Development Works Here with Nelum Gamage

Nelum Gamage
May 15, 2019 | 4 Minute Read
Democracy and Governance | Legislative Strengthening | Human Rights | Anti-corruption | Rule of Law and Security Sector Strengthening | Gender Equality and Social Inclusion
Development works here because great people work here. We’re excited to introduce you to our team.

We’d like you to meet Nelum Gamage! Nelum is the deputy chief of party for the USAID Coherent, Open, Responsive, and Effective (CORE) Justice Program in Sri Lanka. The country’s first female bribery commissioner, she shares her 30-year commitment to upholding the principles of democracy and good governance. Nelum is one reason #DevelopmentWorksHere.

1. Can you tell us about your journey in the public service and development sectors?

I began my legal career as an officer in the Bribery Commissioner’s Department (BCD), where I eventually became the first female bribery commissioner of Sri Lanka. In my 22 years with BCD and its successor the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption (CIABOC), I investigated and prosecuted high-profile persons for corruption. As the first female bribery commissioner, I was always conscious of equal gender representation in my workplace. As in most male-dominated industries around the globe, it was more difficult for women to rise to leadership roles than it was for men. However, the period between 1975 and 2015 was an era of positive change for women’s rights in Sri Lanka. I mentored young female attorneys who served in the BCD to confidently present their cases in courts. One such attorney became the director general CIABOC, and two others are now deputy director generals. As a woman who has held leadership positions in several capacities in the public service, I realize that women leaders themselves must encourage other women to have the confidence and willingness to take up new challenges!

I worked for 10 years as a consultant with the Legal Aid Commission and now work with Chemonics as the deputy chief of party for the USAID Coherent, Open, Responsive and Effective (CORE) Justice Program. CORE helps restore citizens’ trust in the judicial system, while supporting the government to meet the needs of its citizens in a move towards a more open, democratic society. As deputy chief of party, I guide our technical specialists, ensure effective implementation, analyze gaps and impediments, and help the team overcome challenges. Our team is currently working on three surveys: court monitoring, court users, and cost analysis of a criminal trial. The results of these surveys will eventually be shared with authorities to determine bottlenecks in the judicial process and remedial measures to be taken.

I realize that women leaders themselves must encourage other women to have the confidence and willingness to take up new challenges!

Nelum Gamage

2. Why are you drawn to development?

I have been interested in international development since my early career in public service. This was back in the 1970s in an era when development was not a common field to work in. From there, all my work — whether as an investigator, prosecutor, or legal aid advisor for vulnerable people — has been based on principles of democracy and good governance, anti-corruption, recognition of human rights, equality, and tolerance. Throughout my 30-year career in public service and now in international development, I have been given the opportunity to uplift and empower the marginalized. My focus has been to strengthen access to justice for those who need it the most, including war victims, elders, prisoners, and survivors of sexual violence.

3. How do you know that development works?

After my retirement from public service, I consulted full-time for the Legal Aid Commission, which is also funded by the state with 80-odd centers across the island. The commission provides legal assistance to vulnerable populations. The chair during my time there was an internationally recognized lawyer. He revolutionized legal aid in Sri Lanka by introducing the concept of special units, including the Women’s and Children’s Rights Unit, the Prisoners’ Rights Unit, the Rights of the Otherwise Abled Unit, and Elders’ Rights Unit. It was a privilege to work with him and to learn from his passion for helping others. When I started at the commission, there were nearly a dozen legal aid centers island wide. By 2015, the number had increased to 76. The centers catered to vulnerable communities, while restoring confidence in the legal system. I introduced a monitoring system whereby the centers provided monthly reports containing statistics about complaints received, numbers and types of ongoing court cases, settlements, etc. I used this data to publish annual reports with relevant case statistics. The reports highlighted the need to finance more centers, and they were distributed to a wide range of personnel, including those at the grass-roots level, who were then able to make recommendations on the availability of legal aid. Researchers and NGOs subsequently used these statistics to inform their work on issues like domestic violence, setting bail, and divorce.

More generally, I strongly believe that when principles of good governance, human rights, non-discrimination, social equality, religious and ethnic tolerance, and environmental protection are ignored, citizens lose faith in their governance systems. Sometimes countries even become failed states. Development work is based on principles of good governance and democracy, human rights, equality, and tolerance for all. This is the main attraction for me in the work I do at Chemonics.

My focus has been to strengthen access to justice for those who need it the most, including war victims, elders, prisoners, and survivors of sexual violence.

Nelum Gamage

4. What have been some highlights from your professional journey so far?

A remarkable case I handled as bribery commissioner was investigating and conducting a raid on a senior public servant who had sexually coerced his employee. This was the first case in the history of the BCD where such an investigation was launched, and the suspect-accused was apprehended. The conviction in the High Court was affirmed in the Court of Appeal. Because the accused was a high-profile public servant with political clout, this was a milestone case not only for Sri Lanka but for all of South Asia.

On CORE Justice, a serious hurdle is the constant leadership changes within our counterpart institutions. We have had three chief justices since the project began in August 2017. Since project startup, the secretary to the Ministry of Justice and Prison Reforms has also changed three times, and a new secretary will be appointed in a matter of months. The constant change in leadership makes it difficult to establish buy-in from key stakeholders. Despite this challenge, it has been wonderful to see the CORE Justice team’s successful interactions with our counterparts, particularly the judiciary, the Ministry of Justice, and the Auditor General’s Department.

Another accomplishment that comes to mind is how CORE Justice successfully trained registrars, who oftentimes lack recognition by the legal community, despite the important role they play in courts. The training sessions were extremely interactive, we learned many lessons from them, and we now have established modules and curricula for this purpose. Most importantly, I believe the trainings will help registrars gain recognition in the legal community for their accomplishments. The trainings were successful, and they reminded me that — while it can be challenging at times — my work is always rewarding!

About Nelum Gamage

Nelum Gamage is an expert in management and research, including more than 25 years of involvement in anti-corruption activities. She is currently the deputy chief of party for the USAID Coherent, Open, Responsive, and Effective Justice (CORE Justice) program in Sri Lanka. Ms. Gamage is a former bribery commissioner (the first woman to hold the…