A decade is a long period in a fast moving world. It is particularly long in a country like Sri Lanka that lost nearly three decades for a destructive and destabilizing war. Whereas the last ten years since the end of the war would have been spent for national reconstruction, an increasingly dictatorial regime virtually closed off all possibilities for meaningful, equitable and sustainable national development.
The war was essentially a costly affair, in every sense of the term. Much of the country’s public finances had to be devoted to finance the war. The loss of economic opportunities and the exodus of valuable human resources due to the conflict set the economy back by several decades. The end of the war would have helped the country to mobilize public finances and human resources necessary for national development but the increasingly dictatorial nature of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime did not leave much space for rational decision making with respect to the allocation of public finances, mobilisation of foreign capital and much needed human resource development. The overwhelming emphasis on pet projects of the regime and physical infrastructure development left very little room for public investments that would have laid the foundation for sustainable and employment intensive development.
History has shown that reason is one of the first casualties of the decline of democracy. For dictatorship leaves little space for critical public discourse and knowledge-based decision-making, though the country saw the rise of a largely World Bank inspired discourse on knowledge economy, it was little more than empty rhetoric. While the Ministry of Science and Technology developed an elaborate plan for the development of S &T infrastructure in the country to facilitate the transition from labour-intensive to technology-intensive industrialisation, the government did not show much interest in the substance of the plan. The Minister in charge of science and technology would have resigned immediately in protest, at least to educate the public, but he waited till he was ‘removed’ from office. There was not even a murmur from the ‘Minister concerned so that the general public was denied the opportunity of learning about the true situation in the country.
Dictators naturally select their advisors and officials on the basis of political loyalty. These officials and advisors in turn tell their leaders what they want to hear. The direct and indirect control over the media does the rest. The public discourse becomes one sided, partisan and biased. This is what the people in this country witnessed for ten years, until the former regime came to an end at the beginning of this year. The story repeated in the mainstream media, particularly the ones controlled and micro-managed by the rulers was that the country was well on its way to becoming the miracle of Asia, surpassing all other countries in the region. All this is thanks to the “original thoughts” of the leader. All public officers, ruling party politicians, many academics and even key people from the institutional institutions without fail referred to ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ in their public speeches.
Today, many people question the economic viability, and sustainability of most of the pet projects financed by foreign investors and the government. This is beside the massive opportunity costs involved in such investments.
If not for the dictatorial nature of the regime, there would have been greater participation of politicians, technically qualified people and concerned citizens in the deliberations on development priorities and the allocation of public finances including the mobilisation of foreign capital. Though the present writer from time to time pointed out the need for national planning to determine national priorities, such ideas had no use for the rulers, public officials and advisors who were convinced that they knew better.
Now, after the fall of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, there is more democratic space in the country again. So it is possible to discuss development and other issues in a freer environment. But, what is equally important is to establish an appropriate official forum at the highest level where national development issues could be deliberated on the basis of knowledge, information and new ideas.
The idea of national planning is not new even in this country. It goes back to at least the early 1950’s. But, with the dawn of free-market capitalism, the role of the state in economic and social planning became less and less important. Economic development council that was established in the mid 1990’s became virtually defunct in later years and we did not hear about it during the MR regime. This is understandable in view of what was discussed earlier in the article.
The question that arises today is whether the new rulers want to follow the same ad hoc approach to decision-making or wish to follow a more systematic path to economic and social development. If the latter is the answer then, they need to take steps to revamp national planning, either by reviving the pre-existing economic development council or even better, establish a National Planning Commission as an inter-sectoral and inter-disciplinary forum where national development issues would be deliberated by a wide-ranging group of panelists representing different areas. Such an arrangement would help political leaders to get acquainted with more systematic policy analysis and various policy options available for the country. If their decisions are guided by ideas and proposals emanating from a well constituted national council, people who voted for democracy and good governance will be able to look forward to a better future.
A timely message... All concerned should take good notice of what is said and pointed out by this writer. All efforts must be made to focus on these valuable suggestions without wasting any more time. This is one of the best time we are going through. Eighter decide and go forward or talk of communal politics and lag behind for ever Sri Lankans!
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