Governments can take advantage of ICT connectivity to reach MDG targets by creating efficiency, transparency and inclusiveness in public service delivery by providing readily accessible online government information on education, health, social welfare etc, simplifying procedures and reducing red tape burden, said Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunge at the 9th International Conference of Network of Asia Pacific Schools and Institutes of Public Administration and Governance yesterday (12) in Colombo.
“At home in Sri Lanka, our own achievements in MDGs are noteworthy. We are on track to reaching most MDGs. According to UNDP, Sri Lanka is considered to be an early achiever on 10 of the 21 indicators, including those related to the goals of universal primary education and gender equality. Sri Lanka is also expected to meet the goals of maternal health and HIV/AIDS”, he said.
Following is the full text of the speech:
Let me first of all welcome all of you to our beautiful country. I also want to convey my appreciation to the Network of Asia Pacific Schools and Institutes of Public Administration and Governance, our own Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration and the Department of Management, University of Monash, Australia, for collaborating and hosting the Ninth International NAPSIPAG Conference here in Colombo, Sri Lanka. It is a great pleasure to see distinguished delegates from all over the region to our country, well known for its legendary hospitality, and I hope that you will take time off your conference schedule whenever you can to enjoy the sanctity of this island and mingle with the friendly people. We want you to take back beautiful memories of your stay here.
I understand that there was a very enthusiastic response to participate at this year’s NAPSIPAG Conference and that the organizers had to, in fact, reluctantly curtail the requests for registration. I am certainly glad that this forum has generated such enthusiasm, given that you will be dealing with a very important theme “Development Challenges in the Asia Pacific: Millennium Development Goals and Beyond” which is of great relevance to all nations in the region.
All these academics, researchers and practitioners present here are no doubt armed with an array of information and experiences to share and learn from each other on how to reduce if not alleviate poverty in their own countries or how to improve health and education conditions, ways and means to improve nutritional status and combat diseases etc etc, all basic tenets of the MDGs.
At this point, let me share some interesting facts from the recently issued Millennium Development Goals Progress Report by the United Nations.
It says that the target of reducing extreme poverty by half has been reached five years ahead of the 2015 deadline. The same goes for the target of halving the proportion of people who lack dependable access to improved sources of drinking water. Conditions of a large number of slum–dwellers have been improved at double the target for 2020. Today, majority of nations have achieved parity in school enrolment between girls and boys, and improved primary school enrolment rates. Progress in reducing child mortality and combating diseases has been very encouraging. All this is good news.
The not so good news is that projections indicate that in 2015, more than 600 million people worldwide will still be using unimproved water sources. Nearly one billion people will still be living on an income of less than $1.25 per day. Hunger will remain a global challenge and the number of slum-dwellers will continue to grow.
It is obvious that we cannot rest on our laurels even though we may be on track to reach some of the targets. As the MDG report indicates clearly, gains made in certain areas are neutralized by poor performance in others. Achievements are unequally distributed within regions and nations.
Some countries are well on their way to succeed in their missions, while others are at risk of falling far too behind. Some have had head starts, like in the case of Sri Lanka which had impressive education records to begin with, while others have turned the tables through innovative, inexpensive solutions. No matter what the status of each country’s MDG achievement is, all of us collectively will have to be concerned about it, given that the well being of one country has implications on its neighbours.
Focussing more on the theme of the conference - the Development Challenges in the Asia Pacific: Millennium Development Goals and Beyond, I wish to remind ourselves that most of us here represent the Asia-Pacific region. You will know that this region has been growing at a remarkable rate since recent years, emerging as the global economic growth driver. Compared with the developed economies which have been hovering close to 3% growth rate - the developing countries in Asia-Pacific have been growing rapidly at a rate of over 8%. Conversely, the Asia Pacific region is also home to 950 million people who live on less than $1.25 a day. Protecting the poor and the vulnerable and ensuring that they too have access to opportunities thus should become a high priority to these countries.
In my address today, I also thought I should speak to you on a subject that I have great faith in, and which is also relevant to this conference. (Which is the potent influence of Information and Communication Technologies to improve the lot of individuals and nations to amazing degrees).
The importance of ICTs is underlined in the Eighth Millennium Development Goal which focuses on a Target which advocates governments to “cooperate with the private sector, and make available the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communications”.
We can all agree that ICTs are tools that can be used effectively by governments to deliver their services effectively, which in turn makes MDG targets easier to reach. Governments can take advantage of ICT connectivity to reach MDG targets by creating efficiency, transparency and inclusiveness in public service delivery by providing readily accessible online government information on education, health, social welfare etc, simplifying procedures and reducing red tape burden. They can also be made use of to reduce poverty by giving vulnerable groups access to information on a range of subjects, including health and education information and management systems, education, and management of natural resources.
The remarkable growth in the Asia Pacific region that I mentioned earlier is partly due to the contribution by the rural poor in these developing economies. Their contribution, in turn, has been greatly facilitated by the digital revolution that had empowered rural societies.
While it is true that access to ICT is fast spreading in developing countries, so does it in developed countries. What this essentially means is that the digital divide will continue to be a yawning gap, unless developing countries continue to strive to keep abreast with developed countries.
Developing countries have increased their share of the world’s total number of Internet users from 44 per cent in 2006 to 62 per cent in 2011, and Internet penetration in the developing countries stood at 26.3 per cent. However, the vast majority of people in the Least Developed Countries still lack access to the Internet. An indication of this is that currently four out of five persons in the developing countries, particularly in rural societies, remain offline.
Because of the enormous development impact of bringing people online via wireless access, mobile broadband technology and developments are expected to play an important role in achieving MDGs. As stated by the United Nations Broadband Commission for Digital Development, broadband represents a momentous economic and social change that will be a game changer in addressing a myriad of challenges – be it healthcare costs, education and social change.
Governments and private industries must be encouraged to join hands in developing ICTs for inclusive and sustainable development. An example is the story of how Korea has built a successful knowledge society for all, on a public, private partnership. Korea’s 3G mobile network covers 99% of its population and 80% of its territory.
At home in Sri Lanka, our own achievements in MDGs are noteworthy. We are on track to reaching most MDGs. According to UNDP, Sri Lanka is considered to be an early achiever on 10 of the 21 indicators, including those related to the goals of universal primary education and gender equality. Sri Lanka is also expected to meet the goals of maternal health and HIV/AIDS.
Since 2009, that is after having eliminated 26 years of brutal terrorism, where development took a heavy beating, Sri Lanka is now undergoing a major transformation. Our country which achieved the status of a middle-income country having recorded the fastest growth in South Asia in 2011, is currently in the midst of a massive effort to reconstruct districts and villages in the former war theatre, build infrastructure and engage in a reconciliation process. Since the end of the war, Sri Lanka’s economy has been growing while unemployment and poverty rates had fallen.
We have witnessed remarkable achievements during the last five years, despite a debilitating war against terrorism. Our per capita income which was US$ 1062 in 2004, more than doubled to US$ 2800 in 2010. Poverty was reduced to 8.9% from 15.6%, five years ago. There are other remarkable achievements as well.
Today we have as our Chief Guest, a minister and a visionary who has made a landmark initiative to eradicate poverty from our midst. Hon Basil Rajapaksa, the architect of the Divineguma bill, an Act of Parliament that focuses on the family to enhance its quality of life. This is probably one of its kind in this part of the world because it focuses on the household, a direct intervention to attack poverty. This legislation will require all public administration personnel at the grassroots level to interact with the citizens at the household level. This calls for very special skills and modes of delivery.
In order to consolidate the strong position we have achieved, Sri Lanka also places great emphasis on the need for an efficient and effective public service delivery. In fact, the year 2013 has been declared by our President, H.E Mahinda Rajapaksa, as the Year of Excellence in Public Services. The underlying concept of our President is to deliver public services in an excellent manner so that they result not only in the people receiving government services in the most efficient way, but there is also a consequent improvement in our people's social and economic conditions and further reduction in the incidences of poverty. Hence the public service delivery drive that the government will be undertaking with a renewed vigour from 2013 will certainly see further advances made in the achievement of the MDG goals. It is the thrust of the government in 2013 to begin an era of excellent public service delivery. We believe 2013 will be a water-shed in our public administration history and I invite the great expertise here to on the one hand help us in conceptualization and also study Sri Lanka's effort, on the other, so as to share the leanings with other countries in the region.
Another remarkable feature in our government is that it has been increasingly employing ICT tools to deliver public services. Several e-Government initiatives have resulted in enhanced delivery of public services on-line, with overall 15,000 government officials having being trained and skilled in ICT. We have created a government Cloud, taking our eGov services to a remarkably high level.
We have taken ICTs to remote hamlets. Nena Salas or rural telecentres established in nearly 700 locations throughout the country link over 72,000 users monthly, half of whom are women in rural areas. The Government Information Centre, the GIC with a short dial code, 1919 is a global award winning public service delivery mechanism catering to over 5000 public requests per day in all three languages. More than its ability to provide information to the public, it has created a great drive for courtesy in the government's dealing with the public. We are very keen to establish that governments can be courteous and empathic.
There is an increasing worldwide trend for governments to move towards centralizing the entry point of service delivery to a single portal where citizens can access all Government-supplied services. In 2012, 70 per cent of countries provided a consolidated one-stop-shop portal compared with 26 per cent in 2003. This not only makes it easier for citizens to find public services, but it encourages Governments to integrate processes across departments and increase efficiency.
In Sri Lanka, the government online portal is used by nearly 7 million people and rising with an average of more than 90,000 users per month.
Recently, our Government also launched 22 eServices provided by 10 government agencies. This is only the initial steps taken by the e-services project to enable the public to obtain their services quickly and efficiently and in the comfort of their home or office.
Dear Friends, this is just a summary of what we do here as a middle income country to improve the lot of our citizens. As public administrators, we need to relentlessly pursue ways and means of making public administration meaningful to our peoples and thereby deliver excellent public services. This must be inculcated in the minds of all who are in public administration and in particular, all those who come into contact with the citizen.
In conclusion, therefore, I wish to recall the words of Aristotle, great philosopher. "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not a single act, it is a habit." It is my fervent hope that this excellence Aristotle referred to, will be transformed into empathic dealing with the citizen.