The celebration of our golden anniversary of independence is a fit and proper occasion to review our achievements over the 50-year period, reflect on the limitations of our endeavours and discuss how we may overcome these to ensure greater achievements in the coming decades. We should neither be hypercritical of the past nor be lulled into complacency by our achievements.
Fifty years is a long period in a personís life, but short, indeed infinitesimally brief, in a nationís life. Some of our achievements may well seem deficiencies with the hindsight of history. Some of our limitations may sometimes prove to be advantageous in the long-run history of our people.
In assessing the half century after independence during which most of us have lived through, it would be difficult to adopt such a historical perspective. We must be mindful of that.
What are our achievements? Over the 50-year period life expectancy in the country has increased from around 55 years to over 70 years. Our per capita incomes have risen manifold to 815 US Dollars. The adult literacy rate increased from around 58 per cent to nearly 90. Infant mortality rates are down to levels more like those of middle or high income countries.
The structure of the economy has changed with industrial output increasing more than three-fold. Female literacy and female labour force participation have increased to an extent where overall gender equality is close at hand. All these have been achieved in a 50-year period when the population of the country grew nearly three-fold from less than 7 million to 18.5 million.
These achievements are also more commendable as the country has remained a low income country. But perhaps most important is to realise that our economic and social attainments have been within a democratic framework.
Despite these achievements the limitations are clear. Economic growth of around 4 per cent over this period has been inadequate to meet either the employment needs of the rapidly growing labour force or raise per capita incomes adequately to move the country from a low income country to that of a middle income nation. Unemployment remains high, particularly among the educated youth. About a quarter of the population is estimated to be still below the poverty line.
Despite the reductions in mortality rates, the population exhibits high rates of illnesses associated with poverty and poor living conditions. Despite the high attainments in literacy and school enrolment, both school and university education appears largely inadequate to serve a modern industrial state requiring high technology and managerial skills. The quality of education in the country is being seriously questioned.
Wide disparities, not only in incomes but social conditions, are a characteristic of the country. All these inadequacies are part of the explanation for the social tensions which have characterised the countryís history particularly since the 1970s.
The economic problems are well known. It is essential to achieve higher rates of growth to enhance per capita incomes. This growth requires to be achieved in such a manner that economic disparities are not accentuated. Large sections of the community should not be left behind unable to participate in the fruits of growth and feel a sense of exclusion.
Economic growth must be able to absorb about one million persons who are estimated to be unemployed and provide opportunities for over 100,000 persons entering the labour market each year. Economic growth must provide a sufficient surplus to enable the record of social development in the country to be maintained through public investment in social infrastructure.
In turn, economic growth itself can be sustained only by substantial public investment in economic infrastructure. The countryís savings have to be increased in order to support a higher rate of investment. Domestic investment has to be supplemented with substantial foreign investment to achieve the high levels of economic growth.
The economic, political, social and cultural conditions must be such as to provide an environment conducive to such foreign investment. Educational performance must ensure a youth more adapted to practical needs and high technology. The management skills as well as the work ethic of the country must be changed to ensure much higher levels of labour productivity.
The government bureaucracy has to be made far more efficient and capable of quick decision making. The country as a whole must change from a people given to the discussion of problems to one of implementing policies. The high degree of politicisation and inability to take bi-partisan bold decisions in the national interest remains a serious constraint to national development. Short-term political considerations override long term needs. The government and opposition have generally failed to reach a consensus on national issues.
Politicisation has pervaded all aspects of national life so as to cripple the bureaucracy and the enforcement of law and order. A neutral, efficient bureaucracy and a society confident of law enforcement without fear or favour are prerequisites for economic growth. Property rights should be protected and the process of their enforcement must be expedient.
Few would argue that these are the requirements. The challenge to the nation at this time when we are celebrating our 50 years of independence is whether we could meet with these conditions in order to enable the resolution of our problems and ensure greater economic prosperity and social development.
This no doubt requires a change in attitudes and a new commitment to
national development. There is no better occasion than this Golden Anniversary
of Independence to make such a commitment. Not in words alone, but in action.
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