The 100,000 Houses Programme of Sri Lanka: cautious criticism from an ‘insider’

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The Hundred Thousand Houses Programme of Sri Lanka:

Cautious criticism from an ‘insider’

Desmond McNeill

Housing and the Public Sector’

Publication No. 9, Information Centre, Ministry of Local Governemnt, Housing and Construction, 1979.

Public sector housing policy: a case study of “the numbers game”

Norwegian Journal of Geography (Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift), 1995.

The following two texts relate to the Hundred Thousand Houses Programme in Sri Lanka, a favourite project of Ranasinghe Premadasa, who was, from February 1978, the Minister of Local Government, Housing and Construction, and also Prime Minister, in the government headed by J. R. Jayewardene. (He was later, from 1989, the President of Sri Lanka, before being assassinated in a suicide bombing by the LTTE in 1993).

I was employed as an Adviser in the Ministry, funded by ODA (now DfID), from October 1978 to July 1980. Having worked at DPU since 1975, I had learnt to share a healthy scepticism towards large-scale public housing projects in poor countries, especially having just participated in a major, three volume review of housing policies in the Third World conducted by a DPU team under the leadership of Pat Crooke, and commissioned by the Building Research Establishment of the UK. I found myself in a quandary. The Prime Minister, my minister, was extremely favourable towards the programme – not least because of the political capital that it yielded him. But it was clearly misguided. Senior staff of the Ministry, my Sri Lankan colleagues, largely shared my doubts. It would, however, have been a very brave, or foolish, civil servant who would dare to express such views. I decided, with support from some of them, to do my best. The outcome was the first of the two texts that follows: Publication No. 9 of the Ministry’s Information Centre. (This Centre was one of Premadasa’s very many initiatives; there was no lack of activity in the Ministry at this time). It is not hard to see that this represents a critical view of the Hundred Thousand Houses Programme. But to be frank I very much doubt whether the Prime Minister ever read it. It certainly made no waves.

On returning to England, and the DPU, in 1980 I thought I should use the opportunity to publish a more thoughtful, and openly critical piece. I began on a draft, which I discussed with Otto Koenigsberger, the founder of DPU and knowledgeable not only about Third World housing policies in general but also Sri Lanka in particular. He advised me that it would be unwise to publish it, and I took his advice. Many years later, having moved to the University of Oslo, I was invited to submit a paper to the Norwegian Journal of Geography (Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift). I decided to use my paper on Sri Lanka. This is the second text included below, published in 1995 – fifteen years after the event.

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