Godfrey Gunatilleke: A Gentleman for All Seasons

Leelananda De Silva, in Island, 28 April 2020,  and 11 August 2018, where the title is Godfrey Gunatilleke – A Life of Quiet Achievement”

Godfrey Gunatilleke is one of the leading intellectuals in the latter half of the 20th century in Sri Lanka. Never a man to be confined by disciplinary compartments, he straddled across many academic and administrative fields in his long career. An English scholar to start with, he was one of the finest products of the University of Ceylon which lasted in its pristine form (as envisioned by its founding fathers) for 20 years from 1943 to the early 1960s.

A= Godfrey Gunatillake (c) and Gen. Anton Muttukumaru, Ceylon’s High Commissioner in Canberra, at a 1965 ECAFE meeting in Wellington …. B = Godfrey clarifying a point

Godfrey did not go for higher academic degrees, but he taught himself to be a fine administrator, social scientist, development economist, and a leading figure in civil society. His career was never conventional. If he pursued an academic career, he would certainly have been Professor of English. He had the opportunity to reach the highest pinnacles of Sri Lankan administration. He gave that up in mid-career. He could have joined an international organization as a career official at the highest levels, but he did not follow that path. He had his own agenda for engaging in the public life of the country, and he pursued that, not as a career, but according to his own inclinations, interests and capacities.

Godfrey Gunatilleke, now 92-years, was born in 1926, in the village of Hulangamuwa in Matale district to a middle class family. His father was a notary public. It was a bilingual home and Sinhalese and English books were read avidly. One of his brothers became a D.R.O. His sister, Felicia, was a longtime teacher at Ladies College. She married T. Sivagnanam, a member of the CCS and was later to be one of the leading implementers of the Mahaweli programme, as Secretary of the Ministry. Godfrey went to the village school and then to Vijaya College, Matale and from there to St. Anthony’s College, Kandy. Later he joined St. Joseph’s College, Colombo when Father Peter Pillai was Rector. Among his contemporaries at St. Joseph’s were Andrew Joseph, later to join the CCS and after that to be an under-secretary general of the United Nations; Arthur and Valentine Basnayake (the former in the Foreign Service and the latter, a well-known professor and great musician); and Milton Aponso who was later in the Administrative Service. Godfrey was active in the college debating society and he led the St. Joseph’s team when they debated St. Thomas’ College, Mt. Lavinia, proposing that “Nuremberg was a travesty of justice”. (This was shortly after the Second World War).

The University in the 1940s was a heady experience. Ivor Jennings was Vice Chancellor and E.F.C. Ludowyk was Professor of English. Godfrey read English and he obtained a brilliant first class. He won the government and university scholarship to do his post graduate work at the University of Cambridge in England. (He did not take it up.) He was active in the Union Society and in the University Magazine. In one of those years, Basil Mendis, later civil servant, lecturer in philosophy and Roman Catholic priest living in Rome (he thought the world was flat) was the editor of the magazine and he was suspended from the University by Jennings for the use of a ‘pornographic’ word in one of the articles. The offending word was copulation. When Godfrey and others protested to Jennings, his response was that they were bringing the University into disrepute at a time when he was negotiating with the Government for more funds. Later Jennings relented and brought Basil Mendis back. Then Guy Amirthanayagam (later CCS) wrote an article on what is pornography when Godfrey was editor. The editorial board rejected the article and Godfrey resigned. Ronnie de Mel (later CCS and Minister of Finance) and Sam Silva (later CCS) were active in the Union Society. Godfrey’s radical ideas of the time did not bring him any closer to Professor Ludowyk who was an establishment figure and not prepared to rock the boat. Godfrey was closer to Doric de Souza who was a lecturer in English. At this time in the University, Godfrey was grappling with Marxism and close to LSSP circles. It is at university that Godfrey met Bella Jayasekara, whom he married.

Godfrey joined the CCS in 1950, having come first in his batch. His contemporaries were Mahinda Silva, David Loos and Douglas Liyanage. One of his first attachments as a CCS cadet was to the Prime Minister’s office. The Prime Minister was D.S. Senanayake and his Secretary was N.W. Atukorale (formerly Assistant Settlement Officer and married to a sister of J.R. Jayewardene). There is an engaging story of Godfrey’s time in the Prime Minister’s office. Atukorale had told him that Tarzie Vittachi, then at Lake House, was being sent to the Sri Lankan High Commission in London. As it happened, Godfrey’s university friend and Lake House journalist, Jeanne Pinto, came to see Godfrey in his office and Godfrey related the story to her. She got back to Lake House and informed Tarzie about his new assignment. It was a surprise to Tarzie and he confronted Esmond Wickremesinghe (father of Ranil), who was running the Lake House editorial department. The plan, known to the Prime Minister, unbeknown to Tarzie had been to send Tarzie to London so that he would not be in Ceylon during the time of the next General Election. Esmond did not want an unpredictable character like Tarzie around. When Tarzie confronted Esmond, he was not pleased and he met Atukorale who told him that he had only mentioned it to Godfrey. The upshot was that Godfrey was asked to meet the Prime Minister at Temple Trees one morning. The Prime Minister told Godfrey not to trust journalists and invited him to have breakfast with him. Those were the days when public affairs were conducted in a civilized way.

Godfrey had a long tenure in the Land Development Department (LDD) as Assistant and Deputy Director. He was there for eight years, of which two were spent in Anuradhapura and six in Colombo. The LDD was an unusual government department, run by administrators, and undertaking minor engineering tasks in the districts, especially in colonization schemes. It was constructing roads, bridges, culverts and houses in these schemes. This was cost-effective. It was a department where you obtained first-hand experience of what development was at the grassroots. Godfrey worked with people like J.V. Fonseka and Chandra de Fonseka, who were the Directors. They had to develop the administrative tools, like contracts and methodologies for supervising implementation of tasks and this was first-hand development experience, which was not lost on Godfrey when he later became Director of Plan Implementation at the Ministry of Planning.

From land development, Godfrey moved to the Ministry of Industries in the late 1950s. He held numerous posts in the Ministry and corporations under it (like the Tyre Corporation). This was a time when the government was anxious to develop small and large scale industry in Ceylon.

During the first 15 years of his career, Godfrey did not confine himself to his departmental tasks. He was Secretary of the CCS Association for some of that time. This was a time the CCS was under siege. There were many who wanted the CCS abolished as India did to its ICS in 1948. The Wilmot Perera Salaries Commission was sitting and Neville Jansz (CCS) was its secretary. Godfrey worked closely with Jansz on these administrative reform issues. The Wilmot Perera Commission recommended the abolition of the CCS and its replacement by the Ceylon Administrative Service (CAS). The question at that time was not so much the abolition of the CCS, but the future placement of former CCS personnel within the new CAS. When the new Sirima Banaranaike government came into power, Felix Dias Banadaranaike, the Minister of Finance wanted to send a mission to India to study the administrative structures being developed there, so that lessons can be learned.

Felix selected a team of officials which consisted of G.V.P. Samarasinghe, CCS (leader), Godfrey Gunatilleke, M.R.P. Salgado (Central Bank) and S.S. Silva (scientist from the CISIR) to proceed to India and the team spent two months there observing relevant government institutions. They wrote a long report.

Also during this time, Godfrey was active in civil society circles. He was closely involved with C.R. Hensman in producing the literary journal, Community. People like Regi Siriwardena, who was a great English scholar, was involved in this journal.

In 1965, Godfrey moved to the newly created Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs as its Director of Plan Implementation. Gamani Corea, who was appointed Permanent Secretary of this powerful ministry, where the Prime Minister was the Minister, selected Godfrey personally. Apart from his role as Director, Godfrey was Gamani’s close confidante and worked with him on the organization of the Ministry which was at the centre of government. Godfrey was directly associated with the establishment of the National Operations Room, located in the Central Bank building to monitor the implementation of projects and programmes. Godfrey went to Malaysia to see how that country’s operations room worked. The Planning Ministry took over many functions of the Ministry of Finance – the external resources budget, the negotiation of foreign aid and the capital budget.o

Godfrey was personally invlved with Vernon Pieris, who was Deputy Secretary to the Treasury in transferring the responsibility for the capital budget from the Ministry of Finance. During the 1965-1970 period, the economic policies adopted by the Ministry of Planning was a team effort led by Gamani Corea and where Godfrey played a key role. It is those policies that ensured that Sri Lanka had an average growth rate of five percent in those five years. After the change of Government, Godfrey continued to be in the Ministry as Additional Secretary, with H.A. De S Gunasekara as the Permanent Secretary. In the three years he was there, Godfrey was engaged in the preparation of the five-year plan of that government. He worked closely with the Seers Mission that visited Ceylon.

Godfrey left the public service in 1972, at the age of 46.

After 1973, Godfrey embarked on another phase of his long and distinguished career. Leaving the public service, he now had more time to be engaged with civil society and non-governmental organizations. His main task, however was to assist in the birth of the Marga Institute. The idea of a research institute outside government has been mooted for some time and along with Gamani Corea, Godfrey had been in the forefront of actively organizing it. The Seers Mission recommended such an institute. The government of the day had an ambivalent attitude towards it. The Marga Institute was established with Godfrey as its first Director. Since that time, he has been involved closely with Marga, which is one of the first development research institutes in the Asia Pacific region. Godfrey, along with Gamani Corea believed strongly in developing research capacities outside government.

Now that he was outside government, Godfrey engaged himself in civil society activities and also in an advisory role for international organizations. In Sri Lanka, either through Marga or otherwise, he was active in discussions and engaging with government on the key national issues of the day. This was a time when Sri Lanka’s ethnic question was the overriding issue, and Godfrey played a key role in committees and other forums to develop common positions aimed at reconciliation. Most of this work was behind the scenes, bringing people of various communities together. During these traumatic days, Godfrey and others were engaged in sustaining the democratic structures which were under great pressure. He was one of the key figures in establishing People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections(PAFFREL). Godfrey had never lost his interest in English literature, and during this period, Godfrey was the first Chairman of the newly established Gratiaen Trust for ten years, and the Marga Institute provided logistical support to it. Godfrey has been actively engaged in setting up the Gamani Corea Foundation, which is yet to realize its potential.

Since the 1970s, Godfrey has worked for many UN and other international oganizations (UNDP, UNCTAD, WHO, ILO, IOM, ESCAP) as a senior international consultant. Some of his writings have recently been published as a volume, “Towards a Sri Lankan Model of Development”. He was associated with the Third World Forum, based in Geneva, which brought together leading third world economists and social scientists. Godfrey made a unique contribution over the years in shaping UN development policies. In 1972, he was one of the first to come up with the concept of capacity building for human development. He had presented a paper to the high level UN Committee for Development Planning which was headed by Jan Timbergen, the Nobel Laureate. The experience of Sri Lanka in social development (education, health, the status of women) was a model for developing UN policies on human development. Many leading development economists – Amartya Sen, Mahbub Ul Haq, Richard Jolly and many others, along with Godfrey – were engaged in analyzing and interpreting the Sri Lankan experience. Godfrey was unique among this group as he had firsthand development experience at the grassroots and at the centre of government. He drew from the Sri Lankan experience to note its shortcomings and developed a more inclusive model for capacity building which attached equal importance to social development, economic growth and employment creation.

I have known Godfrey for 50 years now. For many years, he remained a conundrum; a most private man, with four children and a happy family life. I was trying to find out what his career path would be. Most of us were interested in careers. The conventional wisdom did not apply to Godfrey. He did not follow a career, but followed his interests foregoing opportunities for material reward. This is a privilege not given to many. It is only an outstanding personality with the intellectual strength to pick up tasks in keeping with his own interests and abilities. Godfrey’s career has been unique, among his and later generations.



* “International Pressures & Island Fissures: Gunatilleke faces Ratnawalli,” Q and A: Godfrey Gunatilleke meets Darshanie Ratnawalli, 5 November 2015, https://thuppahis.com/2015/11/05/international-pressures-island-fissures-gunatilleke-faces-ratnawalli/

* Michael Roberts: “Sturdy Advocacy: Marga’s Questioning of the UNPoE’s Assassination Job,” 25 November 2009, https://thuppahis.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=18544&action=edit&postpost=v2

* Jeevan Thiagarajah: Confronting the OCHR Investigation in Geneva, September 2014: Memorandum from Jeevan Thiagarajah,” 19 November 2015,https://thuppahis.com/2015/11/19/confronting-the-ochr-investigation-in-geneva-september-2014-memorandum-from-jeevan-thiagarajah/#more-18481

* Sunday Times: “Marga/CHA confront the OISL Investigation in Geneva, September 2014: Godfrey Gunatilleke in Q and A with Lasanda Kurukulasuriya,” 19 November 2015, https://thuppahis.com/2015/11/19/margacha-confront-the-oisl-investigation-in-geneva-september-2014-godfrey-gunatilleke-in-q-and-a-with-lasanda-kurukulasuriya/#more-18492

Gunatilleke addressing the UNHCR at Geneva

ADDENDUM: An EMAIL COMMENT from Professor Gerald H. Peiris, 1 May 2020:

Michael, …. I have met Godfrey only once – that was at the annual conference of GAs in 1985 held at the Central Bank Auditorium – when he and I had been invited to speak on the ‘Integrated Rural Development Programme.’ My being invited was due partly to the fact that Prof VM Rao, Head of the ‘Bangalore Institute of Rural Development’ and I had completed an evaluation of the ‘first generation of IRDPs’ launched by the UNP government, and partly to my friendship with Cyril Gamage, a geography patient 2 years my senior at Peradeniya who, as Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs, was the organiser of the event. Believe it or not, 16 of the GAs were Peradeniys alumnae of our time. Two among them, stationed in Batticaloa and Trincomalee, were murdered by the LTTE a few years later. 

Back to Godfrey, even after that brief interaction, I still feel that he was probably one of the last among that generation of genuine intellectuals we had. But there were several others of that same caliber even among those whom you and I knew and are still around – Jolly Somasundaram or Susantha Wijeweera, both of the old CCS. And, you probably remember Leelananda, the author of the article on Godfrey, as an extraordinarily gifted scholar who seems to have preferred to maintain low profile.”

Best regards,  Gerry


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4 responses to “Godfrey Gunatilleke: A Gentleman for All Seasons

  1. John Richardson

    Thanks for this thoughtful respectful acknowledgement of this capable and honorable public servant. JR.

  2. Chandra Wickramasinghe.

    I was privileged to work with Mr.Godfrey Gunatilleke in the Dept. of Plan Implementation, as a Plan Implementation Officer. With his incisive mind he guided us in our duties ably and with rare modesty. It was indeed a pleasure to work for him. Chandra Wickramasinghe…. of Mahinda College, Galle and Peradeniya University.

  3. An EMAIL COMMENT from Wilfrid Jayasuriya of the CCS, 2 May 2020: ….
    “Godfrey is a model I can never hope to follow adequately and his name seems to imply that God has been free with his gifts or blessings to him. And I thank God for that.”

  4. Hugh

    An unusually remarkable person gifted with qualities that we all yearn for. Extraordinarily intellectually endowed, and a great mentor whose influence and outlook rubbed off on those around him. I had the privilege of working at Marga when he was Director, and that experience had a riveting influence on me,thanks to my guru to whom I am forever grateful.If there were more like him in Sri Lanka, the country would be a much better place.

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