By Chamindry Saparamadu –
With the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the President in November 2019, there seems to be much interest and talk on integrating merit and technocracy into the country’s political life and governance system. These discourses are manifested in the slogans of various lobby groups seeking to promote the election of newer, more educated and professionally qualified representatives to Parliament as well as in the various initiatives taken by the President to ensure that qualified and competent persons are appointed to top positions in state run institutions.
The trends towards professionalizing the political space were already visible through the evolution of various professional-political movements such as Viyathmaga, Viyathpawra, professional associations attached to various political parties etc. In the run up to the Presidential elections of November 2019, a significant focus of the two main candidates as well as some other candidates was placed on the need to infuse professionalism and merit in to governance.
The importance of merit / technocracy comes not just in the backdrop of a need to integrate the high number of educated and skilled personnel in view of our high level of human development but more in the context of a broader economic imperative. There is a need to look at this aspect more closely. We have been witnessing a steady decline of our economic growth rates in the last few years and there is a need to revitalize the economic growth – an imperative that cannot be ignored any further. Towards this end, why does technocracy matter? I argue that technocracy explains a fundamental factor that drives economic growth.
To put it simply, I base my explanation on the core arguments advanced through endogenous growth theories. Departing from the neoclassical view that explains economic growth as being propelled by exogenous factors such as savings and capital formation, economists such as Paul Romer, Robert Lucas etc. have argued that economic growth is fuelled by endogenous factors such as investment in human capital, innovation and knowledge. These factors are believed to make a significant contribution to growth. In addition, there will be positive externalities and spill-over effects of a knowledge based economy as specialized and high skilled people would improve the skills level of the operational environment and the society as a whole.
Sri Lanka is at a strategic moment in its history. The World Bank has classified Sri Lanka as a high middle income earning country which would impact the type of development aid the country would receive. With this transition, the country would have to face a new set of development challenges and a clear focus on how it would address these challenges is a compulsion than a choice. Investment in a knowledge based economy and a high skilled services sector seem to provide a viable option for the way forward.
Against this backdrop, the measures taken to infuse technocracy and merit into governance come as a futuristic vision. The challenge for doing so emanates from Sri Lanka’s traditional political life which is based on reciprocity and rewarding political loyalties. The novel measures are likely to lead to political pushbacks and fallouts unless handled with caution and incrementally. The political implications need to be managed to ensure the political capital required for sustenance of the political establishment are not compromised.
The initiatives to integrate technocracy into governance, in my view, is also a response to the increasing levels of brain drain Sri Lanka is experiencing currently with educated people migrating abroad for employment in high professional sectors together with permanent residence in those countries. When speaking to such migrant professionals, reasons adduced are the extremely limited opportunities provided in our labor market for high professional jobs without political or social networks.
Whilst conceding that the current initiatives would not perhaps lead to an overall system transformation, it is prudent to acknowledge that they might be the right steps initiated towards a transformation.