Sri Lanka: Strengthening democracy by improving access to information

20 information centers established in Galle District, Southern Province

Despite improved economic conditions over the past few years, the districts of Galle, Matara and Hambantota in the Southern Province of Sri Lanka, with their predominantly rural population, have limited access to information, especially about Government programmes. This is particularly felt during election times, when outreach activities of both the Government and non-governmental organizations often do not reach the people in this part of the country. Due to lack of knowledge, the percentage of invalid votes is quite high. There also have been incidences of electoral malpractices, corruption and violence. To remedy this situation and include the marginalized sections of society in the development process, the Saviya Development Foundation (SDF), an NGO, initiated a civil society empowerment project in the province in early 2010 to strengthen inclusive democracy and good governance amongst communities. The project is supported by the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) in association with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

The initiative was flagged off early this year with a series of activities on community mobilization and awareness raising about the principles of democracy, transparency and gender mainstreaming. This was done through the existing network of Community Based Organisations (CBOs) in the region. As a next step, 20 information centers have been set up in Galle district using the well-developed public library network of the region as a platform. Serving as nodal points, these centers now provide the citizens and CBOs with information on a range of topics like the Sri Lanka's Constitution and political system, the country's natural resources and livelihoods, systems to deliver health and education, social and political rights etc. They are operated by librarians, who are responsible for giving information and also maintaining records of queries. It is envisaged that once the communities understand the benefits of obtaining information from the information centers, they will remain motivated to do so on their own or through the CBOs.

The centers were inaugurated on 10th November at the Galle District Secretariat, where the librarians along with CBO  leaders and community development officers of the local government, participated in a day long training session about the importance of access to information and good governance. Through interactive sessions, the participants obtained a solid overview on topics like democracy, rule of law and right to information with reference to the Sri Lankan context and their everyday lives. Mr. Shan Wijelal De Silva, the Honorable Chief Minister of the Province, the Chief Secretary and other senior officials from the province attended the event and encouraged the participants to make use of the centers. The Chief Minister appreciated the fact that the information centers involved the close participation of the local Government. While distributing information booklets for the centers, he appealed to the librarians and CBO leaders to take on the important task of empowering people by providing them with information.

Another 27 information centres will soon be set up in the districts of Matara and Hambantota, also in the Southern Province. The project further plans to launch a gender and democracy manual, which will be used in conjunction with capacity building of 250 women self help groups in the Province.

This initiative is part of the project titled "Civil Society Empowerment Project in Sri Lanka to promote Democracy and Integrity", supported by the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF).