Rather than allocating endless sums of money to provide aimless jobs, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera has followed his instinct and global trends: Creating opportunities for young people. While he may have not kept his word in making the shortest-ever budget speech in Sri Lankan history – speaking for over 120 minutes against a planned 90 [...]

Business Times

Opportunities rather than crises


Rather than allocating endless sums of money to provide aimless jobs, Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera has followed his instinct and global trends: Creating opportunities for young people.

While he may have not kept his word in making the shortest-ever budget speech in Sri Lankan history – speaking for over 120 minutes against a planned 90 minutes — the former designer has fashioned a budget that is more about creating opportunities than offering handouts. Focusing on spending on higher education, increasing university places, skills training options for students unable to find a place in local universities or unable to spend on an overseas education and creating an enabling situation for youth to dive into entrepreneurship were some of the proposals.

The focus on an enabling environment for a thriving start-up ecosystem – rather than simply allocating funds in creating structures that often don’t work – is what the Business Times has been persistently campaigning for through its start-up pages and columns on innovation and creativity by experts. An enabling situation for a generation that has creativity and innovation in their blood has been our rallying call.

While the tendency is to bash politicians whether they do right or wrong, in this case the duo of Samaraweera and his deputy (State Minister) Eran Wikramaratne seems to have created a budget that is designed to propel Sri Lanka into a world that is progressively moving towards a green energy environment.

The challenge, however, is in delivering the goods through a strong public sector and this is where the problem, next, lies.

As if reading my thoughts, Kussi Amma Sera walks into my office room at home on Thursday carrying the morning tea, asking, “Mahattayo, budget eka hondai wagey. Habai petrol prus-nay wagey, budget ekath eh parey yaii da?”

“Mama hithanne neha,” I respond and she replies, “Petrol polima thavama thiyanawa.”

However, for the first time in nearly a week, the front pages of the newspapers on Friday were dominated by another story (the budget) with pictures of Minister Samaraweera instead of the fuel crisis with pictures of long lines of consumers outside fuel stations.

The crisis appeared to ease on Friday after the arrival of an emergency fuel shipment but Kussi Amma Sera’s reflections rang a bell. If the Government can’t manage situations like the fuel crisis properly, how will it be able to deliver on the promises of a futuristic budget with opportunities for youth and creating a green economy?
It was not about what Kussi Amma Sera said but what she implied (reading between the lines) and the public perception on the Government’s record in managing a crisis. It was also what she said earlier in the week — “Mahattayo, budget eka gena hamadama liyanawa, eheth minissu ganang ganney ne. Lankawey prus-na wedii mey dawas-wala” – that triggered some thoughts on the road Sri Lanka is taking, notwithstanding the budget.

Before delving into this subject, Sri Lankans, even in the worst of situations, never tend to lose their humour and have a good laugh. It’s like a ‘Newa gilunath ban chun’ scenario, with people jumping into the debate laced with hilarity and humour despite standing in long queues for many hours outside fuel stations.

Mobile phones snapped interesting situations – a man standing in the queue with the petrol tank removed presumably from his motor-bike or a young man protesting vehemently with police after a car, presumably owned by a politician, crashed the queue. It was also a great place for any enterprising salesman to market his wares.

Cartoons depicted the President and the PM with the bullock cart being the most preferred vehicle in 2017! Opposition MPs ‘drove’ to Parliament on budget day on bicycles with the security men of Mahinda Rajapaksa huffing and puffing along to keep pace with their ‘super charged’ masters. MPs Dinesh Gunawardene and others struggled uncomfortably on a bullock cart but put on a brave face for the cameras.

Facebook users posted made-up pictures of petrol in Sunsilk-styled shampoo packs while another enterprising Sri Lankan offered a new menu of premium brand petrol labelled – Red Label, Black Label, Gold Label and No Label punning on the famous whiskey brand.

With so much enterprise in difficult situations, the budget may be just what the doctor ordered: Channelling all these enterprising thoughts into making ‘Enterprise Sri Lanka’ work with the opportunities laid out on a red label (apologies: Red Carpet)!

This is the fun part. More seriously, the petrol crisis was another example of a Government lacking in a management plan to tackle crises. Given the number of critical issues the Government has been facing with never-ending street protests, the SAITM problem, etc, chaos on the streets, one would have expected the authorities to create a proper management response or fire-fighting response to situations before it got out of hand. The only alert response so far has been for the police to rush with water cannon to douse boisterous protesters.

The entire management of crises over the past three years has been a public relations disaster and bad publicity towards generating foreign investments. The issue has been compounded by errors in the two previous budgets and long delays in decision making by senior public officials fearing that if they circumvent the rules – even to speed up a process that benefits the people — they would be subject to FCID-like probes in the future.

Crisis management in everything the Government does is the need of the hour to show the people and the world at large that the administration is on top of the situation rather than projecting a Government at sea, with ministers attacking each other instead of facing situations together as a team.

While the petrol crisis may end by this weekend, there are many crises ahead precipitated by the unknown or political opportunists. Who knows … but is this a Government that is prepared? Not from what has happened over the past 12 to 18 months.

Take a cue from the private sector, a crisis like this would have destroyed an organisation and thus won’t be allowed to get out of hand. For instance, popular global fast food chains like McDonalds or KFC intervene with explanations, apologies or free offers on popular social media sites when they get bad press (spoilt food, etc). Stern action, to the point of sacking, is taken if staff is found negligent in their duties. Without these safeguards, organisations cannot survive in today’s extremely competitive world.

What about the public sector? Are ministers or officials taken to task? From day one, it’s a stream of excuses, passing the buck or blaming unknown elements for a crisis. In more advanced societies, ministers would have either stepped down or been sacked from their positions for not being able to properly manage situations just like the fuel crisis. While motorists waited impatiently in queues, politicians were passing the buck. The apologies came too late.

Some years back, a prominent business leader suggested that the country should be ruled by a CEO-styled and private-sector styled management. Many scoffed at the suggestion saying the private sector is all about money and not people. Many years later, this doesn’t sound to be a bad idea – at least in creating a management crisis team to step in when a crisis explodes, a fire-fighting drill to quickly extinguish the fires and take immediate action against errant politicians and officials. Thus, it is imperative for the budget implementation process to be smooth and unruffled and not distracted by impending crises (many as the country goes into election mode) and delayed decision-making. The people are restive; youth are restive. A budget with opportunities needs a proper delivery plan and a crisis management team.

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