Colombo Telegraph

Two Years Of “Yahapālanaya”: Is Development A Mere Mirage?

By Ratnam Nadarajah

Ratnam Nadarajah

8th January 2015 for most people in Sri Lanka was a new dawn, a new President followed in July with the formation of a National Unity government, with a promise of good governance and all that goes with the new broom.

There were all sorts of promises and mega plans for the nation. Also a promise to bring to account all those robbed the country during the previous regime.

Here we are two years down the line; what have we achieved. Not much, to say the least. Yes, we have borrowed to the tune of billions of dollars from various sources to prop up the economy, to service the loans and debts accumulated by the previous regime and currently to service the legislators needs and demands.

When simple checks and balances are made, there is nothing to show for; in the eyes and minds of the populace. “A week is a long time in politics”. Harold Wilson (who was also instrumental in formulating “the white heat of technological revolution” in the UK).

But two years is a lifetime in any book!

The balance sheet shows zero progress in the sphere of development of the nation. There have been many meeting, well hyped symposiums, and statements over the past two years. But to date there is nothing concrete except the recent fiasco of Volkswagen car assembly plant foundation laying exercise. Which turned out to be disappointing. The same thing with the so called Italian company funded tyre factory.

Let us start from the fundamentals of development:

Our citizens want to improve their living standards, want jobs especially for the youths; they look forward to the government of the day to take initiatives to full fill their election promises.

In evaluating the degree of economic development of nations, most commonly used indexes are the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Gross National Product (GNP), and the Human Development Index (HDI). I dare say, we have made no significant progress in the last two years.

For any development to take place we need the resources; man power, material, infrastructure, and capital as pre-requisites. Do we have the skilled workforce in enough numbers to meet the demands of modern and technologically based industries we want to create and produce high value products? The short answer is no. The available pool of qualified technicians, engineers and managers is rather wanting in practical experience and training to meet the requirements of these employers both local and foreign multinationals. This is the egg and chicken situation.

A critical challenge for manufacturers will be to approach footprint decisions in a more nuanced way. Labour intensive industries will almost always follow the path of low wages, but others, with more complex needs, must weigh factors such as access to low-cost transportation, to consumer insights, or to skilled employees.

For policy makers, supporting manufacturing industries and competing globally means that policy must be grounded in a comprehensive understanding of the diverse industry segments in a national or regional economy, as well as the wider trends affecting them. For example, shapers of energy policy need to consider; higher or lower energy costs will affect which segments, how great the impact is likely to be, and what magnitude of difference will trigger a location decision. Environmental factors are another important aspect to be considered at the planning stages. We do not want to be the dumping ground. Policy makers should also recognise that their long-term goals for growth, innovation, and exports are best served by supporting critical enablers for manufacturers (such as investing in modern infrastructure) and by helping them forge the connections they will need to access rapidly growing emerging markets.

Two key priorities for both governments and businesses are education and the development of skills. Companies must build their R&D capabilities, as well as expertise in data analytics and product design. They will need qualified, computer-savvy factory workers and agile managers for complex global supply chains. In addition to supporting ongoing efforts to improve public education—particularly the teaching of math’s, science, and analytical skill. Policy makers must work with industry and educational institutions to ensure that skills learned in schools and higher education Institutions, fit the needs of employers.

Science and technology is one of the major drivers of socio-economic development. Economic development for developing countries can be effectively stimulated by building the technical and entrepreneurial capacity of their workforce through quality engineering education programmes. A competent technical workforce base can then provide several paths to economic development: attraction of technically oriented multi-national companies, who can invest effectively in Sri Lanka.

Capacity building is a dedication to the strengthening of economies, governments, institutions and individuals through education, training, mentoring, and the infusion of resources. In Capacity building the nation should aim at developing secure, stable, and sustainable structures, systems, and organisations, with an emphasis on using motivation and inspiration for people to improve their lives. Good governance plays an intrinsic part

In the global economy of the 21st Century, a well-qualified, motivated, and trained workforce play a key role in overall economic development for our country. In the well-developed countries, the role of the engineer is well understood and utilized. In much of the developing world, however (such as in Sri Lanka) the available pool of engineering talent is typically below critical mass – and economic development and even important basic societal needs that rely on engineering – such as clean water supply and sanitation – lack the technical talent to address them.

Technical capacity building efforts aim at developing a sufficient pool of well-educated and certified engineering graduates, managers, and planners in developing countries to effect three desirable outcomes:

•    Technical capability that is needed for to engage effectively in the global economy; direct foreign investment(FDI), international trade, mobility of engineers, and the flow of work to countries with cost-effective talent will result.

•   Indigenous science and technology capacity is needed initially to attract Foreign Direct Investment and to ensure that international aid funds are utilized effectively and efficiently – for initial project implementation, for long-term operation and maintenance, and for the development of capacity to do future projects. And a sufficient pool of engineers, technologist and planners can enable a developing country such as ours to address the UN’s Millennium Development Goals effectively, including poverty reduction, safe water, and sanitation, etc. (Poverty alleviation seems to be the byword for 2017, considering to the repeated pronouncement of our President Maithripala Sirisena)

•   To stimulate job formation in developing countries, a technical workforce pool is needed, made up of people who are specifically educated and prepared to engage in entrepreneurial start up efforts that meet local needs. Thus, creating local jobs

In a report published to coincide with the start of the week-long World Economic Forum in Davos, ( I believe our PM Ranil Wickremesinghe is also a participant) Switzerland, Oxfam said it was “beyond grotesque” that a handful of (8) rich men, globally control 50% or more of the wealth.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) said last week that rising inequality and social polarisation posed two of the biggest risks to the global economy in 2017 and could result in the rolling back of globalisation. As a nation, have we lost the boat in our plans to have a stake in the global economy? Only time will tell

While emphasis on health and basic relief needs must continue, there is also a critical need to break the cycles of poverty through development of strong and competitive economies that can relate to world markets. The building of indigenous pools of people with quality educations in science, technology, and engineering can help lead to economic growth and healthy economies.

One need only look at examples from India and South Korea to see the effect of concerted efforts to enhance the education of engineers and technology graduates on the economies of these two countries. At the 2004 meeting of the American Society of Civil Engineers the South Korean delegation to the Capacity Building Forum presented the results of South Korea ’s investment over the past three decades in the number and quality of engineering graduates. In 1970 South Korea, had about 6,000 engineering graduates. In 1980 these were increased to 14,000. By 1990, the figure had jumped to about 80,000. When plotted against South Korea ’s per capita GNP growth, the number of engineering graduates almost directly parallels the growth of the South Korean economy, offset by a few years. This data appears to show a direct cause and effect. Investment in building a well-qualified and sufficiently large pool of engineers leads to sustainable economic development.

In the case of India there has been a long-term effort to increase the numbers of engineering graduates and the quality of their education. Whereas in the past, many of these graduates sought employment outside the country, now many are returning and newer graduates are staying to work in India in the software and design industries, often to high-tech cities where well-paying careers and extensive numbers of colleagues await them. The growing number of technically proficient and well-educated specialists also has enabled India to become a prime location for the outsourcing technical support by the world’s leading technology firms.

In China, already a major economic power, the proportion of first science and engineering degrees to all bachelors-equivalent degrees was 59%, as compared to about 33% in the US in 2001 (Source: Science and Engineering Indicators 2004, National Science Foundation, National Science Board). The report opens with the statement:  “Excellence in (science and engineering) higher education helps a country to be technologically innovative and economically competitive.” China’s current position as the 2nd largest economy in the world (only behind the USA) is the proof of the pudding!

What is needed

Primarily, a large enough pool of high quality, accredited engineers, technicians, managers, and people with analytical skills is needed in developing countries so that the good results listed above can be realized. It must be recognised that there will be some leakage of these graduates to jobs in developed countries, but many will choose to stay where family ties and native country culture provide a comfortable environment.

But the basic need is the creation of good jobs in the home country. This is again a chicken-and-egg issue. Increased demand for engineers will result only when there is a sufficient pool of well qualified graduates to attract direct foreign investment by multinational corporations(MNC), offshore outsourcing from developed countries, and entrepreneurial start-ups. Sri Lankan planners and government officials must pursue effective economic development and job generation strategies in parallel with making the needed investments to enhance the quality and quantity of engineering graduates.

Engineering education should include significant coverage of entrepreneurship – how to start, operate, and grow a small business. Note that US companies such as Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Yahoo all were started in garages by enterprising young people with a technical bent. Engineering graduates should be equipped to take a path of creating jobs rather than seeking one if they wish to do so.

As technology based economies grow in developing countries, one important source of top talent – in addition to new engineering graduates – is the return of previous emigrants from the diaspora. Several countries (China, India) that are developing well have benefited from the return of former citizens who see new opportunities in their home countries, and bring back foreign experience and network contacts to the benefit of their home countries. Sri Lanka should encourage the return of such people who could assist speed up the nation on the march to development.

In addition to increasing the number and quality of engineering graduates, and pursuing strategies to have good local jobs available, developing countries need mechanisms to apply research and development results from local universities and companies for economic gain. Such mechanisms as incubators and small business development financing are needed in the mix in Sri lanka

Government alone cannot provide all that is needed for the development of the country. Companies and organisations must develop a highly-detailed understanding of specific emerging markets, as well as the needs of their existing customers. They will also require agile approaches to the development of strategy—using scenario planning rather than point forecasts, for example. And they must make big bets on long-range opportunities, such as tapping new markets in developing economies or switching to new materials, but must do so in ways that minimise risk.

It has been said that 2nd half of the 21st century belongs to Africa. Here is an opportunity to explore.

Continued utilisation of advanced technologies, and education that leads to high skills in technological areas must be the prime aim of our government, planners, educationists, and industrialists.

“Give a person a fish: you have fed the person for today. Teach a person to fish: you have fed the person for a lifetime.”

In today’s global economy, one more level needs to be added for developing countries: And: teach the person how to process and package fish for export and market it, and you have stimulated economic development.

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