Thursday, May 29, 2008

back to basics and rational decision making

I did not give a Vesak dansala this time, a tradition I have had for the past three years, for financial reasons. With the spiraling cost of food it was completely out of the question to fund a dansala, as to do it half-heartedly is worse than not doing it at all. I regret not doing it, but one has to live within one’s means, and my means this year is pretty mean and lean!

The 37.5% increase overnight of the price of diesel, the fuel I use to travel, has forced me to rethink the frequency of my travel and I have no option but to drastically cut down on my visits to Polonnaruwa by half and to stay longer at each visit. I will have to use some hired transport to carry out the activities in Colombo in the days I am in Polonnaruwa and also will more likely to go by bus than drive all the time, and bring a fuller load when I come and plan my requirements more carefully.

While we take action in the light of changed circumstances, I am really sad to note that none of my staff have the slightest intention of making any change in their lives and look to me to allow them the same quality of life as before. It is almost as if they are totally immune from the events surrounding their lives as someone is bound to bail them out.

Added to this those who are my customers seem to think I am in a field, agriculture, which is booming, giving no thought to the fact that I have not been able to increase my production due to the reliance on unproductive work force and also have had to suffer a decrease in production due to weather related factors in addition to the insensitivity of the staff.

People don’t seem to be able to connect that the price rise is not one that necessarily helps the farmer if the rise is due to a shortage in supply, as is the case of chilies that have risen to 500/- a kg. If I was a chili farmer with an acre of productive chilies I would be earning more than all my products combined, but there are so few with even an acre of chilies.

Trust me I have been attempting to get an eighth of an acre of green chillies in the past year and have so far failed as I have been stifled by a litany of different problems, all unforeseen, which I will not go into here.

Therefore before people make judgments on others it is best to think a little and extrapolate reasons for external shocks such and price and take action accordingly without making smug assumptions that are incorrect.

English stream in rural schools-think through the ramifications

I was not aware until last week that Ananda Balika Maha Vidyalaya, the most prestigious girls high school in Hingurakgoda, has an English stream where all subjects bar Buddhism and Sinhala are taught in English medium.

There is one class of approximately 40 students at each grade up to 11th in the school, and next year the 11th grade will do their A levels in the English medium. The criteria for entrance is getting the minimum required marks in the exam taken in 5th grade (shishyathwaya) which is a universal exam nationwide. I presume students from other schools who also get this mark are entitled to enter the English stream in this school.

Of course they have teachers who have been selected to teach in the English medium many of whose children are also here, and due to the qualification to enter, attract the brightest and best. It is optional, so one can only assume that it is the parents who make the decision to send their children to the English stream as they consider it a better opportunity for their offspring, giving them a head start over the others in most fields of study.

What struck me as peculiar and now seems not unreasonable is that those students are all segregated in a different classroom complex in the school and rarely interact with the Sinhala stream students who are the bulk of the school, the English stream being about 15% of the total student intake.

It is not unreasonable to assume an element of envy, by the Sinhala stream as these students are both gifted and also probably get a higher quality education, with proof being that students who drop out and rejoin the Sinhala stream for whatever reason, perform better than those in the Sinhala stream. This is no surprise bearing in mind the selection criteria.

It will interesting to do a study of the first batch to graduate out of high school to see where they go and what they do, and compare them with the rest of the student body to get an idea of both the success of the project as well as the lessons one can learn from it, in an environment where the knowledge of English of the rest of the student body is extremely week and the need to know English to get ahead is a known fact even in the rural area however much this aspect is disliked in principle. In terms of computer access it is located in the block that houses the computer lab, and the irony is not lost on me, as they could also get privileged access.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Revocation of the visa of the Principal of Trinity College, Kandy

I was just now, May 8th 2008, informed of the British citizen, Principal of Trinity College, Kandy given a week’s notice to leave the country on some allegation. Whatever the allegation, be it true or false, one has a right to justice in the matter especially if it is trumped up or done by people with ulterior motives, using the allegation as an excuse.

This blog, Kalpanakaranna is an effort to maintain the Serendipity of the country Sri Lanka from which that name originated, by asking the reader to stop and think awhile the consequences of such actions. “KALPANAKARANNA” yako karanna issella (devil, think before you act)

I would advise the sleepy Board of Governors of the school to take hasty action to request a stay order on the deportation, and use the services of an old boy, Faiz Mustapha who has offered his services pro bono who is an excellent lawyer on such matters.

This action by the government has been taken at the behest of people pretending to act patriotically and in the national interest, as otherwise you would not deport someone. Look at the possible consequences of this action. Internationally Sri Lanka will increasingly become known as a place that does not tolerate anyone who does not subscribe to the government views. This act will be viewed more as a means of suppressing freedom of expression rather than a justifiable act of a stable and sane country.

Nationally we have lost the services of an excellent educator, who has proved his worth in India and has begun to show results in Sri Lanka, despite the odds against him doing so from people bent on ridding him from the school. Trinity will not be able to replace him with a better person, so that is a loss in itself. The people love to hate people who do not subscribe to their views, but why not put a more constructive tone, to present a better alternative when taking someone to task. In this respect the nation suffers.

Without going into further detail it is self apparent that this action taken against this individual is therefore an unpatriotic act, and therefore against the national self interest and those rabid protagonists cant see this.

On a related issue therefore, if he was accused of say being an LTTE sympathizer, lets define an LTTE sympathizer.
He is one who enables the LTTE to do their job better. Their job being to harm this country from within and without, putting forward the separate state agenda as pursued by them, and finding justification for this cause.

Now take the Colonel in charge of purchasing rations for a particular camp in Minneriya. If he so much as takes a rupee from the pol mudalali who sells the Coconuts to the camp at Rs 50 per nut, then he deprives the army of funds to fight the war, and is a de facto LTTE sympathizer. The same is true for the big boys who sell faulty and outdated arms to the forces and make commissions and the list goes on and on. If one actually delves into the personal records of the accusers of this person one would be able to prove more conclusively of the accusers credentials as an LTTE sympathizer than this person, so the adage, those without sin cast the first stone applies here.

What is it with people who cannot be single minded in defeating an enemy, who instead divert this energy and present the enemy with more ammunition with which to fight? This is the mentality that has prolonged the war, which could have been won with much less casualties if there was a will to win and not pad the coffers of everyone who has a stake in the war mongering business. Without a war, consider the amount of people making money off the war, that will lose out! That is the tragedy of the war with our innocent boys from every village in the country paying the price of the mistakes of the privileged who make the laws, break the laws and play with the laws.

No one doubts that the LTTE is a fearsome terrorist organization that needs to be completely eliminated. Merely winning the war, is a matter of time. This will not eliminate the LTTE or an off-shoot of them. To clearly eliminate a future threat to national sovereignty one has to ensure that the reasons behind one wanting to take arms against the state has also to be eliminated. This has to be done conterminously with wining the hearts and minds of all the ethnic communities who are under threat from very rabid and racist elements, who have a voice, but no basis for their beliefs in a country that throughout its history been multiethnic and multi religious where no one can claim exclusivity or rights over another.

Once these simple facts are accepted, and accommodation made to address grievances, we as a nation of Sri Lankans first can proudly face the world as an example of a harmonious multi ethnic society, proud of the present just as much as its past, to face the very real future challenges of environment and sustainability with a proper sense of values and justice.

request for funds for an operation

I was just approached at 9am 8th of May 2008 in Hingurakgoda, while I was typing the earlier article, by a man whose family is known to me. He came with his son to ask for a donation for an operation that is needed to on the 5yr boy, costing Rs 270,000 at the Sirimavo Bandaranayaka Hospital for Children in Kandy. I was shown photocopies of the following; a copy of a letter with no official letter-head stating Rs270,000 being required with Rs100,000 having been obtained from the Presidential Secretariat from the President’s Fund, a copy of a letter with Presidential Secretariat letterhead saying a donation of Rs100,000 has been made from the President’s Fund, a Gramasevaka certification copy, a letter from the Thamankaduwa Pradeshiya Sabha and copy of a letter from the specialist asking that the child be excused from school and a copy of the doctors note showing his diagnosis of Nephrotic syndrome and a further copy of the treatment plans with Prednilazone steroid being used to treat the illness. There were also copies of lists of donors for this cause.

There was no indication of an operation being required. I called a cousin of mine who is a specialist and was told that he was following the usual treatment for some one of such an age, and no major surgery is usually required, as no kidney transplant had been indicated.

Knowing this family who are always trying to get money by fair means or foul was another factor so I refused to give anything on the grounds that I did not see any indication of a surgery being called for. No doubt they will come again with some evidence of that. In such cases, how is one to believe.

It is common in this country for people to come and collect funds of this kind, some of which is truthful and others not. It is very difficult for the average person to know fact from fiction. There is a great sense of charity amongst the poorer people in this country and I am saddened if they have been taken for a ride using their hard earned money to help a person in need.

If this is truly a ruse and even if the Presidential Secretariat has been duped, then I take issue with the government servant who did the necessary investigation before releasing the money from the President’s Fund. If the letter from the Presidential Secretariat has been forged, then that too would be some grounds for prosecution. It is sad therefore that one uses the illness of a child to try and get as much money for oneself.

Monday, May 5, 2008

the blogosphere as a stress reliever

If it is not apparent to those who read my four blogs, I live in a very isolated setting removed from family and those whose social backgrounds and education correspond to mine. I am in an island where though my thoughts and ideas are incomprehensible to people who surround me, they seem to be even more incomprehensible to those I should be able to relate to, namely family and friends. If they cannot even understand what I am doing and why, how can I have any further rapport except relieving the pressure by way of blogging.

I am breaking new ground and confronting myths head on where I seem to upset people on all sides from their cosy beliefs that are challenged. While the Colombo 7 set want to eat healthy and not pay double for it, and are living a most unhealthy lifestyle themselves. They are worried silly about their children’s growth being stunted by hormone filled chicken, so they go looking for organic chicken, when their children are put in harms way with supermarket packeted expensive foods from overseas full of coloring and preservatives to say nothing of carcinogenic properties.

In the villages, the high degree of alcoholism goes unchecked and unchallenged. The myth that the difference between what they receive for their produce and what is sold in Colombo goes straight to the middle-man still persists. They complain the large millers are controlling the prices and making them destitute while still voting for them at election time.

I am caught in between in this sandwich of myths with insights into both ways of life, being a grower, a person who goes door to door and buys produce from village homes, like mango lime and oranges and then transports them to market being aware of post harvest and shelf life issues. Further to that I also sell to two distinctly different markets of a lower middle class clientele who come to the farm shop to buy better produce at lower prices than the high street shop and delivering to Colombo homes where those customers are also unwilling to pay for value, comparing prices always with comparable produce not grown under comparable conditions! Now how can I sell freshly husked, (plucked a day earlier) coconuts home delivered at a lower price than stolen coconuts that they buy from their local corner shop. In any event I am selling coconuts at the same price I sell at my shop on the farm, so in a sense I am subsiding the Colombo customer, who is very price conscious about coconuts, even though they may think nothing of a 5,000 a head meal at a five start hotel, and drive a vehicle that costs US$100,000. Such are the people and the times we live in.

On the production side I suffer very severely with an alcohol dependant workforce. There is no national effort to counter this, which frustrates me as it is a severe detriment to progress especially in the area of agricultural productivity. The work ethic of these workers as well as their reliability suffers and I have personally have had to suffer this week on account of this and has resulted in delays to various projects aimed directly at revenue generation and cost savings. This is not as big of a problem in other industries that have stricter standards. Agricultural production the way it is means that we cannot offer the labor force a higher wage, until we are either significantly mechanized and have scales that offer efficiency, which in my land extent don’t have.

Of course my insights gives those who are interested a first hand account of the issues, which if one was just an observer not living this life, would not be able to accurately explain. This leads to the frustration I have from the educated and well healed at donor and government departments who offer advise, which is sometimes very hard to implement given the situation alluded to above. In my line of work, I have a lot of armchair advisers and suggestions which no other entrepreneur would receive, but all these are from people who have not faced the same issues on a first hand basis.

I would like to get rid of all the staff and start all over, but that is not an option, so I have to do with what I have and try to gradually and patiently set things in process that will lead me to achieve my objectives. While I am still a long way from achieving my goals, considerably slowed down over the past three years from my expectations, my goal still remains the same. It is to be able to remotely run this operation, based on the supply side of the agricultural enterprise, namely by living in Polonnaruwa and have frequent deliveries of my unusual produce to a customer base in Colombo. For that I need a reliable and efficient man Friday who I will have to find and train over a period of years to take over the operational areas to leave me time to do what I like, something I have hitherto been unable to. To live in the remote areas, learn about local traditions before they have completely disappeared and appreciate nature and its bounty more.

I am now on a treadmill not unlike those in the big cities, but without the glamour of the city salaries or lifestyle!

who are we trying to fool?

On May 1st I had a visitor from the UK an American, who was working on his PhD thesis on the effectiveness of INGO’s and Private and Government sector on rural poverty alleviation and development.

My views were unbending on this one. If one excludes one off special cases like wars, natural disasters and extreme poverty and the help they receive from agencies, I am completely opposed to the current form of aid and assistance given by INGO’s and to a lesser extent from NGO’s.

The donor has a particular objective in mind, even though it may not be suitable for the country or area it is intended for. So the administration of the NGO is to ensure only that the donors needs are met, even though it maybe highly detrimental in the long term to the recipient.

Additionally the donors do not want to involve government and private sector as they believe that they work against their objectives, due to corruption or for profit motive, whereas the donor is altruistic, and what actually happens is that there are different bodies and in some cases more than one NGO on the same project, giving much duplication, and hence gross wastage of the limited funds.

In the extreme case I pointed out it is better to go to a rural locality and give each family the same amount of money, therefore not requiring follow-up and administration. Even if 20% of them make use of it, the success rate will be greater than the colossal waste now going on for a lesser return. At least 100% of the funds will go to the village, and some will be used to buy immediate and unnecessary items and others will be wasted in drink, but the few who will usefully use it will really make the money work for themselves, and these people are sometimes not even recipients if the funds were disbursed through a bureaucratic system of administration at the NGO.

I do not need to stress the level of waste in NGO spending primarily in the center to keep up appearances and high overheads, which results in very little of the donors funds being disbursed to the cause of the program.

In the Sri Lankan context there is no shortage of skilled people to manage such programs if the payscales are high enough, so we do not require the number of overseas staff who happen to make a career of the NGO business, and who are very expensive to upkeep with hardship allowances and children’s school fees etc. It is a career in itself to manage an NGO and the writing up of project proposals to get funding and keep funds continuously flowing occupy much of their time as they have to feather their nests before looking at the objectives of what the donor funds should be used.

I was pretty forthright in my opinions in that there is no surprise why these programs are not successful, as they have been set up not for the primary purpose of for example rural poverty alleviation but more for the administrators to run a top-heavy organization in keeping with status. The objective of the donors funds get short shrift and bad evaluations of the fund allocations are sent to the donors, to give a false picture of the real situation.

He has looked at programs in Costa Rica and Guatemala with specific emphasis on the coffee farmer, and tried to see if there were similarities with the tea small holders in Sri Lanka, I told him that in 2008 there were no similarities and with high prices, trying to organize cartels to market their tea in brands to benefit the producers was a non-starter in this country.

However much we have tried to organize labor to help each other out, human nature in Sri Lanka is only to help the underdog, and if the person is successful to try and bring him or her down a few pegs, so no one likes to work together to improve everyone in a co-op as the tendency of one to take advantage for personal gain is very high and therefore a plan of this nature would not succeed.

This gentlemen’s research is funded by the Ford Foundation, and I would humbly present a case that they are wasting their money funding studies, trying to find out why these INGO’s fail. Any success story is down to the altruistic and selfless dedication of individuals who are hard to find and who will carry on in whatever field without personal gain. So success cannot be replicated due to this characteristic.

Another weakness of INGOs is that the funds disbursed are for too short a term to show results and when cut, the project not only does not have a chance of success, but will also hinder future projects, as it would be assumed that due to this short termism, it is better to just disburse and be damned, and therefore take as much for oneself in the process.

Private sector and profit motive seem to be dirty words in the INGO world, but they are the only ways to encourage people to dedicate their time to making a go of a project, as nothing stimulates a person more than greed. It is up to the coordinated efforts of Government and UN agencies as well as INGOs to set up the infrastructure to direct this greed down to the people they wish to see improving.

So for example instead of giving money, they could ensure banks set up pawn broking arms to give a larger share of the value of a pawned gold item at maybe a subsidized rate of interest, to encourage people to value savings in gold for emergencies, knowing they have a lifeline in times of need.

The old adage of anything free is not worth giving, as it is not appreciated, means that any amount disbursed should have a personal commitment attached so a value is put on it and hence an effort is made on the part of the recipient to make it work.

I am beside myself when I see the stupidity of these donors, as they just don’t understand that they can trust rural folk with small amounts, more than administrators with large amounts. Accountability is an issue, all across the disbursements, but is the least problematic at the recipient end, as a thirty percent success should be considered fantastic and the balance is only spent in the community, so there is some cash infusion to the rural economy, so some form of growth takes place, where none of it filters if spent top down.

At the cost of repeating myself, I firmly believe funds should be disbursed directly with no strings attached, and those who have shown a definite return on their investment be given further funding, thus encouraging development over consumption. Those who waste are penalized by the fact that they have not used the funds for the purposes intended so will not get any more. It is a very simple concept with almost no administration cost, and the cost of follow up can be subcontracted out to a local body, and winners audited before any follow up assistance is given. There is no incentive like being rewarded for achievement, so why is this so difficult. Simple, the people in the NGO racket don’t want their power limited.

I also believe that the government should work in tandem to avoid wasteful and duplication of funds for the same purpose, so that the people to be helped can be fully aware that they cannot go with the begging bowl from one charity to another, and know that effort will be rewarded.