A Cabinet Minister’s assertion this week that the Government did not “need to call for tenders” because “who else is there to tender”, before awarding a lucrative 12-year visa processing contract to a foreign joint venture is the cementing of an alarming trend that makes a mockery of all new anti-corruption and governance related laws [...]


Outsourcing visas: Unsolicited passport to corruption


A Cabinet Minister’s assertion this week that the Government did not “need to call for tenders” because “who else is there to tender”, before awarding a lucrative 12-year visa processing contract to a foreign joint venture is the cementing of an alarming trend that makes a mockery of all new anti-corruption and governance related laws rushed into place at the IMF’s (International Monetary Fund) behest.

This was confirmation that the deal to vet online and on-arrival tourist visa applications was granted to a three-party consortium on an unsolicited bid. Hasn’t this country fallen into enough trouble over a string of unsolicited projects and tenders already to learn its lessons?

This is a textbook example of why Sri Lanka’s procurement system has collapsed to the serious detriment of the tax-paying public. It is why ordinary people suffering under the burden of the cost of living blame it on the hidden costs that are included in the goods and services they have to pay for from their meagre earnings. It is why there is a wave of support for political parties that point that out.

A contract to handle visa documents, it might be argued, does not have the same horrifying impact as, say, providing counterfeit medication to government hospitals. Or as costly as building a harbour. But the underlying concerns are the same. To conduct public purchasing in this manner is a serious violation of public trust as well as all administrative, financial and procurement regulations that exist to shield against numerous misdeeds including fraud, bribery and just plain bad judgment.

In this particular instance—where the contract involves the UAE-registered IVS Global-FZCO, the Singapore-registered GBS Technology Services and the Dubai-headquartered VFS VF Worldwide—there are other serious concerns, such as the protection of national data. Initially, this coalition had also offered to act as the front end of Sri Lanka’s consular work in some selected capitals presently handled by the Foreign Ministry.

On the face of it, there are positives. Sri Lankan missions are few and far between, in comparison to the number of Sri Lankan citizens currently working abroad in every conceivable country. In West Asia and Europe, some citizens have to travel miles to reach a Sri Lankan Government consular office. Yet there is confusion on how e-visas which are instant, work, and what role the Immigration Office really plays and how much of personal data is in the hands of private companies.

There are also reams and reams of complaints against VFS activities coming to us in Sri Lanka from around the world. These may be from competitors looking to grab their multimillion-dollar business, or they may be genuine complaints of corruption.

So when there are national security and border control issues involved, outsourcing what is the government’s responsibility, why was all this e-visa business hammered out behind closed doors? Is Cabinet merely a rubber-stamping body for any one Minister, and then in this instance, for a colleague to cry out later as the bubble burst that he knew nothing of the contract?

The enthusiastic assertion that the IVS-GBS-VFS deal was Sri Lanka’s best option was disingenuous. The national telecom service provider—which had hosted an effective online visa processing system till a new deal was inexplicably struck—had offered an upgrade for exceedingly cheaper, under a format that would have allowed money to be retained in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka showcases its competence in the IT industry and then outsources its own work to foreign companies.

Something is certainly not right here.

TRC: Opening old wounds?

This week, party leaders met the Foreign Minister to discuss the proposed Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) Bill aimed at boosting reconciliation through some form of transitional justice following the end of the armed bid at separation of the country 15 years ago.

The outcome of the meeting was, as expected, merely a decision to discuss matters further. Neither the people’s representatives from the North nor those from the South could come to any via media. The reaction from the North was that the Bill was ‘not enough’, in that it did not provide for civil and criminal liability and asked why the government is not agreeable to an international tribunal, while those from the South basically asked if this was a move to send the war heroes of the armed forces who put their lives on the line to prevent the division of the country to the gallows.

This exercise has seemingly been orphaned with the entire burden now falling on the Foreign Ministry with what appears to be the exit of the Justice Ministry from it. The Minister argues that it is in the best interests of avoiding international scrutiny and the armed forces itself to bring about a closure to this issue as many top brass, especially those in its 57 Divisions, have been targeted by travel bans and sanctions. The optics therefore is that all this is aimed at Geneva and the pressure from the Western co-sponsors of the resolutions against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC hanging over the country’s head rather than any meaningful attempt at mopping up the remnants of a 30-year-old bloody conflict that impacted on all communities in the country.

There is no question that domestic mechanisms are the way to go, and the workings of the institutions in place like the OMP (Office of Missing Persons) and the ONUR (Office of National Unity and Reconciliation) have been slow-paced. The LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) recommendations were largely ignored by successive recent governments. All these need to be clearly fast forwarded, but is a TRC, merely copying the South African post-apartheid example the way to go in the best interest of the country to avoid the scrutiny of Geneva come September? Clearly, harsher action from Geneva is best avoided. Yet, any TRC mechanism is not only going to be hugely costly for the already burdened tax payer, but practically unworkable in the area of evidence gathering, cross checking facts and the domestic political repercussions involved.

Will this exercise – what seems an exercise in futility, other than to appease Geneva, only open old wounds unnecessarily, is the question. Will it stoke the remaining embers of the negative aspects of race relations in this country, and be the very antithesis of reconciliation?


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