TamilWeek Apr 2, 2006
Evidence based policy making
By Prof. S.T. Hettige
[Dept. of Sociology, University of Colombo]

Many of the problems we are
confronted within Sri Lanka today,
can be attributed to the fact that
many of our policy makers over the
years, have gone against a widely
accepted principle.
The principle is that the problems in modern societies have to be
resolved by taking measures on a rational basis. This principle goes
back to the enlightenment period, when the thinkers at that time, were
convinced that issues of development and public welfare could be
understood and addressed on the basis of scientific knowledge. They
were naturally encouraged by scientific discoveries and inventions in
many fields. This was at the time referred to as the triumph of reason.

What followed in the west was not only a scientific revolution but also,
widespread application of knowledge to solve various problems.
Economic development and social progress that materialized as a
result, prepared the groundwork for the wider acceptance of the
principle that was referred to earlier.

With the extension of western civilization into the rest of the world
through colonialism, trade and education, modern scientific values
and ethos, penetrated the hitherto traditional societies in other parts
of the world. By the time the colonies of the western powers became
independent, significant groups of scientists, political leaders, public
officials and professionals were already in place in these countries.
They were prepared to influence decision making with regard to the
management of development and other affairs.

What happened in the first few decades after independence was the
gradual erosion of the above values and ethos, giving way to extreme
forms of political pragmatism and ad hoc decision making.

These decisions, taken with little regard to adverse consequences in
the long run, have undermined the institutions that were established
to promote scientific thinking and professional policy making. The
result has been the discarding of long-term planning, in favour of
short-term strategy, with a view to gaining and retaining political
power and other personal advantages.

What is mentioned above becomes quite clear when we look at
developments in a number of important areas. If we look at education,
for example, the lack of a long-term rational perspective has not only
undermined education itself but, has also produced a negative impact
on the economy and society, as well as the polity of the country.

Whereas education would have been an arena for much needed
human resource development, vital for economic advancement, it has
been used for narrow instrumental purposes. For many people,
education became a means of acquiring educational certificates, with
little or no effort being made to impart skills and competencies.

When we look at countries such as Japan and South Korea,
education has been a main driving force behind economic
development. Whereas, education should have been used to force a
national identity transcending narrow ethno linguistic division,
politically expedient, myopic decision making, with regard to the
medium of instruction, have turned education into a major divisive
force in society, leading to disintegration of the country.

Such decisions taken many years ago, continue to have negative
consequences even today. For example, the marginalization of a
large section of the younger population, within a fast globalizing
economy, can be already linked with the above decision, yet, no
attempt has been made to rectify the shortcomings.

Another area that deserves our attention is the nature of the Sri
Lankan State. Given the diversity of the population of Sri Lanka in
terms of ethnicity, religion and language, the establishment of a
secular pluralistic State would have been the obvious choice of Sri
Lanka, to avert any future crisis. Yet, the State that came into being,
became more and more identified with the dominant ethno religious
community, giving a sense of marginalisation to minorities. As we all
know, this notion of a Sri Lankan State, has come under attack in the
recent past. We are already in the midst of a full blown political crisis.
Had we taken a preventive policy position at the beginning, the
situation would have been different.

Today, the antagonistic forces are very much poised against each
other, so much so, that no power on earth seems to have the capacity
to bridge this very wide gap. Many more examples can be cited to
illustrate the main points in the present article. There is no substitute
for evidence based decision making in modern complex societies. Yet,
our leaders cannot care less and they continue to flout this principle
with impunity, making the situation in the country worse and
intolerable for the vast majority of the people.

The management of public affairs has become a vast sectarian
political project that serves the interests of the partisan groups
connected to the dominant political establishment, at the expense of
the day to day needs of the people, as well as the long-term interests
of Sri Lankan society.

On the other hand, the way forward for Sri Lanka is to realize that the
country can overcome its problems only by following the time tested
path to social and economic progress. That path is the path of
enlightened policy making.
Also by  Prof. S.T. Hettige  

Bilingualism: Path to Peace