this cannot be taken for granted. There needs to be buy in for constitutional reform from elected politicians and the general public, both from the majority community and minorities, if President Rajapaksa is to succeed where previous leaders failed.

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