By Ratnam Nadarajah –
Since the beginning of the year there has been proposals, conferences, seminars on the development of the country. There was the well-publicised event at the Grand Cinnamon in January 2016. A Harvard led event and funded, I believe by George Soros, where 300 hundred participants including the PM and senior members of the cabinet and business leaders participated. This was immediately followed by two teams going to Harvard, one from the Prime Minister’s Office another from the Ministry of Finance. One lot was paid by Harvard and other paid by the government. I do not want to go into the politics of the decision of why two teams, where one would have been adequate. Also there was the conference in Singapore with similar themes. Then there are the much talked about plans for Colombo port city development, Western Province Mega polis development plan, a thousand-acre industrial development project to be established by Chinese companies in Hambantota, Plantation sector development Scheme to mention a few under purview of the government.
Development strategies cannot be evolved over a conference or seminars. Granted that fresh ideas, a systematic approach, know how, lessons learnt may provide a basis for the development process.
What is the ultimate goal of these development? Is it to provide employment, increase export earnings or merely to be a showcase, as has been the case with the mega projects of the recent past. Not a day passes without the head line news of the billions being lost by these entities. This would not just disappear overnight. These are our permanent white elephants which will haunt the nation for a long time.
Let us consider the employment aspect first as this is the need of the hour for all and especially for the unemployed graduates. There has been a promise of creating 1-3 million jobs. This is a tall order to say the least. For any development in this day and age you need a skilled workforce. You cannot produce a good calibre of work force by the drop of a hat. It takes planning, time, effort and proper training. This means money and resource; a rare commodity in Sri-Lanka. The question is whether the development comes first or the training. Yes, we have a pool of graduates, school levers and adults unemployed who are desperate for jobs. What transferable skills have they got in terms of employability in the modern setting. Having a degree though may be an asset but by itself is no guarantee; firstly, to get a job and secondly be successful. Our education system should be overhauled drastically to meet the requirement of the 21st century. In today’s knowledge based age, education institutions at all levels need to provide courses and training, which would match the demands of developing industries and organisations. There is also a necessity for academic institutions to collaborate with Industries. A two-way partnership creating a win, win for all concerned.
Sri Lanka needs projects where the local pool of unemployed can be deployed beneficially. Strategic planning for growth in the economy calls for identifying the sectors of the economy where additional wealth/income can be created. Tourism, manufacturing industries, IT, service sector including financial services, agriculture both staple food and cash crops for export to name a few areas for potential targets for development. Not only to create employment but also to earn badly needed export earnings to address the ever growing deficit in the balance of payment. For all this we need to be competitive in providing the goods and services. We live in a very competitive world; where quality of products and services provided are better, value for money, efficient and of high quality. Emerging economies are competing with one another to position themselves as the most preferred provider by being able to supply products and services cost effectively while maintaining and meeting the set/required quality standards and on time deliveries.
Skilled workforce is prerequisite in a modern economy especially in the high value, low labour intensive manufacturing industries, product design and software development. We need institutions where we can develop these skills and train workforce to meet the global challenges. Our educational institutions by and large are not geared up to meet these demands. What is needed is a combination of academic and practical training where one can get hands on experience and obtain employable skills.
The government’s strategy need to be a combination of short term and long term outcomes. In the short term it must address the unemployment issue. Unemployment especially among the youth in the country is a serious issue. Idle mind is the workshop of a devil. No need to mention the experience of not too distant past
Economic development does not always mean employment opportunities. Rate of economic growth cannot always be equated to an automatic increase in employment. In today’s economy though man power plays a part but not necessarily a significant part as of yester- years. Days of full employment are things of the past, even in socialist states. Modern industries do not need as much personnel as compared to 10- 20 years ago. Mechanisation, automation, artificial- Intelligence have replaced/reduced manual labour input. Globalisation and the availability of the world wide web, Internet of Things(IoT), internet and You, all means that goods and services can be provided from any part of the world. Distance is no barrier, what matters is the cost, quality and on time deliveries.
When you look at the economic landscape of Sri Lanka, lost making state enterprises from Central electricity board to Sri- Lankan airlines, are the accepted norms in the country. No body questions the operations and management of these enterprises until the accumulated losses are beyond redemption; running into billions. And only then the government of the day steps in to invariably absorb the losses at the peril of taxpayers, while the board and senior executive members of these entities carry on regardless as if there is no tomorrow. There is no accountability right down the line. People do their own thing and no one seems to question their actions. It also could be due to the law of diminishing competence in the hierarchy. This cannot and should not be allowed to continue. The country is bankrupt as it is how on earth can any economic development be funded? Loans and more loans is definitely not the answer, in my book and the view of international agencies. Where do we go from here?
To attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into the country, it should be attractive to the potential Investor(s). They would look for stability, skilled manpower resources, productivity, labour laws, tax incentives, acceptable Return on investment(ROI), well developed infrastructure in terms of transport, power, communication and IT network, port facilities etc. A well thought out master plan is a prerequisite for executing projects; be it in manufacturing, agriculture, tourism, IT or any venture which would generate wealth, employment and sustainable growth in the economy. Cost -benefit analysis at the planning stages would guide the planners make the right choices and priorities. Last thing the country needs is more white elephants!
For manufacturing industries, it is vocational training rather than mere academic higher education per se matters more. Part of the skilling of the workforce takes place on the job (on the job training (OJT) and not necessarily in industrial training centres. But for this you need world class manufacturing facilities to train workers in the state of the art practices. A chicken and egg syndrome in the case of manufacturing in Sri Lanka. As stressed earlier, you cannot be competitive unless you have committed and trained workforce and the prevailing industrial and political climate are conducive to attract investors. In essence productivity enhancing investments relies on congenial and flexible workforce who can adapt to changing times and demands with minimal disruptions.