Notes from the Field

Sri Lankan Communities Use Tablets to Rebuild War-Torn Provinces

December 5, 2012

The end of a three-decade-long conflict in the Northern and Eastern Provinces in Sri Lanka is finally ushering in peace, security, and stability for millions in these affected communities. Alongside the daunting challenge of integrating thousands of returning internally displaced people, estimated to be more than 300,000 at the time the conflict ended in May 2009, local governments are also struggling to restore the severely damaged or destroyed social and economic infrastructure, and services like rural roads, health clinics, schools, drinking water, and food markets. The major challenge is therefore not only to return those who have been displaced to their homes, but also to restore and sustain infrastructure and services for them to resume their livelihood.

A flooded road in Sri Lanka

Decades of conflict in Sri Lanka’s North and East has left a backlog of much-needed local-level infrastructure facilities and services, such as road construction and repairs. Photo/Karl Grobl

Realizing the conflict-induced backlog of needed local-level infrastructure facilities and services in these provinces, Sri Lanka’s government, with financial support from the World Bank, launched the North-East Local Services Improvement Program (NELSIP) in 2010. The program, later renamed Pura Neguma, puts citizens in charge of monitoring whether infrastructure projects are being carried out transparently and are actually completed. Given the huge inflow of funds to local governments, especially in the provision of public services and infrastructure, it is hoped that citizen monitoring and oversight will drastically reduce opportunities of corruption.

Since the program started, over 429 infrastructure projects have launched across the two provinces; a majority of which have been construction of roads that were destroyed during the war. A key part of the project’s success has been the mandatory Social Audit Committees (SACs) that were established to engage the public to help monitor the construction of infrastructure projects. This is a radical break from past practices where monitoring of local infrastructure was carried out by the technical audit teams from local governments with a focus more on compliance with technical parameters and much less on actual outcomes. The SACs are made up of local community members who provide oversight and monitoring of the construction works. Without their endorsement, the contractors cannot be paid for the work they have done. While this helped improve the transparency of the projects, the members expressed the need for a way to compile the data so that it could be used more effectively for future projects.

Social Audits in Sri Lanka

Mr. Monty Ranatunge, project coordinator, uses one of the tablets containing the survey software. Though social audits are now quite common in South Asia, this is perhaps the first instance of such a large scale use of ICT tools in social audits.

Realizing this, in May 2012, The Asia Foundation, with support from the World Bank in partnership with the Ministry of Economic Development, developed a new social audit framework using Android-based tablets which feature a user-friendly application to collect community feedback in the form of a simple questionnaire, a GPS utility that locates data coordinates to ensure diverse representation, and a back-end program that generates customized, straight forward reports in which to present the data. A specially designed software will integrate the data sets at different tiers of governments – local, district, and provincial – in real time. Information generated would include community feedback on the relevance and quality of the infrastructure at local levels, the transparency of the contract, and the effectiveness of oversight and monitoring entities. It will also allow local governments to analyze data on satisfaction with infrastructure created and services delivered in real time. Though social audits are now quite common in South Asia, this is perhaps the first instance of such a large scale use of ICT tools in social audits.

We also provided the SACs with simple protocols to help them track infrastructure development, such as the quality and quantity of raw materials purchased by the contractors like cement, sand, and stone aggregates, and also to track the quality of ongoing and completed construction work of roads, drains, buildings and culverts. And, in the coming months, Community Development Officers (CDOs) affiliated with the local government will begin using the tablets to conduct Community Report Cards (CRC) which will elicit objective and subjective feedback from local residents and beneficiaries of the infrastructure, which will result in generating a simple but effective rating system.

To ensure that these social audits continue beyond the lifecycle of Pura Neguma and beyond, we have developed a CRC on local government services that will be implemented annually by CDOs and will assess the delivery of 12 services like, water supply, sewerage, solid waste management, roads, street lights, trade licenses, and building permits provided by local authorities using touchscreen tablets and smiley faces to rate the services. According to Mr. M. Jegu, the Commissioner of Local Government for the Northern Province, this information could provide him very useful evidence to allocate budgets and prioritize investments.

We tested the framework and tools in four local governments and the results have generated a lot of buzz at both the community and high government levels. The World Bank and the Government of Sri Lanka are now preparing to expand the social audit program to all 79 local governments in the North and East.

Gita Sabharwal is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Sri Lanka and Gopakumar Thampi is a social accountability expert working across developing countries in Asia and Africa, and provides technical support to the Foundation in Sri Lanka. Sabharwal  can be reached at gsabharwal@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

View all posts by Gita Sabharwal

View all posts by Gopakumar Thampi

Write a comment:

* Required

Comments are moderated. Please be polite and on-topic.

 characters available