Dancing for Dollars
by Manik Sandrasagra
[Article originally published in The Sunday Island (Colombo) of 6 July 2003.]
Colonization or civilizing the native has always been a dance for dollars. The Portuguese, Dutch, British all came to the colonies because of their insatiable greed. In traditional societies we describe this greed or dis-ease as thanha or desire. Humanity is no different today, perhaps worse. The players are the same. The brand names have changed. Today's top dog is a recent entrant to nationhood and civilization called the United States of America.
Invaders always land on the coast before they can penetrate the interiors. The enterprising facilitators on the beach wait to service the opportunity that greed fuels. Education and jobs guarantee conversions, while roads and trade follows. The natives are taught duplicity while divide and rule is the charm that works. In every colony it is the same. Rural people are dispossessed of the ‘commons' and a new ruling class emerges. In Sri Lanka, Kumari and Lal Jayewardene, Patrick Peebles, Michael Roberts and Eric Meyer have identified and documented the socially aspiring local clans involved in this process. Every political family in Sri Lanka since our so-called independence is a part of this process. In Britain where this process was called ‘enclosure' a traditional rhyme describes it best:
They hang the man and flog the woman
The original change-agent was thought to be the thorombel karaya or Muslim trader who visited the village with his box of tricks. Today's change-agent is much smarter. He too arrives with a box but with a difference. Today's box is a computer which he uses to write reports, using the seductive language of development theory, to bait his fish. All these theorists have some formal training and they believe that they are the chosen vanguard whose manifest destiny it is to raise the consciousness of the less fortunate. A few years ago my friend Edward Goldsmith sent me a copy of a chart that illustrates how the report writer operates:
From the above one word can be selected at random from each column to compose a four word, typical development phrase. For example, A3, B6, C9 and D12 make "systematically balanced cooperative action." Al2, B9, C6 and D3 construct another fine sounding phrase, "Comprehensively mobilized rural participation." None of these phrases mean anything yet they are typical of the seductive language which fills the countless speeches, plans, project proposals and glossy pamphlets of the development industry.
The planning stage of every project very often amounts to more than 20% of the total projected costs. Theory being their only basis, practice has often to make way for theory. Cultural sensitivity is dismissed as cultural relativism. These failed story-tellers are now here in Lanka in droves trying to sell us outdated theories to catapult us into the 21st Century under the guise of peace building and development. A few of us Sri Lankans familiar with the content of their reports and the methodology proposed have cried foul but stopping a tidal wave is no small feat. After all it is report writers who call the shots today. We have foreign agency funded writers working for the Government while the LTTE has expatriate Tamils trying to preserve Tamil culture from far away Norway, Australia and Canada. Once again it is a coastal parley dancing for dollars. As for the peaceful Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim common-folk that form the silent majority, they are once again caught in-between.
Tourism, Agriculture, Information Technology, Ceramics, Gems and Jewellery are a few of the areas that have attracted these proponents of what is best described as file-culture. It all ends up in a file. The file is the way, the light and the truth. If it is not in the file it does not exist. We may also call it definition or problem statement. It is a scam from the start.
Let us study the activities and achievements of one such paper pusher - The Competitiveness Initiative (TCI) in Sri Lanka. USAID and their contractors Nathan Associates Inc and J. E. Austin Associates introduced TCI to our shores a few years ago from the Oberoi Ballroom. New York Times Journalist Thomas Friedman, a former President of Costa Rica and a former Prime Minister of Ireland were part of the road show to attract the locals. It was a most impressive performance and the presentation very slick. Selected Sri Lankan's, including myself were introduced to Michael Porter's diamond and the theory behind competitiveness. Based on their interpretation of how to make things work they created industry clusters where they tapped into a lack-luster corporate elite desperate for expert direction. A country profile was created with the able assistance of local counterparts and several ‘cut and paste' reports that would lead us to Mecca were compiled. Everybody was paid very well. Visiting experts received $800 per day plus travel and accommodation. Locals were naturally paid less. Today as TCI prepares to wrap up its activities in Sri Lanka in August, may I ask, besides spending dollars and talking shop, hiring experts and wasting a great deal of paper on publications, what have they achieved on the ground? What tangible difference has their presence meant to Sri Lanka?
There was talk of an Eco-Lodge built in the Sinharaja; the launch of an arrack cocktail, and now we are told of a Sunset Walk-through the water gardens in Sigiriya. The last proposal interests me since I introduced the first Head of Party of TCI, David Flood to the then Director General of Archaeology Dr. Shiran Deraniyagala. On offer was non-invasive archaeological techniques that TCI said they wanted to demonstrate in Sigiriya. This would have stopped the arbitrary destruction of Sigiriya by those who wanted to go down in history by digging up the past. Dr. Deraniyagala and the Director Research Dr. Basnayake wanted this experiment carried out. However they were over-ruled by an interested party with political clout insisting that this would destroy a World Heritage site! There were more important priorities for these heritage salesmen like a sound and light show similar to that at the Red Fort in Old Delhi.
I also took Flood to see Lalith Gamage, CEO of the Sri Lanka Institute of Information Technology for a technology transfer to assist a Sri Lankan initiative to build an interactive digital GIS map of Śrī Lanka. An expert was called for to teach local students Computer Aided Design so that we could present our multi faceted culture and environmental heritage in an interactive manner on the Internet. This went way beyond a simple website and would have been a great boost to our Tourist Industry.
I was interested in designing a game that teaches you about Sri Lanka in a real world. In fact a MoU was entered into so that we could take this forward. However, although Sri Lanka was promised a plethora of experts under the TCI programme when it came to delivery very little was forthcoming. Time was running out with very few experts forthcoming. My friend David Flood, the first Head of Party exasperated with the lack of progress had to bear the brunt of our criticism.
Flood saw our work as that of a catalyst helping to establish and deliver higher values through informal networks of working groups that represent the real work-horses of competitiveness. The other clusters were a rainbow coalition of Chambers of Commerce, Trade Associations, Policy ‘Think Tanks' Research Institutes and other public and private bodies that typically work as counterparts to donor-funded programmes.
Flood finally quit his job in a very mysterious manner with no explanations to the clusters he had created or to the people he had engaged. However, he wrote an excellent critque based on his experiences replacing the emphasis on the word ‘Competitive' with ‘Strategic'. This paper is required reading for all those caught up in the Aid game.
The TCI road show however continued with new faces and the last proposal that TCI has come up with is that Sigiriya be given over for commercial exploitation to a Norwegian Company which has yet to present its track record.
A glance at the most recent TCI Tourism Cluster report titled ‘An after sunset walk in Sigiriya Water Gardens' makes amusing reading. Like most of their documentation it is made to sell to the dumb natives and enhance the file culture they have already contributed to since their arrival in Sri Lanka.
Yes I am afraid that TCI did not utilize the aid component for specialists available under the programme for Sri Lanka's real advantage, instead squandered the funds available for ‘cut and paste' artists to produce reports. Now let us examine how Sigiriya a World Heritage Site has been handed over to two Norwegians on the basis of a report. These Norwegians were flown out by Sri Lankan, their expenses paid by TCI and like magic we now have a report that is worth studying even in parts.
Tourism cluster — Sigiriya working group brief
An after sunset walk in Sigiriya water gardens
A first draft of a concept by Svein Sturla Hungnes and Stein-Roger Bull
Purpose of the project
What has been done
During the five days working on the project in Sri Lanka, we:
Why an illuminated walk in Sigiriya water gardens
This is a first draft produced in a very short time. In the following text we are just framing sequences and presenting images and ideas. The next step will be to fill in more details based on more knowledge and input.
The content of The After Sunset Walk:
Visitors board the trains from Moragahamulla car park, moving west on the road. Guides present information about The After-Sunset Walk, the Sigiriya Rock Fortress site and its myths and history. This is the only information to be given to the visitors. After leaving the train, it is only images, sound, music and performances surrounded by complete darkness.
Yes, it will not only be the Elephants that will disappear but our heritage as well now that a cheap imitation of a Disneyland type scheme is being cooked up by dream merchants. However if Sigiriya was to be offered to TCI to be turned into a theme park why was it not publicised and a team of International experts found to execute the job? Who are these people and what are their past credits and credentials?
In a day and age where Interpretation Centres are built not within but around National Heritage Sites in other countries utilizing the latest technologies we are planning a drama on a protected site yet to be completely excavated with 400 visitors and a plethora of organisers occupying the gardens each evening. Whose idea was this? Is this not the rape of a World Heritage Site? If like other TCI projects it remains in the realm of paper then it would not matter. We would have merely contributed to the hiring of experts who had a fully paid holiday on our shores, but this latest attempt seems to be TCI's swan song so that something actually happens on the ground. In this case it is only our grandest monument that has been targeted and endorsed for implementation by a Cluster promoted and influenced by TCI. And, unlike the Galle Fort, another World Heritage Site, Sigiriya was not built in the first place to indulge mercenaries and their lifestyles.
With the current debate on whether Sigiriya was a Temple to Tara or the Palace of a Patricide King still raging it is most unfortunate that this scheme has had the endorsement of those who are acclaimed by some as to ‘being in the know'. All I can state is that if these are our experts it is time that the public prepares itself to protect their heritage from Heritage Plunder. Why not a rendering of its history using 21st Century Information Technology and digital design that is daily becoming more accessible and affordable in an Interpretation Centre outside the complex? Non invasive archaeology was prohibited by those who are now want 400 visitors to invade Sigiriya at sunset each evening. Surely this is yet another case of Kafka in Lanka? I conclude with the final sequence of the TCI script/report.
Swishing sounds like ghosts disappearing is heard from all directions in the darkness. The light on the path leading to Moragahamulla car park fades up. (The After Sunset Walk was all illusions.) If the visitors look back there are only oil lamps visible, drawing the architecture lines of the water-garden.
A nice terracotta figure is given when the visitors arrive in the car park. A souvenir from a spectacular one-hour after-sunset walk in the Sigiriya water-gardens
Where do we go from here?
Dancing for Dollars? You bet!
Article originally published in The Island (Colombo) of 16 July 2003.
Former Archaeological Commissioner Raja de Silva's response "Archaeological Department, Central Cultural Fund and the Law"
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