By Siri Gamage –
When I read news media about the current status of the country, it is clear that there are multiple issues facing the population and being discussed by various opposition parties and groups. The attention is being focused on issues that are either not resolved or the solutions are not in the favour of many. Government policies and programs are being criticised on various grounds. ‘Understanding the historical evolution of issues faced by Sri Lanka and its root-causes is imperative for thinking afresh about bringing back Sri Lanka to a new, sustainable, people-friendly development trajectory’ (Tantirigama 2021, p.8). Moreover, ‘there is a possibility for realising prosperity in the not-so-distant future if Sri Lanka takes a credible course of action soon. On the one hand, this requires a clear understanding of “What went wrong?” and, on the other hand, a new assessment of “What Sri Lanka is good at?” (ibid).
Economists and other social scientists publish various accounts of the origin and evolution of various problems confronting the country but very few adopt a decolonial approach in their work. Most are based on Western theory, perspectives or principles developed elsewhere. It is hard to find research studies either sponsored by the government, academia or the NGOs based on proper community consultation in a way that represents the difficulties faced by the people in various sectors. Often academic research assumes an elitist nature where the authors look at the bottom from the top whereas most people live in the bottom of society and status hierarchies. Sri Lankan society can be described as a set of hierarchies where there are privileged few at the top and many at the middle and bottom layers. What is worse is that there are societal attitudes that venerate those at the top. They are not seen as servants of the people as. In a democracy.
A fundamental problem in the country today is the nature and function of postcolonial governing institutions. Whether they serve the interests of the broader community or a privileged few who belong to the ruling class plus wealthy sections of the society? By all accounts, it seems to be the latter. Unless someone from the middle and lower classes have personal contacts in governing institutions at the national, provincial and local levels, it is very difficult to get day to day issues resolved through the institutions that are supposed to serve the people-even though there are 16 lakhs of government employees. Dysfunctional government service is the result of decades of politicisation. An overhaul of such institutions is necessary after consultations with the people but this can never happen within a system where the institutions and agencies of the government are considered by the ruling class as feathers in their hats rather than vehicles for public service. The concept of public service that existed during the colonial period has lost its meaning and purpose. It is there to maintain the hierarchical power of those who occupy seats of authority within each institution and above. Such a situation is fertile ground for corruption, delay, disappointment and anger.
Another problem is the adverse conditions and restrictions created by the COVID pandemic and resulting policy decisions of the government to curtail imports. Due to the foreign exchange problem resulting from the reduced income from the tourists and those who worked as domestic worker abroad, the government is facing a problem in repaying the debt instalments. Measures taken to address the situation is affecting the economy and the people in multiple ways. The gas supply issue and the fertiliser issue are two examples. Government decision-making process has also come under the spotlight as there are conflicts between the cabinet system based on the legislature and the executive Presidency. While the problems facing the people can be communicated to the elected representatives in a theoretical democracy, the situation in Sri Lanka is quite different. Access to elected representatives is limited by many factors including the nature of prevailing political culture constructed by the ruling class. Instead of an open access system, there are many gate keepers-often family members of the elected MPs who control access. Many people facing various problems do not visit the MPs office to report their problems and find solutions. Even if they report, solutions are hard to come by.
Recently, a colleague prepared a report after gathering ideas from 60 expatriate senior Sri Lankans in New Zealand based on a survey of Sri Lankan academics, professionals and other thinkers (Tantirigama 2021). It ‘revealed that Sri Lanka as a country has deviated from its true potential for growth and prosperity’ (p.8). According to the author, ‘It is believed that Sri Lanka is currently in an unsustainable economic, social and political trajectory. Indeed, many respondents expressed that Sri Lanka is sliding fast towards an abyss with no prospects for improvements in any sphere’ (2021, p.2). Most respondents believed that Sri Lanka is in dire straits in many spheres, including the economy, the political structure, social order and the environment (2021, p.2).
The report identifies three types of resources and various opportunities and potentials as well as challenges. E.g. Ayurveda and herbal treatments and higher education, medical tourism, local fruits and geographical location. They have tremendous potential as foreign exchange earners for the country.
In terms of democracy, “not electing appropriate personal as political leaders”, as a fundamental route-cause. The lack of democratic rights within political parties was also highlighted as a root-cause, which led those at the leadership within parties to become de-factor rulers and disregard the majority of people’s views in selecting suitable people in elections. Some also opined that some Sri Lankans believe in the feudalistic system, where the master decides and protects the subjects while the subjects offer their loyalty” (2021, P.5).
In terms of attitudes and ethical behaviour, their qualities have been deteriorating and replaced by greed, selfishness, disregard for humans and animal lives and intolerance.
In the case of economic management, as a result of economic mis-management by successive governments, Sri Lanka cannot generate a liveable income for most people, provide employment opportunities for the youth, maintain price stability, or generate adequate national savings and earn foreign exchange. These failures have led to Sri Lanka’s inability to lift the quality of life in general and many people out of poverty, food insecurity and destitution. Agricultural sector, food processing and low-end tourism are good examples.
In the case of Judiciary, ‘The most fundamental tenants of law and order in any country are: ‘rule of law’, ‘equality under the law’, ‘fairness’ and ‘equal treatment’. Those who discussed the judiciary system advanced the idea that the apparent disregard for law and order stemmed from callous disregard by the ruling class in order to fit their agenda and use them for their advantage. Due to these reasons, many people opined that there is a tendency to lose peoples’ confidence in the judiciary system. Unless Sri Lanka can restore the supremacy of the judiciary and equality under the law, there is little hope to regain peoples’ trust in the judiciary’ (2021, p.7).
In terms of education, many of the respondents mentioned that the current educations system has failed to produce creative minds and skilful people with the right attitudes.
There is plenty of economic and social analysis about how we have come to the current situation -ranging from poor governance, defects in the democratic system combined with the executive president, education not geared to meeting the national needs, poor mechanisms of community consultation in designing national and provincial policies, lack of intellectual inputs, poor resourcing and development of domestic sector, elitism, disconnect between elected representatives and the voters, ruling class behaviour, to borrowing from international sources. While these and other causes may have contributed to the current crisis, it is important to focus on the future vision and a pragmatic plan that can draw popular support not only at the elections but between elections.
In this article, my aim is to emphasise that what the country needs is a medium to long term vision for development and progress rather than being bogged down in current and immediate issues or their historical origins even though such considerations form a core part of any serious look at the subject. The collective energies of those concerned should be focused on the vision rather than the issues and problems per se.
What is a medium to long term vision? What shape should it take? What principles are important in devising such a vision and a plan? Who should be the vanguard of developing such a vision and a plan? What kind of community and stake holder consultation is necessary? Let me address these questions in brief.
For a medium to long term vision, it is important to clearly recognise the crisis facing the country, its nature and identify the contributory factors-local, national and international. Without such an exercise for which adequate authority and resources are provided by the government, it is not possible to imagine the solutions as a nation. As a common feature of developing societies of the global south, policy making in Sri Lanka is based on an expert-technocratic model rather than a community consultative model. According to this model, so-called experts – local and foreign – work closely with the political authority in each sector to identify issues, devise policies, seek funding and institutional support and implement. Some do consult their stakeholders to a limited extent. But we lack a culture of public commissions such as Royal Commissions to investigate an issue thoroughly by impartial panel of former judges, academics or other reputed professionals other than in the case of semi judicial matters. For example, such a commission is absolutely necessary to bring about higher education reforms to suit the times. However, there is very little appetite in the governing elites for such a commission.
A key question to consider in terms of the vision is what kind of country do we want to see in the next 10—100 years? What are its features? For example, do we want to see a country where the rights of each citizen are secured and guaranteed irrespective of the status of the individual? Do we want to see a society where everyone should have a basic income – either through own sources or from the government as a welfare measure? Do we want to see governing institutions that operate according to the stated aims of such institutions without political interference? Should rule of law be re-established for the security of all and what legal reforms are necessary for this to happen? How should our health sector look like for a better Sri Lanka? What role the private health services play? Should the doctors be allowed to do private consultations charging high fees? Should such activities be controlled? What support is necessary from the government for manufacturing sectors to be more effective and growing? What kind of education system is necessary to meet the challenges of 21st century? Does the existing curriculum serve national interests? Should there be curriculum reform? Answers to such questions cannot be found without a systematic strategy and process plus broader community engagement to harness the ideas of those who can think, reflect critically with comparative knowledge.
Various political and community actors need to initiate a process and a mechanism to harness ideas from diverse sources and collate them for a vision and a nation building plan. Already some may be engaged in such a process. However, it needs to be given publicity and priority. In this task, party political affiliation should not be a concern and the cooperation from all walks of life should be garnered. So long as we are operating on the principle of division of any sort, a future vision and a plan cannot be formulated with credibility.
Once the broad parameters of a vision and a plan identified they need to be compared with the challenges we face and the solutions required in order to test their viability. For example, if foreign exchange is a key problem, the future vision and plan should address this issue. If the lack of skills among the graduates is a problem the national vision and plan should address it for the medium to long term. If the fertiliser is an issue for the agriculture sector, solutions should be canvassed.
In short, there should be a mapping exercise of the multiple issues confronting the population led by the political and other actors in order to develop a vision and a plan for development in the next decades. Other nations including China undertake such exercises periodically. Going with the flow while maintaining dysfunctional governance institutions that do not serve the people and their needs is no acceptable way to move with the rest of the world. Hard, critical and constructive look at our own nation and its collective body and mind is the need in the coming year.
Tantirigama, G. 2021. Handing-over of a prosperous Sri Lanka to our children, Seniors for Motherland www.newhorizonsplus.org/public-awareness/
This survey asked the respondents, “What are the root-causes for Sri Lanka’s failure? “This question resulted in a total of 366 answers covering challenges that need to be addressed, which can be broadly classified into three layers: problems (93 answers), symptoms (35 answers) and root-causes (228 answers)”.
By classifying all the 366 answers received in the three categories, ten broadly defined root-causes, causing Sri Lanka’s development more challenging were identified. These include: (i) Practice of democracy (ii) Attitudes and ethical behaviour (iii) Economic management (iv) Environment management (v) Fiscal responsibility (vi) Judiciary system (vii) Education system (viii) Utilisation of human resources (ix) Foreign debt (x) International relations and geo-politics.