Notes from the Field

In Northern Sri Lanka, Local Governments Prepare for Post-War Development

February 24, 2010

Although the civil war in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province ended in May 2009, decades of armed conflict have damaged the relationship between state and civil society, between the government and the governed.

Because of the war, elections for municipal councils, urban councils, and pradeshiya sabhas (local authorities that mostly govern in rural areas) in the North have been few and far between. Nevertheless, administrative staff of these local authorities remained in place and – despite limited capacity and resources – worked to provide necessary services for a semblance of local governance; but clearly much has been neglected. With the war’s end, the Province is beginning to recover. The first local authority elections since the war ended were held in 2009 for the Jaffna Municipal Council (won by the government party, the United Peoples Freedom Alliance) and the Vavuniya Urban Council (won by the Tamil National Alliance). It was the first election to the Jaffna MC since 1998 and the first election to the Vavuniya UC since 1994. Elections for the 32 other local councils in the North as well as for the provincial council are likely be held in late 2010.

Since the end of the war, The Asia Foundation has begun to extend its local governance program to the North, working to develop the capacity of local authorities to get citizens to participate in local government planning and development initiatives in their communities. Our first activity was in October 2009, when 27 local authorities from the Northern Province came together in Jaffna for the first time for a Local Government Symposium, arranged by the Ministry of Local Government of the Northern Province with support from the central government Ministry of Local Government and Provincial Councils. Representatives from Jaffna, Vavuniya, and Mannar Districts participated in the symposium, which provided an opportunity to discuss crucial issues such as service delivery improvement, local development planning, citizen participation, public-private partnerships, and local government reforms. In heartfelt, robust discussions, participants agreed on the necessity for stronger partnerships between local authorities, central government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and civil society.

Photo by Karl Grobl.

Photo by Karl Grobl.

The day after the symposium, we followed up with a training needs assessment to get a better indication of the needs of the North’s local authorities, specifically in and around Jaffna MC and Valvuniya UC. In addition to the basic management skills needed to govern efficiently, the results revealed a broad need for further training to promote and incorporate community participation in the planning process.

Based on the findings, the Foundation conducted a Technology of Participation training program in January in Sigiriya to help equip local authorities with effective participatory methods and tools to promote effective governance. Twenty nine officials and staff from 12 local authorities from Jaffna and Vavuniya completed hands-on training where they learned how to run a well-structured discussion, how to conduct workshops, and how to undertake participatory action planning. The workshop allowed officials from different areas of the North to discuss common challenges related to post-conflict development.

The training session helped renew awareness that community involvement is critical to the successful reconstruction of the Northern Province. On the final day of the training, participants demonstrated their facilitation skills through role-playing exercises designed to simulate community consultation and involvement. Since returning to their local authorities, trainees have convened informal community consultations. The Asia Foundation’s next step is to regularize these within an ongoing development planning process.

Nilan Fernando is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Sri Lanka and can be reached at nfernando@asiafound.org. Maria Merla Aquino is a consultant with the Foundation in Sri Lanka.

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