Education | Speeches

Sustainable Development through Education

Launch of South Asia Foundation's Learning Initiative

Colombo, Sri Lanka

February 18, 2003

I am truly happy to be here with you at the inauguration of the South Asia Foundation General Conference and to be associated with the launching of the Foundation’s Learning Initiative. It is my pleasure to warmly welcome the distinguished participants from all the South Asian countries to Sri Lanka. I take this opportunity to extend my congratulations and those of my Government, to Ambassador Madanjeet Singh for having had the vision to initiate this great enterprise.

I learn that the South Asia Foundation is a voluntary non-political organisation, having as its objective, the promotion of greater solidarity, understanding, co-operation and peace among the peoples of South Asia, whilst promoting progress through education and sustainable development. SAF has been created in the spirit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). It has chapters in each of the seven SAARC countries.

The South Asia region, as we are aware, is home to nearly a quarter of the world’s population. It is the most densely populated, and one of the two poorest regions of the world. Our region was also the cradle of one of the two most ancient and greatest civilizations, the world has ever known. We gave to the world, knowledge in art and architecture, construction and irrigation technology, astronomy, medicine and education through ancient forms of learning.

Yet today, our peoples are steeped in dire poverty and ignorance.

Our countries are engaged in some of the most vicious armed conflicts the world has experienced in the 20th century.

SAARC was created with the noble objective of consolidating on our civilizational strengths and evolving solutions individually and jointly, to our major problems of political conflict and economic under-development. After two decades of existence, SAARC has failed to achieve these objectives in any substantial manner.

In this context, the creation of organisations such as SAF, by concerned and distinguished citizens in our region is of singular importance. Each one of our Nations can boast of long-established systems of democratic governance. Our peoples and their political and social institutions possess century’s old experience in democratic practice and in the operation of democratic institutions. I believe our peoples, if brought together in a structured way, could achieve what inter-governmental organisations have not yet been able to do. Thus SAF and similar organisations may be able to successfully undertake that which, SAARC has yet failed to do.

A large number of practical initiatives were decided upon at the Colombo SAARC Conference in 1998. Among them is the proposal to set up a South Asian Cultural Centre in Kandy, Sri Lanka. This would bring the artistes in the performing arts of the South Asia region together through numerous activities, while offering training courses in the performing arts of each country. Sri Lanka is in the process of implementing this proposal.

I am indeed delighted that SAF has chosen, as its first collective enterprise, a project for Open and Distance Learning through the use of information technology. I need hardly mention that, education is an urgent priority for our region.

For over eight years the vision for development I formulated and commenced implementing for Sri Lanka was based on three main pillars.

- The strengthening of democratic institutions mainly through the empowerment of people and their elected institutions, as well as the guarantee of human rights, not only in word but through the establishment of a framework of institutions - judicial, political and peoples institutions to ensure this,

- Good governance - through the strengthening of honest and transparent systems of governance, as well as establishing new systems of modern, efficient management of government affairs,

- Ensuring sustainable development by means of education, more education and still more education, distributed equally to every citizen, young and not so young.

We also accorded priority to the formulation of comprehensive Action Plans for all the spheres of development, based on our particular vision of social, economic and cultural development for Sri Lanka.

We formulated a comprehensive long and medium term plan for restructuring and modernising our entire education system beginning from primary through secondary to university education, as well as for non-formal education such as vocational training. Information Technology and Distance Learning were also given pride of place. Eight years ago IT was not even a subject taught in any of the 10,000 state run schools in our country. We have now begun to equip our schools, with the material and human resources for teaching IT. Teaching IT is now effectively underway.

A few days ago, I had the privilege of inaugurating Sri Lanka’s first Distance Learning Centre, connected to a wide international network, with facilities to distribute knowledge to large sections of Sri Lankans. This was initiated through a special loan obtained from the World Bank, on a request made by me.

In this context, permit me to say, that I am particularly happy and proud that the SAF has selected Sri Lanka to inaugurate it’s Learning Initiative through Distance Learning.

Distance Learning, though relatively a new tool of education, has already obtained a wide range of experience and is growing in a phenomenal way. The special importance of Distance Learning is that it can reach communities living in far away places, with little access to formal education systems. It can meet the problems of shortages of trained teachers and lack of facilities, such as buildings etc. Open and Distance Learning technology can be deployed to reach school and university students, as well as for external university teaching through web based education, known as Virtual Universities. This can also be used for research and further training of tertiary level students and also for job oriented vocational training. Open and Distance Learning systems utilise sophisticated satellite communication as well as the simple community radio. These tools possess enormous possibilities of education, not only for schools and university students but also for adult education.

A whole new world of knowledge and technology can be opened up to rural groups such as farmers, small industrialists and entrepreneurs, women and so on, to obtain knowledge and information to improve their occupations and in fields such as health care, especially in family planning, HIV/AIDS, TB, Malaria, etc.

Distance Learning has proved itself to be potentially more efficient and deliver faster than its predecessor, learning through correspondence. Open and Distance Learning also offer attractive options for those who are employed and need part-time education to update their knowledge and skills. Distance Learning encompasses an unlimited range of teaching courses, varying from basic literacy to legislative drafting, to advanced science and technology.

Whilst speaking of the remarkable advantages of ODL for education, I must also mention the constraints that would arise for the use of ODL in poor countries. Although ODL has the special advantage of distributing knowledge at a considerably low cost, once the basic facilities exist, the lack of power supply and availability of telephone networks in under-developed areas would hamper internet connectivity.

Computers and laptops are relatively expensive but cheaper than setting up schools with all the required facilities. We must also look at a related problem that could hamper the spread of ODL systems. The existing copyright laws are a major barrier to the use of the internet and world wide web sites. A teacher who may put clippings on his class website as a resource material, would be violating copyright laws and could face legal action. These laws that impede the advance of technology and learning may need review.

The shortage of trained personnel to operate ODL systems is another problem that would have to be dealt with. This is not due to a lack of trained South Asian personnel, but due to the fact that they do not live in our region, but are employed in the West. We have to formulate systems that would encourage sufficient numbers of these trained persons to return to their homelands at least for short periods every year.

We have to also give serious consideration to the need to ensure quality in ODL. Quality enhancement practices exist and are practiced in developed countries. We must ensure that best practices and technology are used in this ODL project, so that “second chance” education will not be “second rate” education, but will become good quality education that we may offer to our peoples.

In conclusion, I wish to once again express my deep appreciation of this noble enterprise undertaken by UNESCO’s goodwill Ambassador Madanjeet Singh and the trustees of the SAF. I wish to also congratulate the Chairperson of the seven Chapters of SAF and the Vice Chancellors of the Open Universities and Heads of Higher Education institutions for their committed service to make this initiative a reality. We extend our special gratitude to Hon. Lakshman Kadirgamar for his dedicated efforts in making this event, as well as the SAF General Conference in Colombo, a great success.

Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen, the 20th Century was our Century, the Century of our generation and that of our parents. Let us resolve not to leave behind for our children the tragedies created by colonisation but perpetuated by our generations.

Acquisition of Knowledge and Education has been the single most important leveller in human society. Permit me, Ladies and Gentlemen, to continue to cherish the hope that enlightenment would once again succeed in raising us out of the mire of hatred, vengeance, lack of understanding and up to the portals of “that heaven of freedom,” justice, equal opportunity and prosperity, long cherished and much deserved by our peoples.[END]