That Sri Lanka lacks proper policies to move forward is a common grouse while the creation of too many committees working independently and in different directions has given rise to the popular saying “too many cooks spoil the soup”.  What has panned out is that these committees are working on different areas and not converging [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Shaping Sri Lanka’s future


That Sri Lanka lacks proper policies to move forward is a common grouse while the creation of too many committees working independently and in different directions has given rise to the popular saying “too many cooks spoil the soup”.  What has panned out is that these committees are working on different areas and not converging into a common goal, strategy or objective – as far as the public is aware and is informed.  There are research units and costly advisors in many ministries including that of the President, Prime Minister and Finance Minister. Whether these units are working together or at cross purposes, only God knows as public information is limited on these initiatives and released only when a minister or an official speaks at an event.

For example who has been appointed to head the Agency for Development (AFD) and Agency for International Trade (AFIT), supposedly powerful institutions, is still not clear. Regulations to set up these agencies are still on the drawing board and must be passed as a law by Parliament before they become legally valid and that seems to be taking time.  However as per media reports (which are not legally valid as such pronouncements must by an official announcement via gazette notification or a Bill), the head (chairman) of the (AFD) was Dr. Indrajith Coomaraswamy (who since then has moved to the Central Bank) and Mangala Yapa as its Managing Director while the chairman of the AFID is Dr. Saman Kelegama.

The Business Times has referred to these appointments as ‘chairman-designate or Managing Director-designate” in the absence of an official announcement and the required Bill being formulated for such institutions to be made legal and their appointments, binding.  The point is that though this many seem as niggling issues in the Government’s book, to the society at large it is important and calls for more transparency just like those “Your tax rupees at work” boards on city sidewalks or roads where there is some kind of construction or repair.  The role of these various committees and their decisions needs to be clearly explained and properly (through the route stated earlier) disbursed to the public, which is yet to happen.

Instead it is left to an occasional announcement like the one at this week’s Economic Summit – where it was stated that a proposal in the discussions on the Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA) with India to permit independent professionals from India to work here has been abandoned -, that alerts the public.  The Summit is a strictly pay-for-entry event which the public-at-large has no access. Should important announcements like this be made at virtually closed-doors meetings on issues that have larger political and social ramifications? This is not faulting the messenger (the official who made this statement); rather it’s an indictment on the state’s communication strategies where decisions seem to be confined to a few ‘interest’ groups before the public is made aware.

In this context the 2015-2016 budgets have gone haywire and the public is at a loss to understand why. Dr. Razeen Sally, an international economist who chairs the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), calls them ‘two bad budgets’ and referred to policies that reflect the price control formula as ‘idiotic’.  Getting the act together has been one of the problems of governance in recent times. The 2016 budget is in tatters with half the approved proposals yet to be implemented as the required bills – though before Parliament – are yet to be passed with just three months before the 2017 budget is due to be presented.  Last week at a meeting of coconut producers, Plantations Minister Navin Dissanayake expressed surprise by a 2016 budget proposal to import coconuts and had intervened to get it removed.

Coconut production has been at record levels – enough and more for local consumption and export. How such a proposal appeared in the budget without Dissanayake’s ministry being asked for its views in advance is baffling. On the other hand it reveals a system where the basics have been either forgotten or simple ignored.  Other revenue proposals ran into an unexpected problem when the Value Added Tax (VAT)’s implementation sans the approval of Parliament (through the required bill) was challenged in court. The ruling thereafter – suspension of VAT until the case is over and/or approval of Parliament – put a spoke in the wheel of the state’s revenue targets.  Thus blindly following an old practice of enforcing taxes and legalising it thereafter caught the government “with its trousers down” when the new culture of transparency and following the law to the very letter (absent during the former regime) is sacrosanct.

The government in the meantime is looking at different economic and business models (Singapore, Malaysia and Dubai among others) to spur growth and transform Sri Lanka as the financial and logistics hub between Singapore and Dubai.  While these may be great models to look at, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Singapore did it differently, Lee Kuan Yew-style while Malaysia had its own game plan – as explained at the Economic Summit by a Malaysian official.  The Malaysia model is similar to an approach suggested by the Business Times on many an (editorial) occasion. What we proposed was the creation of a 2030 or 2050 vision of development prepared by a group of experts.

How Sri Lanka reaches that vision (what kind of economy, will IT be the future, the human resource capital required, will tea be the mainstay, will Sri Lankans stop going to the Middle East as there would be more job creation here, education structure, will health services be free or charged as people become affluent, etc) would be the basis of a development path. For instance once such a vision is prepared, the steps (and policies) to reach that objective has to be clearly laid out.  Thus rather than prepare separate visions for education, human capital, social welfare, etc, the need of the hour is a single goal of what Sri Lanka should be in 2030 or 2020 and then prepare the human capital or education needed to fulfil that objective.

Preparing sectoral visions without a clear development objective is akin to “putting the cart before the horse’.  The Malaysian model was also interesting as it entailed a group of experts sitting together and coming up with a plan in eight weeks. A Sri Lankan plan was similarly suggested.
It may be a good idea for politicians and policy makers to sit down with the media (which largely reflects public opinion) and discuss a vision for the future. They would be surprised by the breadth of positive knowledge and vibes they have chosen to ignore.

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