A spot-on analysis in lucid readable style

Dr. Nimal Sanderatne has offered the reader a sumptuous banquet in this book, rich in its flavours, variety and nourishment. The book comprises 16 essays. It is dedicated to his teachers at S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia. He values the holistic approach to education that the college offered during his time and the dedication is an act of gratitude.

The long title captures the book’s content and does justice to the book than a trite generic one with only economic development as the subtitle. Each chapter is based on a speech he gave to a different audience, from high level conferences (including two in Canada) to university convocations and school prize-givings. Because the chapters are based on speeches they have greater relevance, clarity and focus than typical essays. Of course, much preparation, thought and care must have gone into them as evident from the wide scope and sound analysis found in the chapters.

The chapters fall into four areas found in the sub-title and were prepared during the 1991-2009 period but most of them are from the 2004-2009 period. Even the earliest speech “Fashions and Prejudices in the Social Sciences” (chapter 8, one of the three chapters on economic development) based on the Presidential address to Section F of the Sri Lanka Association for the Advancement of Science in 1991, is fresh as it were written today, warning the social science professionals to avoid prejudices against privatization, having over- enthusiasm for the free market and blindly following some countries that have succeeded in economic development, ignoring the conditions of this country.

“Development and Change: The Sri Lankan Economy 1950-2005”( Chapter 7), the speech he gave on the occasion of the 55th anniversary of the Central Bank, provides a succinct analytical history of Sri Lanka broken into the pre-liberalization 1950-77 period and the post liberalization 1978-2005 period, with a commentary on the social transformation of the country since 1950. The chapter reflects on these parallel developments. It underscores the comments by three foreign observers: Joan Robinson’s observation that Sri Lanka was attempting to enjoy the fruits of development without planting the seed; the observation of a Dutch economist using a soccer metaphor that Sri Lanka has great players but do not play as a team and that of a high official of the World Bank that Sri Lanka must focus on implementation as the country’s life depended on it, because it does.

The five chapters on education are eclectic. “Science, Technology and Development” (Chapter 4) explores the need to communicate within the scientific and technology community to enlarge the community of researchers and reach policy makers. “The End of University Education”(Chapter 1) notes the changing aims of university education from an end in itself to one that is more function oriented to serve society’s needs. A third chapter in this genre, “Sri Lankan Creative Writing in English” (Chapter 5) notes the apparent paradox of a flowering of creative writing after English was virtually abandoned as the medium of education in this country. Then there are two other chapters, one “Five Components of a Good Education” (Chapter 2) and the other “An Excellent Education” (Chapter 3). These two chapters expound on the common theme of the wider application of knowledge going beyond just learning the received knowledge to fashion character and widen intellectual horizons.

These two essays underscore B.F. Skinner’s adage that education is what one has when all that is learned is forgotten. Dr. Sanderatne also uses this chapter to pay a further tribute to his alma mater and particularly Warden de Saram who attempted to rescue a man set on fire by a mob during the communal riots in 1958, at considerable risk to his own life. One wonders had the country’s education system been fashioned after these great schools and educationalists, it would have avoided the darkest chapter of a civil war in our history in this century and given the county a superb head start to enter the 21st century. Instead many schools were taken over by the Government in power in the 1960s and the country lost not only great school traditions but outstanding educationalists. The chapter ends with a fine poem by Reverend Bower Yin that extols the attachment to that “school by the sea”.

The two chapters on population examine the implications of rapid population changes. “The Demographic Transition” (Chapter 9) and “The Challenges of an Aging Society” (Chapter 10). These chapters do an outstanding job of bringing to the fore, crucial implications of population changes and what lies ahead for Sri Lanka with its aging population. One discovers many new facets of these movements brought home by an economist with an uncommon feel for what are important demographic factors for consideration by all. Sri Lanka passed the two demographic transitions rapidly. The first phase up to 1946 occurred when birth and death rates were nearly equal and had resulted in a low rate of population growth. In the second phase 1940s to the 1990s, there was a rapid decline in mortality following the control of malaria and increased spending to combat infectious diseases from small pox to cholera, the plague and other virulent infectious diseases.

In the third phase, beyond the 1990s, the fertility rate fell below the replacement rate and the older segment of the population began to increase. Sri Lanka is the first developing country to enter the third phase of the demographic transition. And, this gives rise to the concerns and challenges of an aging society. One finds in this chapter a host of analytical issues that provides a future perspective. The second chapter in this genre notes the serious economic implications of providing retirement benefits, social implications of aging in the twenty years beyond 2011. The proportion of the aged would double bringing with it the challenges of health, caring for the elderly outside the home and the need for specialization in geriatric care. Dr. Sanderatne implores us and the policy makers to learn, appreciate the magnitude of the problem and adopt policies before it is too late. Some would say that already the problem has become intractable and woefully inadequate policies are in place to at least mitigate the problems associated with an aging population.

The Agriculture and Food Security section has six chapters. “Realism in Agricultural Development and Perspectives” (Chapter 11) clarifies many issues about agricultural policy and their relevance particularly after 1977. One learns many new facets of agriculture and a few myths that have grown around the sector. Contrary to what many non-specialists have believed, Sri Lanka has one of the lowest land to man ratios in the world. Plantations are not the most productive and suitable form of agriculture organization for tea. Sixty per cent of tea production is small holder based. Nor are paddy yields in Sri Lanka significantly low by international standards. The main message in the chapter is that increasing agricultural productivity is key to solving rural poverty. And, importantly, agriculture issues are placed in context of the overall economy.

“The Paddy Paradox: Challenges in the Next Decade” (Chapter 13) is an outstanding piece of analysis as it puts rice self-sufficiency in the larger context, recognizing social transformations and changes in values as they impact on this issue. The country has achieved an appreciable measure of rice self-sufficiency given that wheat consumption and imports have increased due to varied diets, convenience of wheat flour preparations and the decline in the world price of wheat. Looking forward the chapter identifies three broad perspectives for the necessary increase in productivity and the sustainability of paddy farming. These are to develop a framework for overall economic and agricultural policies, increase research funding and enhance institutional capacities to serve agriculture such as extension services, credit delivery, rice milling and processing and improving post-harvest handling of rice and marketing channels.

“Food Security: Socio-economic Perspectives” (Chapter 14) develops the central theme that the problem of food security is the problem of under-development itself. It clarifies crucial issues in this area noting that it is not necessary to have self-sufficiency for food security; what is needed is access and income for people to buy rice. Another interesting chapter “The Right to Food: Is it Realizable in Developing Countries ?” (Chapter 13) comes out correctly, in this reviewer’s opinion that there is no inherent right to food, but there are human rights that a country must provide and preserve.

Like any publication on these broad areas, there are some issues that the present reviewer would have liked to have read in these essays. The chapters on education could have addressed the issue of neglect of the English language. Similarly the chapters on economic development could have included a discussion on the overall incentive structure that would have led to a better use of resources and a higher GDP growth rate based on productivity growth. These are not shortcomings of the book as much as issues that would have benefitted from Dr. Sanderatne’s considerable ability to identify key issues and suggest ways to address them.

This review would not be complete without a comment on the thrust and style of writing of the book. In addition to its spot- on analysis of a set of complex issues, the results are communicated in a language that is found rarely in economic writing. The author’s facility with the language as evident from his published work on short stories and poetry has helped to make this a most readable book. Policy makers, advanced students, teachers and academics would do well to read it. It is hoped that the book will have wide circulation not only in this country but also outside, through or a similar site that has worldwide distribution.

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