President Ranil Wickremesinghe lost no time since assuming the high office he now holds in presenting his vision for the future of Sri Lanka. His plans went as far as 2048 when this country is expected to celebrate, not just mark, 100 years of independence from 450 years of foreign rule. That it should have [...]


People participation and transparency in public finance


President Ranil Wickremesinghe lost no time since assuming the high office he now holds in presenting his vision for the future of Sri Lanka. His plans went as far as 2048 when this country is expected to celebrate, not just mark, 100 years of independence from 450 years of foreign rule. That it should have taken that long for a country which received its political independence nearly 75 years ago and has now become a bankrupt nation to become a ‘developed country’ speaks for itself.

The President’s call for political unity is a call for all people’s representatives to make a paradigm shift, so to say, from the existing adversarial party politics inherited from the departing British. This divisive system has been the bane of even British politics from what is unfolding in that country. Most Western and Commonwealth democracies – and the USA, face this dilemma, with countries torn apart by divisions on parochial political lines at the expense of national unity. The incumbent President and his election have completely blurred these party loyalties with arch enemies of yesteryear now on the same team and whatever mockery it makes of democracy, its positive outcome is that bitter political foes can still work together in the national interest.

A vibrant Opposition is always an antidote to an authoritarian, inefficient Government. The problem is to find the right balance between hostile opposition and constructive opposition. The Chinese Communist Party, for instance, ridicules Western-style multi-party democracy. It is a one-party centralised system with its National Congress meeting once in five years to pick its leadership. Whether even the Communist Party of Sri Lanka approves of this system in Sri Lanka is in doubt.

The President has called for a ‘People’s Assembly’ (Jana Sabha) to discuss the way forward in political and constitutional reforms, especially the future of an Executive Presidency etc., but the clear priority now is the need for debt restructuring, getting more loans, finding private foreign investment and coming out of the deep, deep hole the country is in. He slammed those who objected to foreign investment at every turn but ignored foreign borrowings. He might have said that even once insular Communist Cuba is now inviting foreign partnership to prop up its moribund economy.

He also asked a pertinent question; “How are individuals allowed to manipulate the economy as they wish. Can the economic policy of a country vary from person to person”.

A longstanding problem has been Governments and the country’s Central Bank keeping the nation’s finances so close to their chests, away from public scrutiny as much as possible, a Parliament where members are more given to hurling insults at each other, and the common citizen ending up in sudden shock without food, fuel, gas and medicines.

An article on Page 18 gives a historical account of the Sri Lankan Rupee to the US Dollar since its depreciation by 90 percent in 1977 with the liberalised economy following years of artificial pegging of the Rupee to the Dollar during the socialist government of 1970-77. Ever since, there has been an average annual depreciation, but as foreign money flowed in post-tsunami, the exchange rate was artificially maintained by releasing dollars so the country could boast of its upgrade from a low income to middle income country. All controls went haywire afterwards.

In other words, the citizenry has been made to live in a make-believe world. Take the case of ISBs (International Sovereign Bonds): One has to wade through Central Bank statistical reports to ferret out the borrowings by Sri Lanka, at what interest rates, and for what purpose.

The Auditor General last week said that Sri Lanka’s total debt balance and overall debt composition at a particular period cannot even be calculated precisely in the absence of clear-cut written laws that would define the scope and responsibility of the Central Bank and the General Treasury. According to him, the loan taken for the Hambantota Port does not appear in the financial statement of either the Government or the Ports Authority.

Even the advent of the RTI (Right to Information) laws has only helped unlock financial information to a small degree. When this newspaper asked a simple question from the former Governor of the Central Bank – how much he spent from his official credit card on personal purchases, the reply was that the monies have been reimbursed subsequently, but the substantive question was dodged.

It is, therefore, imperative that the Government take the people into its confidence and be upfront about the economic realities the country faces. When the President tried doing so in his early days back in the saddle as PM, he was called a scaremonger by Opposition lawmakers.

In his address to Parliament, the President referred to a four-year programme being negotiated with the IMF. At some stage, when those negotiations have matured, he will need to tell the country the outline of this programme; not after it has been signed in secrecy and the people told afterwards. The same goes for the negotiations with private creditors. It is wiser that the long-suffering people be made aware of the ground realities rather than be subjected to sudden shock and despair and told to gulp whatever bitter medicine of painful reforms will inevitably be prescribed by the IMF.

In an op-ed article in the UK Financial Times, a director of the Washington-based International Budget Partnership writes; “Sri Lanka’s crisis underscores the importance of transparency and public engagement in how Government raises, spends and manages taxpayers’ money, including when countries first decide to take on new debt. In the view of the IMF, high level of debt transparency can cut the risk of default”. Centralising decision-making by a few individuals must end, those who brought this country to this bankruptcy must face consequences, and the public space opened for citizens so they know when their funds have been mismanaged and squandered.

In the Supreme Court, an FR (Fundamental Rights) case has brought out how those key players at the Central Bank and the Presidential Secretariat not long ago are now pointing fingers at each other for the collapse of the economy. It is a tragic display of chicanery to brush off personal responsibility and a lesson for the need for public engagement and accountability that would lead to less corruption and greater understanding plus a more willing participation of the people in the country’s financial situation.


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