by Claus Kruse, Centre for International Migration & Development/Northern & Eastern Provincial Councils, 2007
Owing to the prevalent administrative circumstances, the government-controlled line of command is the preeminent planning authority at district and local level. This situation appears prevalent in most districts, and usually these entities are viewed as the singular actual planning actors, which automatically makes them potential partners for governmental and non-governmental development agencies. While this appears to be current reality in the planning process, it is not entirely clear where the district and divisional administrations derive their mandates from for this role and function. Although the Transfer of Powers (Divisional Secretaries) Act of 1992 opens the possibility of transferring powers and functions to the Divisional Secretariats, we have not found a planning mandate backed by any Act of Parliament. Consequently, strengthening this structure would result in supporting a centralised administration that acts on a top-down approach, whereas the constitutionally defined democratic local authorities, namely the Municipal Councils, Urban Councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas are for the most part reduced to bystanders.
In other words, the Central Government administrative structure has been able to dominate local planning even though there are other central agencies (UDA, NHDA, CEA, etc.), which were created to support the Local Governments in fulfilling their part in planning. In this regard it is also crucial that we do not confuse the term Local Government (i.e. UC, MC, PS) with the DS and GN, which are part of the Central Government structures.7 On the other hand it is neither possible nor practicable to neglect the key role of Divisional Secretariat and District Secretariat in the planning process. Particularly in the NEP, the rehabilitation and reconstruction activities are mainly carried out through this channel, under the leadership of the Ministry of Nation Building and Development.
As to the actual planning procedures and processes, we believe that the shortcomings and weaknesses of the system are generally well known to most observers and stakeholders involved in it. The fundamental issues from our point of view, however, may be summarised as follows:
1. There are a large number of administrative institutions operating at local level, mainly national sector agencies, the Urban Councils, Municipal Councils, and Pradeshiya Sabhas, and the Divisional Secretariats. Ideally, the Divisional Secretariats should have been the administrative part to the Local Governments (PS, UC and MC). Yet presently they function as two separate institutions more or less independently of each other.
2. Inadequate transparency and accountability characterises the planning process, whereby the main planning actors (Division/District) have no people’s representation.
3. Poor coordination and communication and frequent unwillingness to collaborate owing to asymmetrical power relationships among stakeholders and even within departments. The tsunami emergency situation forced the various planning institutions and levels to collaborate better and coordinate their activities. Yet this was a temporary arrangement only, without institutionalisation of such coordination and cooperation efforts. Today, the situation has fallen back to the practices that existed before. A lesson learnt is that if there is willingness and commitment, collaborative planning is possible.
4. Sectoral rather than integrated thinking dominates current planning practice, in part due to the understanding of Local Government as a ‘sector’. Spatial/physical planning is conceptually and institutionally isolated from development (socio-economic) planning and budget formulation.
5. There is no unified organisational and procedural framework in place in the various planning units, be it local authorities, divisions or districts.
6. Planning administration across all institutions is largely suffering from insufficient human resources both in terms of vacant positions and skilled professional staff. This issue is strongly connected to the ethnic conflict that limits free movement of Singhalese and Tamil staff.
7. Central Government exerts a high degree of influence regarding (1) staffing of higher public servants in local authorities, districts and divisions, (2) planning in general through central agencies in districts, and (3) the control of funds for development.
8. The sustainability of interventions of non-governmental organisations is jeopardised because they are not based on proper local development plans, and because they take place largely uncoordinated.
If spatialised development planning is to become a genuine part of the democratic local planning system in the future, emphasis must be put on the local authorities. It is imperative to reduce the distance between the two administrative structures at local level in order to improve the planning process and consequently to increase the impact of development activities. While it is recognised that strengthening both Local Governments and Divisional Secretariats is required, the focus will have to be on the first to bridge the gap between them.