Text of an inaugural presentation at the Fifth South Asia Economic Summit on Making Growth Inclusive and Sustainable in South Asia.

Islamabad, 11th September 2012

I am grateful to the Sustainable Development Policy Institute of Pakistan for inviting me to this Summit, and giving me an opportunity to discuss its theme in relation to Sri Lanka. As you are aware, Sri Lanka recently came out of decades of conflict which had impaired economic development, and in particular the promotion of equity in such development.

Comparatively speaking Sri Lanka in fact did reasonably well with regard to growth, except when there were grave problems, as in 2001. However that growth was lopsided, with almost all the increase in wealth that has propelled us upward from being a low income country into middle income status occurring in the Western Province. Since it was such lopsided development that contributed to a series of youth insurrections in the last four decades, it is vital that we correct this imbalance if we are not to face further disruptive unrest in the future.

Two of those insurrections were by Sinhalese youngsters in the south of the country, which indicates that the neglect from which the majority Tamil northern province and the majority Tamil speaking Eastern province was not deliberate. However, in a context in which decisions are made through a majoritarian system of government, it is understandable that shortcomings as to developmental activity were attributed to racism. It is vital therefore that government not only ensures positive developments in the North and East, as well as in other previously neglected regions, but takes steps to institutionalize these by ensuring decision making processes that respond rapidly, not only to people’s needs, but also to their aspirations.

I should note that this is being attempted, not least I suspect because the present Head of Government in Sri Lanka is the first elected leader who is not from the Western Province. Obviously such origins are not a requirement for commitment to rural development, and we have had I think three leaders in the past who devoted a lot of time and energy to promoting equity. But their perspectives were limited by a centralized vision, so that there was inadequate attention to promoting local participation in the development process.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in an area you have highlighted in your Concept Paper, namely that ‘inequality in education continues to keep societies poor’. There was a valiant attempt by a visionary Minister of Education in the thirties – when the British ran what they thought were the important departments of government, but had allowed us executive power in some areas – to develop centres of excellence in what then seemed regional hubs. But no effort was made to expand these as the demand for education grew, and indeed the quality of the service they provided declined in comparison to what is available in Colombo and a couple of other major towns.

With regard to universities, moving out of Colombo and Kandy did not happen for 25 years after independence, in contrast for instance with the brilliant idea of Institutes of Technology which India set up promptly all over that country. By the time we set up universities in every province, a process which was completed just a decade back, the staff and the courses these new institutions could offer were stuck in a time warp that precluded job oriented training. In short we were stuck with the old exclusive British model of tertiary education, which the British have themselves long abandoned.

We have also suffered immensely from a statist approach to education. When, through the government elected in 1977, we moved together with several other countries out of the command economy model which our politicians who came to maturity in the thirties had absorbed, we privatized mainly the business sector. Allowing private or non-profit agencies to work in education was considered taboo, though interestingly enough this has been permitted in the health sector, which continues to flourish. While we were distinguished in South Asia fifty years ago for our excellent health and education indicators, we still continue to provide better services than I think all the rest in health. In education, though our literacy and schooling figures are still comparatively excellent, we have rested on our laurels, and produce nothing at the top end of the scale that can compare with what other South Asian countries have achieved.

After the commitment of both state and the private non-profit sector to supply a good education turned into the establishment of a state monopoly, a rot set in. The state simply could not supply enough, and maintain high quality, so we now have the ludicrous situation of additional supply being provided by international schools and by tutories. Unfortunately our doctrinaire statists object to the former, and allow the latter full rein, even though they disrupt the school system even more destructively, given that many school teachers give tuition and expect their students to come to their classes to get what is not given in school.

Vested interests thus prevent the radical reforms that are required. Fortunately perhaps, the situation has declined so dramatically that there is a general consensus now that change is essential, and this theme has now been taken up by urban interest groups too. The quiet sustained suffering of rural areas will therefore I hope be alleviated soon. Certainly, at the Divisional level Reconciliation Committees I have set up in the North and East, complaints about education form a high proportion of the complaints made and contribute to continuing resentments, which it would be so easy to overcome.

Two specific complaints highlight the problem. The first, pervasive at all meetings, is the shortage of teachers for English and Science and Maths. I explain that this is true nationwide, but I can understand the point of view of Tamil communities that, if successive governments have failed to deal with this problem for six decades, those who did not vote for any of them should be given a chance to develop their own systems. Better still would be for government to abandon its monolithic hold on teacher training, and allow other suppliers to move in and perhaps do better than government does, in terms of quality as well as outreach. But government continues to stick to methods that have failed repeatedly, with each successive Minister of Education implying that he will achieve what his predecessors failed to do, without understanding that such protracted failure indicates that the system is at fault, not everyone else who has gone before.

We continue then to let our people down, since, as your Concept Paper puts it, ‘plan and policy formulators still have not given due importance to social capital’. This is apparent, and perhaps more upsettingly so, in another area brought to my attention, when a representative of a Women’s Rural Development Society in a remote Division in the North told me that they needed training in marketing. The population was generally appreciative of what government had done to get agriculture going again so swiftly in an areas ravaged by war, the mine clearing, the irrigation work and the road building to improve connectivity that I believe we did more quickly than any other country that had suffered from such a conflict. But we did not do enough to ensure that the perennial problem of our farmers, exploitation by middlemen who pay them little and then make huge profits on a good harvest, was overcome.

Modern farming communities need training, in marketing and value addition, which requires better numeracy and communication skills as well as technical support. We have to do much more in this regard if the immense infrastructural input we have supplied is to lead to rural communities being benefited as they deserve.

Unfortunately we have not moved as swiftly as we should with the high level technical and vocational training that is needed. Our universities still cling to outdated notions of academic excellence, and even the Vocational and Technical University that was set up to overcome this problem has not developed courses that also provide soft skills that could, on a modular basis, allow technicians to obtain degrees. Students have often to travel miles to follow courses in wiring and plumbing, which means that outsiders often get jobs in the construction work that government and other agencies have engaged in at prolific levels to build up the region.

Three years ago, when the reconstruction began, we failed to plan comprehensively, and in particular to work on developing human capital. Perhaps we thought that, as had happened in the East, the development of infrastructure and connectivity would stimulate business activity and promote prosperity for all. But, though that worked satisfactorily enough, and the East is certainly a much more prosperous area than previously, we have not done enough to ensure productive employment for younger generations that now have enhanced expectations. And in the war torn areas of the North, where human resources development did not take place to any appreciable extent, given the practice of the LTTE of treating all youngsters, except for a selected elite few, as cannon fodder, we should have seen the need for much concerted effort.

What the last few decades have taught us emphatically is that the trickle down effect does not take place in less developed societies (and I suspect elsewhere too, though it might be masked better there), without state intervention and support to promote equity. For this purpose education and training has to be modern and comprehensive, with careful attention to the soft skills, of communication and inter-personal relations and general awareness that are essential for employment anywhere and everywhere in the world. Initiative, entrepreneurship, management, presentation skills, should all be made available.

At a recent workshop of Globalization I recall Senator Pimentel of the Philippines pointing out how the West was anxious for free trade of goods and services and finances, but resolutely opposed the free movement of labour. He noted that they pushed globalization with regard to what they were good at, and suggested that we should question this, and push for globalization of what we are good at, namely people. I believe that we should promote that as policy for all our governments, but we should also ensure that governments serve that great asset better, by enhancing knowledge and skills and capacities as best possible. Without that growth will not be inclusive, and it certainly will not be sustained.

Daily News 18 September 2012 – http://www.dailynews.lk/2012/09/18/fea01.asp