“Many would get ready for the wedding, but not for the marriage,” according to quotation from an instructional sermon at the Church. How true is it; on the other hand, how sad is it. Many would prepare for months and years for the “wedding” day. After the wedding day is over, the newly wedded couple [...]

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Wedding’s over, marriage begins


“Many would get ready for the wedding, but not for the marriage,” according to quotation from an instructional sermon at the Church.

How true is it; on the other hand, how sad is it. Many would prepare for months and years for the “wedding” day. After the wedding day is over, the newly wedded couple begins their marriage, which should last for the rest of their lifetime. But most of them have hardly got prepared for the “marriage”.

The newly wedded couples are often left with two options – in fact, uncertain and risky options: The first is just letting it go on its own with trials and errors; the assumption is that “learning by doing” might lead to a better outcome.

The second option is to copy from others including the parents and adults, who have carried it out before them; the assumption is that they have done it better, but who knows?

Weddings and elections

Weddings and elections have many things in common: The amount of preparations carried out over the months and years, the amount of resources spent over that, and the millions of people’s valuable time (labour hours) sacrificed and all these remind me of the preparation for a 5-star grand wedding. Both are expensive affairs for which the engaged parties have to throw money even if it is just for one day.

They prepare for years for that day! Everything is well organised and, the sequence of events should be in order, and time management is perfect to the exact minute. Inefficiency cannot be tolerated at all and, everything has to be “just in time” as scheduled. The sad part is that they all are well-prepared for that day, but most of them are not prepared at all for the time after the wedding day!

Many of our election days in the past were like the “wedding days”. Alas! Once the wedding is over, there is the “office-coming”. And then, they begin to wonder about the “weight of the responsibility” on the shoulders.

Evidently, what we have seen in the past except on one or two occasions, they began to look around and turn left and right in order to understand “what is to be done next?” A five-year term is in the hands, but if they didn’t come to office with a “policy package” for the next five years, it is quite possible that they let it go with trials and errors, without knowing where they would lead the nation.

It’s also quite possible that they would turn to the bureaucrats who have some experience. The first disappointment would be that when it is realised that most of what was promised before the Election Day cannot be fulfilled either.

It was poverty

I thought of shedding light on this issue today. The Presidential election was over yesterday, but apparently I prepared this column a few days before that. Therefore, my write up is entirely guided by the past experience of Sri Lanka, and it has no point reference to yesterday’s election.

The fundamental economic problem that influenced election campaigns throughout our history has been “poverty” much more than anything else, although it is not “absolute poverty”. The condition of being poor is the inability to meet the basic needs in life – food and water, clothing, shelter, health care, education, and dignity. I would expand the definition further to include the lack of opportunities to grow further, even after meeting the basic needs.

There are two interesting observations with respect to the poverty issue: At every election time, “poverty” comes as a fundamental economic issue, only because it has never been addressed previously; and the cycle continues to repeat. Otherwise, how is it possible that it becomes a new issue at every election?

The second observation is that at every election, the issue has been approached with “free handouts” from non-existent resources. Free handouts have never lifted a family out of poverty. But until today, at every election we promise to give, and even compete to give even more. After giving that and this for “free” since independence, how is it possible that poverty still exists?

The bitter truth

Someone might say that we have reduced the number of poor to 4 per cent of the population in the past, and that we are now an “upper-middle” income country with US$4,000 per capita income. True; but it is far below the standards of wealth and prosperity that our people in Sri Lanka would have been able to enjoy by today; we should have been one of the richest nations in Asia today.

Only 4 per cent of our people are poor, according to the official poverty line – “less than Rs. 5,000 a month or Rs. 167 a day”. Let’s be at least a little more practical: According to the World Bank estimates, more than one-third of our population, i.e. 8 million people, earn less than Rs. 1000 a day; and more than 10 per cent of our population, i.e. 2 million people, earn less than Rs. 600 a day.

The popular “free handouts” will address the “symptoms” of poverty, but not the source of poverty at all. The source of poverty is all about the “opportunities” that the government is able to create and deliver to the poor: The opportunities for better incomes and decent jobs. They don’t come from free handouts, but the country’s development policy package which the leaders should bring about with them during their “office coming”.

Individual poverty is ultimately connected to our overall poverty of the nation. In spite of being an “upper-middle” income country, Sri Lanka is now one of the “worst economic performers” in Asia, in terms of the rate of economic growth. How do we get out of the growth deadlock? In spite of winning the war and restoring peace in 2009, Sri Lanka failed to make a breakthrough in its poor investment record over the past 10 years.

How do we make Sri Lanka a “competitive investment centre of Asia”, and win the investor confidence?

Low-hanging big fruits

All that is required is first to move the focus away from “little handouts”, and to think big and think differently. A few days ago, Luxman Siriwardena – the Executive Director of the Pathfinder Foundation -, shared with me “four low-hanging big fruits” that the new President of the country can pick up easily:

The first is the Colombo Port City project which is now ready to become an international business centre of Asia, connecting the Far East and the West. The second is the Hambantota Industrial Zone, which can connect the hinterland economies of the Southern, Uva, and Central provinces with international economy through its gateways – the Hambantota seaport and the Mattala airport. The third is the Colombo Port Expansion project with its East Container terminal, awaiting now to commence construction and operation. The fourth is the Power and Energy Sector investment which will have detrimental consequences, if delayed further.

All the above projects are big enterprising initiatives that the government does not have a burden, and that could be based basically on private capital. They might also ease some of the big economic issues of the government within the next couple of years. In addition, the government can also be prepared for a big leap forward with the implementation of the MCC Compact grant, which can facilitate overall economic growth.

By the way, we can ignore all these opportunities, and keep wasting time for focussing on little things and petty issues. Then we would have come back to “square one” again after five years, when the next Presidential election is approaching around the corner.

(The writer is a Professor of Economics at the University of Colombo and can be reached at sirimal@econ.cmb.ac.lk)

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