A year ago, the Sri Lankan government --battered by civil war since 1983-- transferred decision making powers to nine regional governments. The hope was that a more democratic planning process might help ease ethnic tensions and foster goodwill.
The problem is that Sri Lankan planners--trained in the technical fields of engineering, surveying and architecture --have no experience in or inclination towards collaborative, strategic planning.
"They have traditionally thought of themselves as deliverers of services and, as such, have given little regard to what people actually want," said Prof. Aprodicio Laquian, director of UBC's Centre for Human Settlements.
Laquian is directing a $750,000 project to educate and assist Sri Lankan planners who are being asked to shoulder more responsibility in a decentralized government structure.
Funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the long-term goal of the five-year project is to establish a graduate community and regional planning program in three universities: initially at University of Peradeniya near Kandy, then at Ruhuna University in Matara and, if possible, at Jaffna University.
Laquian says the Jaffna linkage, on the island's northern peninsula, is a definite wait-and-see proposition.
Factional fighting between Tamil and Sinhalese troops in the area has forced Laquian and his colleagues to communicate with Jaffna partners through the International Red Cross.
"We will stay away from there for the time being, but when circumstances allow we'll make our move into Jaffna," said Laquian. Meanwhile, courses can be started at the university's Vavuniya campus outside the bombed-out peninsula.
A graduate curriculum would emphasize environmental sustainability, gender and development, basic human needs and rights, democracy and good governance.
Specific initiatives will be focused on development in the southern regions of the island around the city of Kandy and the nation's capital, Colombo.
Laquian said one of the project's two proposed field studios will look at how best to deal with the ramshackle, squatter communities which have sprung up around Colombo since the civil war started a decade ago. This problem will be looked at in the context of the government's stalled "million homes program" which was launched at the outbreak of hostilities.
Another field studio will look at eco-tourism as a viable economic option with no ecological cost.
Laquian said the country's game parks, complete with wild elephants and water buffalo, have been sadly neglected due to the central government's preoccupation with civil unrest.
Penny Gurstein, an assistant professor with the Centre for Human Settlements and the School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP), will lead project efforts to mobilize Sri Lankan women in the planning process.
"We want to make planners aware of how to integrate women's concerns into the planning process," said Gurstein.
Laquian said the first order of business will be to conduct a comprehensive assessment of educational and training needs. Short-term training programs on modern planning approaches will also be offered to practising planners.
By 2001, Laquian said at least 40 practising community and regional planners will have benefitted from two-week training programs conducted by SCARP and the Centre for Human Settlements.
Other project goals include: having at least three graduate students from the three Sri Lankan universities finish a master's degree from SCARP; having two Canadian professors -- collaborating with at least six Sri Lankan colleagues, two Canadian graduate students and 12 Sri Lankan graduate students--conduct two planning projects emphasizing participatory planning techniques; and formulating a full curriculum for a graduate diploma in community and regional planning for Sri Lanka's three universities.
The Sri Lankan project was developed while Prof. Barrie Morrison and Prof. Nancy Waxler-Morrison were in Sri Lanka on a one-year sabbatical.
Morrison, with the Centre for India and South Asia Research in UBC's Institute of Asian Research, and Prof. Bill Rees, SCARP director, are among the project's other principal investigators.