The role of ICT in reconciliation is a significant part of the global dialogue on reconciliation and it is a main aspect of bringing about reconciliation in a nation torn by decades of conflict, Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga said.
“ICTs can help build meaningful relationships between people who are geographically and culturally diverse as well as those who have been severed by mistrust and enmity; the more ICT applications on the ground, the better”, the Secretary said delivering the keynote address at fifth National Conference on Reconciliation, the “National Conference on the Role of Information Communication Technology (ICT) in Reconciliation” hosted by the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKIIRSS) recently.
President's Secretary said that ICT remains an instrument in facilitating reconciliation: “Technology has no stand alone power; it is simply a tool,” he said. He identified seven uses of ICT in the national reconciliation process.
He said Sri Lanka must ensure the sharing of knowledge and information. “Let us consider knowledge and information systems for reconciliation, as conflict arises in an environment of knowledge deficiencies and misinformation.” He said post-conflict Rwanda shows the effective application of ICTs in managing knowledge.
Secretary Weeratunga added that, “Access to reliable information and knowledge is the responsibility of a democracy. The government must always do the right thing at any given time, unlike a terrorist organization.” He said that a government must always be transparent and ICT helps in creating transparency and increasing accountability. He said that ICT helps government to streamline its services and provide a high quality service for citizens. Free from the hassles encountered by people at the immigration department for example, “my dream is to enable Sri Lankans to obtain a passport from home!” Weeratunga said.
ICTs contribute to the social and economic development of a nation to a great extent. For example, the Northern and Eastern Provinces are highly integrated into national development programmes, Secretary Weeratunga said. “President Mahinda Rajapaksa has connected all government ministries and departments and ministries that needed to be connected, and now the North and the East are also connected to the government network and the whole country is brought together”, Weeratunga said. He said that government services are available to all people in Sri Lanka as a result of the application of ICT – which contributes in achieving one LLRC recommendation – through the government portal www.srilanka.lk and dialing 1919, where people can call to make inquiries or complaints using Sinhala, Tamil, or English.
The Secretary said that he was happy that today 15 percent of the calls which come in through 1919 are from Tamil speakers. “All services are available in all three languages and are executed equally efficiently”, Weeratunga said. “I want to keep people out of government offices as far as possible!” President's Secretary Weeratunga said.
However, there exists obstacles in the use of ICTs in reconciliation and knowledge-sharing, Weeratunga stated. He identified following three obstacles in ICT use in Sri Lanka:
The digital divide as all do not have/ use computers (although almost everyone uses a mobile phone)
The need for interoperability (incompatibility of data formats), as organizations often become attached to their own formats and are unwilling to change in order to share with others. Although ensuring interoperability is not an easy process, data always needs to be in a common format so that it can be shared between organizations. For example, the data should be compatible between the five mobile operators in Sri Lanka. Security of emails and content on the web: when considering whether to share sensitive information on the web, individuals and organizations need to have confidence that the information will not be shared with any unauthorized bodies; governments have to be particularly sensitive to this task, especially as inaccurate or misleading information can have serious consequences during a conflict and creates an unnecessary risk to their own credibility or security.
“In policy terms, information sharing is often not considered a priority; this is a day-to-day issue that we have, and also a fairly top-level policy issue. Systems have not been put in place to ensure that government staff has guidelines to help them decide when and how to share information,” he added.
He recalled how ICTA has had a trying time convincing certain government departments to allow their (application) forms to be downloadable from their websites. “‘How can you allow someone to download a form from nowhere and bring it in to our office?. Weeratunga said that most of the government forms are available online at www.gic.gov.lk.
“Whatever tools we employ, needs to be done with care, with understanding, and considering the consequences they can have; by enhancing the positive side of ICTs while controlling the bad side.” Weeratunga also added that work in reconciliation should be undertaken in a transparent and open manner in a framework of trust between different stakeholders for progress and peace. “I want to live in a Sri Lanka that is safe, sound, credible, and peaceful,” the Secretary said.