Sri Lanka gains UBC expertise as planners rebuild after war

by Charles Ker
Staff writer

Sri Lanka has a severe shortage of community and regional planners and has
turned to UBC for help.

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

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.