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Charting a course for Sustainable Infrastructure

Insights from Dhananath Fernando, Advocata Institute CEO


An Interview

As Sri Lanka navigates the challenges and opportunities in its infrastructure landscape, fostering collaboration and ensuring public interest remain paramount for inclusive and sustainable development. In this third issue of the Alliance for Sustainable Infrastructure (ASI) newsletter, Chief Executive Officer of Advocata Institute Dhananath Fernando shares his insights on various aspects of sustainable infrastructure, shedding light on the critical role it plays in economic development, community engagement, transparency, and environmental conservation within the Sri Lankan context, underscoring its importance, along with the necessity of transparency, community engagement, and environmental stewardship in shaping local infrastructure policies and projects. 


Mr. Fernando, how do you perceive the role of sustainable infrastructure in fostering economic development, particularly in the current context of Sri Lanka?


Sri Lanka's current economic crisis is primarily the result of years of mismanagement by the government, compounded by economic, social, and environmental vulnerabilities arising from an ambitious infrastructure rush that lacked due consideration of sustainability principles.   In terms of performance also, Sri Lanka’s infrastructure falls short – it ranked 61 out of 141 under the overall infrastructure performance indicator by the ‘Global Competitiveness Report 2019.   


Given this context,  it is crucial to recognize the vital role that sustainable and quality infrastructure plays in societal and economic wellbeing. It serves as a linchpin for achieving better and more inclusive economic, social, and environmental conditions, and supporting growth by enhancing access to essential services and improving economic opportunities for all.  In practice, sustainable and quality infrastructure projects would enable the best return to public investment with higher efficiency, increased safety, and minimal environmental damage. It should also have a positive spillover effect which may range from generating employment and increased foreign direct investment to improved tax revenue.


Given Sri Lanka’s rather unsatisfactory performance in large-scale infrastructure (LSI) projects during the last two decades, how do you think such projects could better incorporate the interests and concerns of local communities in their planning and execution phases?


Going beyond the mere measurement of infrastructure availability, it is imperative to first scrutinize the needs of local communities for a comprehensive understanding of the requirements of the infrastructure projects during its planning stage. In practice, this can be done by consulting proactively with local communities, environment activists and civil society organizations (CSOs) from the inception of the project itself, while adhering to the national fiscal plan and optimizing the utilization of resources. 


Where feasible, it is also paramount to draw on local labor forces to develop infrastructure projects and ensure that local communities enjoy access to infrastructure services. Also it is important to ensure that the relevant infrastructure services are targeted at the groups in need, and framed in a systematic way to facilitate geographic and social accessibility. Also it is vital to anticipate and avoid adverse impacts on the health and safety of project-affected communities during the project life cycle and place effective measures to address emergency events. Moreover, it is important to ensure that the safeguarding of personnel and property is carried out in a manner that avoids or minimizes risks to the project-affected communities.


What policy and legal reforms do you believe are essential to ensure transparency and accountability in infrastructure procurement, protecting the rights of people and the environment?


Essentially, the key focus should be on establishing a comprehensive policy and regulatory framework to ensure competitiveness and fair procurement practices. This will contribute to a level playing field without adversely affecting other sectors. In practice, this can be achieved through  setting up active public policy, transparent and competitive procurement, proper evaluation and an in-depth financing structure. In other words, hard infrastructure should be integrated with soft elements such as policies and regulations to facilitate efficient performance. Hence, such a comprehensive national infrastructure plan would have the capacity to transform the feeding grounds of corruption to the stepping stones of development. 


Drawing on your extensive experience in both the financial sector and in economic advocacy, what does Sri Lanka need to do to attract international support and collaboration for public infrastructure, particularly in terms of investment BOO (Build Operate Own), BOT (Build Operate Transfer), etc.?


In Sri Lanka, it is important to introduce policies aimed at enhancing transparency and accountability in public infrastructure procurement. Simultaneously, measures  should be introduced to reduce barriers to investment by improving regulatory certainty. These policies should specifically focus on simplifying existing licensing/ permit requirements (specially in the construction field), lifting foreign investment restrictions and the red tape in government procedures, ensuring effective and efficient interconnection among the different actors, simplifying and harmonizing rights-of-way acquisition of land and encouraging network sharing and co-investment.


In practice, this can be achieved through initiatives such as introducing a digital land registry and expediting the ongoing digitization of land registration processes to facilitate easy access to land and attract more foreign investors to invest in infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, introducing measures to strengthen the security of tenure rights through title registration will play a significant role in providing individuals with more secure and enforceable property rights. These multifaceted efforts would collectively foster a more efficient, transparent, and accessible framework which could attract more international support and collaboration in the public infrastructure sector in Sri Lanka. 


What needs to be done in Sri Lanka to ensure that sustainable infrastructure projects attract private sector investment while aligning with social and environmentally responsible practices?


Sri Lanka can attract private sector investment whilst not compromising on environmental and social concerns in many innovative ways. Examples from international contexts can serve us as inspiration for how we can navigate this going forward. For example, actively seeking investors who would prioritize ‘green investments’, or providing incentives to encourage green investments could be a starting point.


Other ways to make it easier to access private investments sustainably would be to make accurate information regarding projects in the pipeline, including its environmental and social implications available to potential investors depending on their interest areas, to facilitate informed investment decision making.  In addition, empowering the private sector itself to come up with infrastructure project proposals in line with the government’s economic, social and environmental goals could also enhance access to private financing for infrastructure development in the country. Finally, measures such as developing a strong PPP (public-private partnership) framework, maintaining transparency in procurement processes and upholding the rule of law could also serve as strong signals to attract private sector investors. 


In the international context, there are instances of active community engagement in the delivery of public infrastructure projects. How can Sri Lanka promote such peoples’ movements and participatory approaches in the delivery of public infrastructure projects?


Sri Lanka must move towards increasing public participation in all stages of implementing public infrastructure projects. Doing so will instill a commitment to being transparent about the financial risks involved, including the environmental and social repercussions of the project. This ultimately helps to increase the trust and confidence of the communities impacted by infrastructure projects, and ensures that the project meets the real needs of communities around it.


Although there have been instances and records of including public perceptions and feedback regarding the delivery of projects, there is still a lot more to be done. For example, research has shown that current regulations don’t make it duty bound to listen to the public when formulating and implementing resettlement programs prior to the construction phase of infrastructure projects. As such, acting on recommended reforms emerging from such research would be a good starting point. Besides that, proactively releasing information regarding the projects, such as expected time duration, sources of funding, results of economic, environmental, and social impact studies through websites and other outreach tools in all three languages would greatly improve the information flow among the public. In addition, there should be platforms by which the public can provide their feedback (in a timely manner) on projects, and there should be some obligation to consider these especially during the design and implementation stages of the project. Other best practices we can slowly begin to incorporate would be participatory auditing procedures, etc.


In Advocata Institute’s research works involving infrastructure policy, how do you incorporate thematic areas such as transparency in infrastructure procurement, mitigating environmental impact and involuntary displacement of communities etc. ?


Considering the challenges in the present public infrastructure investment landscape, Advocata's research interest is on identifying  the role of public-private-partnership (PPP) in safeguarding the sustainability of the public infrastructure investments in the country. The outcome of this research  would aim to be advocated and  incorporated into future infrastructure policies. While this may not directly align with the three thematic areas, this is crucial for the overall successful implementation of major infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless it is important to consider all these 3 thematic areas in navigating the country's public infrastructure landscape. 


In addition, Advocata emphasizes the necessity of establishing an effective mechanism to enhance transparency and accountability in public infrastructure investments in Sri Lanka. However, there is a significant gap in information available to the public on large-infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka.  Hence we are actively working on developing a website that will be accessible to the public, facilitating the dissemination of relevant information. 


In pursuing sustainable infrastructure, how do you see the balance between infrastructure development and environmental conservation? And what strategies can be employed to improve this balance?


Having transparent and proper infrastructure policies in place is the key to achieve balance between infrastructure development and environmental conservation. At the same time, there should be more focus given to various approaches such as implementing structured urbanization policies, zoning and digitization of lands, and  providing full ownership to farmers which will allow people to utilize and manage the lands  productively, while minimizing the risks associated with encroaching and environmental degradation. For instance, a well structured urban housing would allow people to productively manage the spaces within congested urban areas like Colombo, and giving full ownership of lands to farmers would enhance  the land use productivity.


Alongside, Sri Lanka can introduce incentives for projects that meet minimum standards on green or energy saving technology projects that take into account SDGs, and can seek investors that prioritize environmental protection in their investment plans such as green bonds, or formulate projects that would contribute towards achieving long term climate and development objectives, as well as biodiversity and other environmental goals, etc


Could you elaborate on Advocata Institute's approach to utilizing digital platforms and social media in engaging stakeholders and raising awareness about sustainable infrastructure issues?


As a consumer-oriented free market policy think tank, we believe that an effective mechanism should be in place to ensure public money is spent to the best of its ability to increase the access to information. However, there is a significant gap in the information available to the public on large-scale infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka. For instance, a comprehensive indication of the loan amount, its repayment and interest rates are not consistently provided in the Ministry of Finance annual reports. Furthermore, information related to the project’s appraisal and performance is not publicly available. This hampers the ability for the public to assess the investment made. Hence Advocata is in the process of developing a website available for the public to get access to basic information about 60 largest public infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka, which have been classified into three categories namely white elephant projects: Black holes and Normal Project.  (The website is yet to made available to public in near future)


ASI, in which Advocata Institute is a founding member, aims to ensure that public expenditures on infrastructure reflect the best interests of the communities. In your opinion, how can such a people’s movement navigate challenges and ensure its advocacy leads to meaningful change in the landscape of large-scale infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka?


Effective infrastructure governance and management will be key to improving the efficiency of fund disbursement. To date, inefficient planning, allocation, and implementation of infrastructure projects account for 30–50 percent expenditure losses, across the world. Thus, it is vital to maintain the infrastructure budgets by streamlining and improving these processes


More importantly, the Sri Lankan government also should focus on building better infrastructure at a lower cost by implementing stronger policy and regulatory frameworks for project selection that reflect the best interest of the communities; effective and comprehensive fiscal planning and budgeting; fair procurement practices; project oversight; and monitoring of public properties, etc. Such measures will ultimately contribute to a more favorable landscape for large-scale infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka.


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Dhananath Fernando is the Chief Executive Officer of Advocata Institute, where he plays a pivotal role in driving the organization's mission toward sustainable economic development. With a background in market research and a bachelor’s degree in Bio Sciences and Biochemistry from the University of Colombo, Dhananath brings diverse skills to his leadership role.


As a founding member of Advocata Institute, Dhananath has been instrumental in shaping its vision and initiatives since its inception. Prior to his role at Advocata, he was Associate Research Director at Breakthrough Business Intelligence, honing his expertise in data analysis and strategic planning.


Beyond his professional endeavors, Dhananath is deeply involved in social responsibility initiatives, volunteering with CandleAid Lanka to support those in need and dedicating his time to training vision- and hearing-impaired students. He is also a curator and founding member of AK Lit Fest, a trilingual literary festival celebrating Sri Lanka's rich literary heritage.


An avid adventurer, Dhananath finds solace in mountain climbing and trekking, having conquered Everest Base Camp and embarked on the challenging Chadar Trek along the Indo-Tibetan border. With his passion for social impact and dedication to fostering sustainable infrastructure, Dhananath continues to inspire positive change in both professional and personal realms.

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