By Shawn Fernando –
Development is about transforming the lives of people, not just transforming economies. — Joseph Stiglitz.
Sri Lanka wants development, that much is clear. From politicians to businessmen to the humble average citizen, all cry out with one voice for development.
‘Development’ they claim, will bring us prosperity and mend our broken national dignity. ‘Development’ is a path towards a better, modern Sri Lanka. But few in the national discourse take the time to actually define the concept. What is development? Is it buildings? Cars? Computers? Pesticides? Access to capital? Access to the Internet? There seems to be no consensus, only a vague sense that development comes from outside the country.
For politicians, development has become synonymous with large conspicuous spending. From buildings to airports to new vehicles for the elite, the government is willing and able to spend copious amounts of borrowed money. These projects are less prized for their potential as investments, and more for their political weight. After all, it demonstrates in (often literally) concrete terms that the government can ‘develop’ the country. For a population unsure of exactly what development is, these gleaming, modern projects may seem like progress.
But many of these white elephant projects, rife with corruption and grift, often accomplish the exact opposite goal of development. They constrain the national budget with oppressive debt payments. They line the pockets of crooks, and like Mattala Airport, they often fail even to accomplish their narrow functional goals. At this point the pattern is well established, and the kickbacks are barely hidden. Yet the country is still enthralled by these wasteful projects. Why?
In our national consciousness, development is often worryingly associated with the British colonial project. Some Sri Lankans would even argue that development is not only material but cultural, just as the Victorians would have. Development, in this conception, is not just access to goods or credit, but civilization itself coming to light our dim shores. I have often heard wealthy Sri Lankans claim a sort of innate unworthiness in their own people. Development, they argue, is lost on Sri Lankans. Our own people cannot be trusted with the responsibility of behaving in a civilized manner. So we are damned as a nation to never reap the fruits of the modern world.
But this dark vision of Sri Lanka and its people blinds us to the reality of our place in history and our own great works. The deeply racist views of our colonial masters have become part of how we talk about ourselves. How is it that a people so supposedly lazy and shiftless built a complex hydrological civilization whose feats of engineering are still visible and operational today? How did they establish a university that predated Oxford by more than 700 years?
The answer is this, we were and are a great culture. We are a generous people, an ingenious people, a people possessed of deep wisdom and earnest kindness. We have as much to offer the world as it has to offer us. The lives of our people could be brimming with the abundance that has always been the defining feature of our serendipitous isle.
But we are caught in a trap. It is a mental trap as much as it is an economic one, because ultimately it is our desires and our insecurities that keep us in chains.
We must look at Sri Lanka with fresh eyes. Do not curse, do not wish, merely observe. Observe Sri Lanka’s place within the geopolitical order, its place in the world economy. Observe the root of its problems before grasping at bold and useless solutions. Observe our wealth of culture and technology before casting it aside for western baubles. In this time of restricted imports and foreign exchange shortfalls, ask what decisions we have made that brought us to the brink.
Consider the problem of housing. In 2017 Sri Lanka imported 526 million dollars worth of cement– half a billion dollars a year. Much of this cement was formed into concrete blocks and assembled into single story buildings. Why? What benefits does concrete block construction have over traditional local materials? It turns out, the benefits are mostly cultural, not practical. To quote professor of architecture Ranjit Dayaratne:
“It became the aspiration of those in wattle-and-daub houses to rebuild them with the concrete blocks, despite the fact that they did not offer the same kind of thermal comforts. The peasants thus exchanged their comfortable, affordable, and sustainable houses for the modern opposite, which were trendy and fashionable and expressed progress, modernity, and a distinct place in the social hierarchy.”
Currently, across the western world there are architectural movements trying to recapture the genius of our traditional building techniques. Westerners may call them ‘low embodied energy construction’ or ‘sustainable earth-ships’ but the basic ideas are much the same. Use local earth and local sustainable plant materials to create walls with insulation values that surpass fiberglass. These traditional techniques have been adapted to international building codes, and are increasingly popular among the most well-heeled elites in the western world.
Despite the recognition of these building techniques by the west, despite the work of architects like Geoffrey Bawa to elevate these techniques to high art, Sri Lankans still cling to concrete block construction. From 2007 to 2017 imports of cement more than doubled. Rather than adapt and advance the quiet brilliance of our own culture, we choose to discard it in favor of a wasteful and inferior foreign substitute. In this particular case it is not a lack of materials that is continually draining the national coffers, but a lack of pride in our own technology.
Now, consider the problem of transportation. Due to foreign exchange shortages the import of vehicles has been halted for the foreseeable future. According to the finance minister, Sri Lanka is prioritizing foreign exchange for food, medicine and fuel. But left out of the statement is the amount spent on each.
Pre-pandemic, the amount spent on *ALL* food, medical, and pharmaceutical imports was $1.77 billion. Whereas fuel imports were almost exactly double that, $3.55 billion.
During the pandemic, fuel spending fell due to reduced travel. Cuts to fuel consumption alone clawed back $1.35 billion worth of trade deficit. That’s roughly three times as much savings as the vehicle import ban, which only clawed back $449 million.
Given that voluntary fuel expenditures are such a drain on the balance of payments, how will increasing the kilometers of expressway in Sri Lanka improve our economy?
The answer is it won’t. Highway travel, much like concrete blocks, is simply a way of displaying the trappings of modernity. It is a cultural symbol more than a practical advance. To benefit from the expressway one must first import a vehicle, then pay in perpetuity for imported fuel. In fact, every citizen who adapts to this new infrastructure is ultimately saddling the country with a worse foreign exchange position.
Which is to say nothing of the additional strain on existing roads. At some point all of the vehicles using the expressway must exit onto normal roads where increased traffic will cause additional delays. Should we attempt to widen all of these local roads as well? How will we compensate the businesses and homes that will doubtlessly need to be relocated? How much would such a massive project cost?
Once again, this supposed ‘development’ overlooks what should be a great source of national pride, Sri Lanka’s national rail and bus system. This system, which is already well utilized and connects every major population center in the country, is languishing in ever increasing disrepair. Two thirds of the locomotives are over 30 years old. In 2021, nearly every CTB bus lacks air conditioning.
Advanced western nations are putting an ever increasing premium on access to public transportation. They are judging real estate prices based on ‘walkable neighborhoods’ and ‘bikeable cities.’ Meanwhile Sri Lanka is hurtling towards an increasingly economically unsustainable and car-focused infrastructure, all in the vain hope of appearing more modern. While Europe and America are trumpeting increased ridership on their trains and buses, we are complaining about overcrowding. In our desire for ‘development’ we trade real wealth for shiny new debt.
Finally, consider electricity. In the past decade, the largest improvements to the energy grid have come in the form of two coal burning plants. In addition to being environmentally destructive and massively overpriced due to corruption, these plants require the constant import of foreign coal to run. On that basis alone, these plants seem a foolhardy investment. But when you step back and look at Sri Lanka’s energy system in total, the decision seems even more ridiculous.
Sri Lanka has a tremendous, untapped advantage in the dawning solar revolution. Sri Lanka, unlike most nations, is in possession of an extensive system of hydroelectric power. In fact, hydropower makes up more than a third of overall generating capacity. This Hydroelectric capacity is not just a sustainable source of energy, but can also be used as a massive energy storage system.
One of the main problems with renewable energies is the ‘intermittent supply’ problem. Solar energy is largely collected during peak daylight hours, and unless there is some mechanism for storing or using the energy collected during those hours, excess supply will be wasted. However, hydroelectric systems can be adapted to run in reverse. Water pumped back up to higher reservoirs during the day can be used to generate power at night, increasing the efficiency of both solar and hydro generation. In short, we have an energy grid that is well positioned to accept a huge amount of solar energy. Sri Lanka does not need base load power generation in the form of more coal plants, or laughable pie-in-the-sky plans for nuclear power generation. Our system as it stands is enviably ready for a sustainable 21st century.
As Dr. Stiglitz noted at the outset of this article, development is about transforming the lives of people. The economy, in the end, is a collection of individual lives. It is the collective unshackling of human ingenuity that leads to progress, not tall buildings or loans or port cities. Do not let the grim facts of national mismanagement lead you to the conclusion that Sri Lanka is inherently incapable of development. No, in my view Sri Lanka is at the cusp of a great transformation, an inflection point in history.
Though the pain of these times is tragically real, our hope should be equally palpable. We have the opportunity not just to mimic the trappings of development, but to redefine what development can be. We have the opportunity to repair our national dignity, and reclaim our pride as the source of our own civilization. Let not this period of crisis lead you to the conclusion that all is lost. Instead let us remember that we have a history of wealth and abundance buried beneath our feet, waiting only for our imagination to unearth.