Business

Why Sri Lanka cannot be developed

Since Independence or even before that, as Sri Lankans, we have had one main question. How can Sri Lanka be developed? This same topic has been resurrected again, as usual just before another general election. Fighting terrorism, raising national security, adopting a new constitution, and many more popular topics, boil down to the same question over and over again – how can we develop Sri Lanka and why have we failed to do so for many years? 

We have analysed, reanalysed, and one can even claim overanalysed our economy. The same problems and the same solutions have been discussed for decades. The stories of how Singapore was behind us and how the then leaders in Singapore envisaged Sri Lanka as their role model for development is a story we have heard repeatedly.

How South Korea was just an underdeveloped nation compared to Sri Lanka in the 1960s and how Sri Lanka was just behind Japan at Independence are stories any Sri Lankan can repeat with their eyes closed. After having learnt lessons told by these stories, why couldn’t Sri Lanka accelerate growth to become a developed nation? This definitely is something hard to comprehend. 

After thinking this over and over again, I felt that “Sri Lankans do not want to make Sri Lanka a developed country”, is a reasonable conclusion as to why we failed. Simply, we do not have the fire in our belly to overcome the hard economic conditions we pass through. Over the years, we have become a nation which has become more dependent on the Government. Rather than us as individuals taking ownership of what we do and how we could overcome challenges in life, we have moved to the backseat, expecting governments to present solutions on a platter.

It is true that we have extraordinary talents and skills but collectively, we have been mediocre and settled in an “average” mindset. Making the “average mindset” an advantage over the years, our political elites across all political parties have been promising more government-centred solutions instead of empowering individuals to take and drive the economy at the ground level. 

Making our people purely dependent on the Government has become the main economic policy followed by all mainstream political parties. Such a dystopian economic policy advocated by the political parties is based on number play and talk show screens where they point fingers at each other. The unique selling point of a political party’s economic policies have been the size of the relief package, number of government jobs, and glittery promises, which are beyond delivery under any realistic circumstances.

While political parties and politicians have taken our citizenry for a ride, the citizens themselves have evolved to live in an average world, with an “average mindset”. The composition of Sri Lanka’s Parliament, and the calibre and quality of our representatives in Parliament, is an equal representation of the vast majority of Sri Lankans. Both seem to lack a burning need/desire to get our economy on the right track.

Even someone with a political party affiliation would agree that the choice of candidates before us to exercise our franchise is extremely poor. However, considering the support base across for all political parties, we have to agree the choices that are provided are a fair representation of our people. 

Regardless of which government is in power, our economic policy has been more or less the same. Though there are micro changes in certain policies, in a wider spectrum, our way of economic management has been the same for over nearly two decades. Different governments came into power and pretty much the same faces ruled the country (crossovers between political parties) without having the courage to drive a serious economic reform plan. At certain junctions of our political economic history, economic reform plans were discussed by the people and policymakers. However, certain cross sections of society with vested interests chose their personal benefits and perks over the good of the nation and they did not allow any progressive plans to take off. 

We burnt days into years and years into decades just enjoying the events, stories, and dreams created by the people’s representatives themselves. They crossed over from one party to another, made controversial statements, the rest agreed and disagreed; we brought in new faces to politics, criticised each other, and to this day, the same circus continues.

As a consequence of being ardent fans of this drama, Sri Lanka has become older instead of becoming rich. Sri Lankans have trapped themselves in this drama at the cost of a hardworking route based on the free exchange of ideas and limited ourselves to a more inward-looking approach, giving up the journey to improve a country that aspires to have a higher standard of living.

We proudly scream the words: “Sri Lanka has been a developing country and will be a developing country for the rest of our lifetime.”

Instead of passing the blame onto politicians, we the people have always been less aspirational about overcoming the deteriorating economic conditions, and that is the very reason we have failed over and over again. 

Though our literacy rates are high, our economic education and exposure levels are very poor. Lack of proper English knowledge and major gaps in our education system complements this vicious cycle. As a direct outcome of these weaknesses, our voters are easily misled as they are not trained to analyse and evaluate information and have become victims of misinformation. As a matter of fact, our knowledge on matters of the economy has been significantly poor even though we produce a significant number of economic studies graduates in our higher education system. Their lack of a skill set to fit into our job market speaks volumes of the expired economic theory most of them have internalised after spending three to four years cramming and memorising. 

Whichever government that’ll be formed next week will have the same challenge of making Sri Lanka a developed nation. It is an economic reality, regardless of any party affiliation or any ideological affiliation, that we badly need to make our economy competitive.

Without bringing in the reforms to make our economy competitive and having the will and courage to pick the right policy choice to make it competitive, Sri Lanka will hardly have a future. The main problem why we can’t go for a serious economic programme is because our people simply do not want to. We have become victims of our own attitudes, behaviour, and misinformation. 

Only time will tell whether the new government has the will and courage for an economic reform plan. Irrespective of whether the government picks a strong and viable economic reform programme or not, our clock ticks faster and we have to live only with the hope that things will get better, till time really tells us.

No strategy will work until we work!