Austin Fernando was born in 1942 in Alubomulla, Panadura in Kalutara District and was educated at Hikkaduwa Boys School up to Grade Five and joined Richmond College, Galle in 1952 and was educated at Richmond until 1959. He entered University of Ceylon (Peradeniya), where he read in Arts stream and obtained Bachelor of Art Degree in 1963. Later, Mr. Fernando has obtained Master’s Degree in Business Administration from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Sri Lanka.
Mr. Fernando has an illustrious and long career in public service commencing from being a teacher at Nagoda Maha Vidyalaya in Galle District. He started his career in administration when he entered the Ceylon Administrative Service in October 1967. He was trained as a Cadet in Batticaloa in the Eastern Province. He started working for a Department when he joined the Elections Commissioner’s Department in 1968. Thereafter he held many important positions, in District Administration and later contributing in policy-making as a Head of Department at the center.
Having served in the Department of Elections from 1968 to 1975 in Batticaloa and Matale Districts, Mr. Fernando was transferred to Polonnaruwa District where he was appointed the Additional Government Agent in 1975 and was appointed Government Agent (GA) in 1978. During his period in Polonnaruwa he proceeded to study Public Administration at the Pakistan Administrative Staff College in 1976. During his service in Polonnaruwa, he was mainly involved in planning agricultural and water management processes in several major irrigation / colonization schemes in the district. The most challenging assignment he undertook was to undertake as GA the relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction activities in the district after the cyclone in November 1978 that was a novel experience to district administrators, which devastated the district. He was successful in reconstruction of houses, state and privately owned infrastructure, and reintroducing economic activity that was devastated consequential to the cyclone.
Later, as GA of Nuwara Eliya, in addition to traditional role of the GA, he was appointed as the Chairman of Development Commissioners to manage the Nuwara Eliya Municipality in the absence of an elected Council and hence a Mayor which gave him an opportunity to receive hands-on experience in Urban Local Authority management. After a short stint of one year and a few months as GA Nuwara Eliya, he proceeded on a scholarship to Nagoya, Japan in August 1981 to study at the Nagoya International Training Center on a Colombo Plana Scholarship to follow a Course in Business Feasibility and Management Practice.
Disaster Management and Post-Conflict Rehabilitation
On his return to Sri Lanka Mr. Fernando was appointed as the Commissioner of Co-operative Development and Registrar of Co-Operative Societies in 1982 and served in that position until January 1986. He was instrumental in developing the Co-operatives Policy and did much to improve cooperative management, diversification of cooperative business even to export of cooperative products, training of employees, introduction of technology to co-operatives to increase productivity.
Thereafter, in January 1988, Mr. Fernando was appointed the Secretary of the Ministry of Rehabilitation, where he was in-charge of servicing large number of displaced populations at a time when access to the conflict areas were seriously deteriorated. He developed new methods to assess the requirement of relief supplies. He also played a pivotal role for appropriate policy-making for rehabilitation, while serving as the Chairman of Rehabilitation of Persons, Properties and Industries Authority and servicing as the Commissioner-General of Essential Services in addition to his posting as the Secretary to the Ministry of Rehabilitation.
As post-conflict rehabilitation was a new subject / function in Sri Lanka’s public administration, Mr. Fernando proceeded to complete a training programme in disaster management from Asian Institute of Technology in Thailand. His contribution to this important and relatively new field of work made him one of the pioneers of Sri Lanka’s post-conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction projects targeting mostly the affected North and East. His efficiency and effectiveness in planning, implementing and directing projects, programmes and policies took him to be the Chief Executive of the National Reconstruction Steering Committee, where he managed a US $ 500 million program under United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This paved the way for him to focus on post conflict rehabilitation and reconstruction of the terrorist affected areas in Sri Lanka.
Mr. Fernando served a relatively short spell as the Chairman of the State Gem Corporation and later as Post Master General from1991 to 1993, leading policy reforms to attract private sector investments in the gem industry and in postal services in Sri Lanka. In 1993, he was appointed as the Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs and Provincial Councils, where he engaged in policy-making for power sharing, good governance and developing efficiency and effectiveness of the Provincial Council and Urban Local Authority managements.
In 1994, he was appointed as the Secretary of the Ministry of Cooperatives, Provincial Councils, Home Affairs and later as Secretary of Local Government, Cooperatives and Indigenous Medicine, where he introduced innovative new business ventures to upgrade the standards of cooperative membership through small scale banking, insurance, developing backward and forward linkages, maintaining life line humanitarian supplies in the conflict affected areas of Sri Lanka.
He has been the President of Marga Mithuro, a non-government organizations started for road safety, Sri Lanka Evaluation Association, Sri Lanka Environment Institute, Richmond College Union where he served as the President in 2009 and the Richmond Sixty Club. He is a Dayaka of several Buddhist Temples.
After abruptly retiring from Public Service in August 1996, Mr. Fernando joined the private sector as an Executive Director in an internationally and locally reputed leading consultancy organization Resources Development Consultants Limited, where he served as a Consultant to many local and international government and non-government organizations, including UNDP, Asian Development Bank (ADB), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (NORAD), domestically and abroad. Some of his primary areas of engagement included urban development and governance, power sharing, institutional development, regional planning and social sector evaluation. During this time, he undertook multiple assignments in many countries in the region such as India, China and Nepal.
Peacetime Secretary of Defense
Opening a new chapter in his life of Mr. Fernando he joined as the Secretary to the Ministry of Defense in the year 2001, on the invitation of the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. As a ‘peacetime Secretary of Defense’, as he would call his stint later, he facilitated maintenance of peace during a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) between the Liberation of Tamils in Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Government of Sri Lanka. Monitoring and evaluation of field security status and its outputs were used to ensure that the CFA did not collapse for three years. Monitoring of alleged human rights violations and pursuing solutions through the Committee co-chaired by him with the Secretary Foreign Affairs made dents in wild criticisms against the country by internationals in the field of human rights violations by State agencies.
From 2003 to 2004, Mr. Fernando served as an Advisor to the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka after another abrupt departure form public service in October 2003, in which capacity, he concentrated on monitoring and evaluation of settlement of internally displaced people and refugees, de-mining, post-conflict rehabilitation, reconstruction reconciliation and incorporation of rights in peacemaking.
Since 2004, he served as Senior Advisor to Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) which was merged with Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA) later, on subject areas such as Sri Lanka State policies, policy implementation outcomes, national security status monitoring, humanitarian assistance and rights affairs in the conflict areas and ongoing political and governance developments, local level community organizational performance etc. He served JICA for eleven years continuously.
Serving the Unity Government
President Maithripala Sirisena appointed Mr. Fernando as an Advisor to him in January 2015 just after his election and soon appointed him as the Governor of the Eastern Province. Mr. Fernando who has been well accustomed to resettlement, rehabilitation and reconstruction of affected areas by conflict immediately identified the areas to be concentrated for peacemaking and to serve the affected displaced persons in the Eastern Province. His service was really critical as his interventions brought respect and recognition of the new government’s commitment to reconciliation in the eyes of the affected, political parties and especially the international organizations which were not hesitant to pour accolades on his leadership in the sectoral activities and projects and programmes. One of the major projects he brought recognition to the Government was the resettlement in Sampur area, which is considered by all as a model intervention for reconciliation. His two and a half years of service as the Governor of the Eastern Province is considered a watershed in reconciliation by everyone.
Lastly Mr. Austin Fernando was invited to be the Secretary to the President and he took over duties on July 4th 2017.
Mr. Fernando was regular contributor to local and international opinion platforms on subjects related to Sri Lanka, regional development, reconciliation and peace. His Book, My Belly is White, presents his reminiscences of his stint as Secretary of Defense during a critical period of time in Sri Lanka’s history.
Austin Fernando is married to Mrs. Sylvia Fernando and has three daughters and is blessed with three grandsons and three granddaughters.