Friday, 3 February 2017

Sri Lanka’s ICT Policy Gone ‘Off Road’

By Kamalika Gunawardena –

Catalyzed by the energy generated by working together against an impending 'Y2K issue', the Sri Lankan IT industry came to its first stage of maturity at the turn of the millennium in a unique act of collaboration to forge an ICT Roadmap for the new decade. The resulting document was seen by many a donor as a strong indicator of the true potential of the industry hitherto not visible. The Roadmap document provided the impetus for the Sri Lankan government to be able to bring a well thought out plan for negotiating with the World Bank (among other donors) to accelerate the ICT industry through the subsequent e-Sri Lanka initiative.

To be sure it was during a UNP-led government that the ICT Agency of Sri Lanka was first setup to drive the e-Sri Lanka initiative to bring the dividends of ICT to every village and citizen in the country. The initial roadmap was further developed with input from best practice from around the world resulting in the e-Sri Lanka programme which was to be implemented by the ICT Agency in 2004. Built upon five thrust areas – the so-called 'pillars' of Re-engineering government, e-Society, Information Infrastructure, ICT investment and private sector development and ICT human resource capacity building, and held together by a sixth all-encompassing ICT Policy and Leadership component, the e-Sri Lanka project was arguably one of the more successful of the medium scale donor funded projects executed by Sri Lanka. One of the many reasons for success was the clear articulation of its aims and objectives to each of the stakeholder groups including the population at large. This success is all the more creditable considering that it was implemented during a turbulent period in the history of the country and survived several political upheavals even during the tenure of a single governing party.

The rigorous final evaluation report of the e-Sri Lanka programme found that the implementing agency performed more satisfactorily than the donor itself in making the overall outcome of the project moderately satisfactory. While recommending the discontinuing of some of the sub-programmes of the project, the report recommends that several of the sub-programmes should be continued owing to the positive outcomes they had already demonstrated, and their potential for taking Sri Lanka to the next level in terms of truly leveraging the benefits of ICT in accelerating its progress to middle income country status.

Ironically, today, under another UNP-led coalition, the e-Sri Lanka framework has been completely abandoned and ICT policy gone 'off road' without any coherent direction of progress. All the more ironic is the fact that some of the leaders of the original e-Sri Lanka initiative are MPs of the ruling party, albeit sidelined into ministries that don't intersect with the ministry under which the ICT Agency resides.

Fortunately, the strong private sector industry bodies that came to be setup and get strengthened since the turn of the millennium, have now matured and become resilient to national politics. Their export targets for example and manpower engagement goals continue to be ambitious as they seek to make ICT Sri Lanka's top export by 2022. However, anyone who has tried to work in any industry seriously, would know that even such a formidable lobby cannot be harnessed effectively for the development of the country, without the supportive framework of policy that needs to be set in place by the government. For all intents and purposes, it appears that the ICT Agency has abdicated its role as the government's arm in setting the policy framework for the ICT industry.

Today, the ICT Agency is in shambles: with as much as some 64 independent and arbitrary projects in its 'portfolio', hundreds of employees recruited without any apparent rationale, the once 'lean and mean' agile agency appears to have gone down the path of other government departments which act mostly as employment agencies for their supporters. More seriously, the ICT Agency appears to have abrogated its responsibility of engaging with its main stakeholders leave alone the public at large.

Without any coherent ICT framework in place, the ICT Agency's only saving graces are the few programmes that are still run by some of the original champions who dared to stay on after the regime change, and who continue to fight hard to obtain relatively meagre funds to keep those initiatives alive. The bulk of the funds however, appear to be allocated to projects that have no apparent overall goal that they contribute to.

So, why is the industry so silent? The ICT industry in Sri Lanka has got used to largely fending for itself, and not relying on the state. When the state did cooperate, the partnership flourished. Now that the state is in limbo with respect to ICT policy and direction, the industry has been forced to go into its usual 'mind your own business' mode. For all its merits, the ICT industry has one major flaw: it doesn't articulate its opinion when the state machinery isn't doing what it is supposed to. It isn't used to playing this whistle-blowing role, so essential to a public who cannot be expected to understand by itself owing to the complex nature of the industry.

In the meantime, those making de-facto ICT policy in Sri Lanka within walls of private spaces (and force them on agencies such as the ICTA) continue in their march to nowhere land, unhindered.

The Author is an ICT industry professional who has worked with several governments through diverse challenges, worked towards regime change in 2014, but who is appalled by the current state of affairs with respect to this industry. Kamalika Gunawardena is a pseudonym