Exclusive: One man’s fight against Sri Lankan corruption

By Vanessa Gu and Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Interview with Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, Director General, Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka, Ministry of Defence.

“Society has a question: Why doesn't the government put anybody behind bars?” This is the struggle of Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, Director General in the nation’s Institute of National Security Studies.

He is using technology to crowdsource and track corruption in government - and has twice been kicked out of senior roles because of this. He had previously tried to digitise foreign employment applications but was booted because politicians were taking bribes to write letters of recommendation for workers.

GovInsider spoke to Abeyagoonasekera to understand how the internet can bring corruption campaigners together, and how e-procurement could be the answer to Sri Lanka’s challenges.

Crowdsourcing corruption reports

Corruption is widespread in Sri Lanka, arising from “policy blunders, loss-making and inefficient government institutions”, and posing “huge” socioeconomic problems, says Abeyagoonasekera. The country has a corruption score of 38 out of 100 on Transparency International, and is ranked 89th out of 180 countries.

Abeyagoonasekera highlights a recent occasion where a government utilities contract was not awarded to the lowest bidder, for reasons unknown. Similarly, a Sri Lankan hospital could not be launched because it was discovered that a minister had stolen from equipment from it, Abeyagoonasekera shares. “The President was the one quoted saying he can't open the hospital because equipment was missing,” he says.

Starting in 2015, Abeyagoonasekera led an initiative to crowdsource reports on corruption by working with I Paid A Bribe (IPB), an anti-corruption website. Citizens can report instances of petty corruption - for instance, paying bribes for over-the-counter government services such as passports, licences or registrations.

“This captures retail corruption. When you pay a bribe you can go to the site, log in, put your details,” says Abeyagoonasekera, adding that at the end of the month, governments can see data on which offices had taken more bribes.

It is a struggle to continue advocating for greater transparency and accountability when there is a lack of political will, Abeyagoonasekera acknowledges. “The problem is, we don't get much support.”

The IPB website was launched in 2010 in India by nonprofit co-founders who wanted to give a voice to citizens tired of having to pay bribes just to get the services they need. In 2015, nearly 49,000 reports had been made across 645 Indian towns and cities. By 2017, IPB had partnered with organisations in over 30 countries to run similar initiatives.

Driving change

Abeyagoonasekera believes that Sri Lanka needs a e-procurement system across government to track and prevent corruption from happening. “When it comes to e-procurement, that is the most important part of it and that's not happening yet,” he remarks.

The government’s inefficiency could be addressed with a system for recording activities, something that Abeyagoonasekera is working to introduce. “We're trying to bring in some sort of documentation.” This should remain in government, no matter who is in power at the time.

Abeyagoonasekera sees great potential in engaging a new generation to drive change. Over a fifth of the population are aged 15 to 29. The challenge, he says, is that young people are not willing to go into government because they are disillusioned with it, and prefer to work with the private sector. “Rather than actively engaging, they become critics. This needs to change - we need more qualified youngsters in politics,” he asserts.

He just published a book titled ‘Sri Lanka at Crossroads’ on the geopolitical challenges that Sri Lanka faces; the process of rebuilding and reconciling after a brutal decades-long war; and the internal forces that are dividing the government today.

The future holds potential for Sri Lanka - in the book, Abeyagoonasekera writes how the country is poised to become a ‘super connector’, thanks to its strategic location in Asia.

Corruption is a deep-rooted problem that Sri Lanka needs to overcome as it leaves the past behind. Technology, and anti-corruption advocates such as Abeyagoonasekera, can certainly make a difference.