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Getting priorities right for Sri Lanka post 2020


31 October 2019 08:11 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Indonesian President Jokowi, who was re-elected for a second term, has made start-up founder Nadiem Makarim the country’s Education Minister. The minister was quick to say that Indonesia thrives on talent and if Indonesia is to produce more high-quality talent, the country’s educational system is going to have to undergo a transformation just like the one that began on the streets of Jakarta in 2010.

He said, “Our schools and academic institutions are going to have to meet the demands of our future economy.”

In addition to education, he said greater support for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) will directly improve the livelihoods of lower middle class. Several governments in Sri Lanka have actively created avenues to support SME investment, including providing tax concessions where possible. 

However, credit for SMEs from banks has been in short supply according to President Maithripala Sirisena, where loans and other long-term funds have generally been hard to come by for many reasons. Therefore, support for SMEs – agriculture, healthcare and education, has to be bumped up. 

Education is another key sector that needs new type of investments, given the inadequate reach. Technological innovation in the educational sector will produce ‘bots’ or robots that can teach and answer questions in real time, as automated student advisors, this will take place within the next 10 years. The country is not geared to support such innovations. Therefore, the specific sustainable development goals to be adopted must be made clear. 

Sustainable development requires sound economic governance and a focused domestic policy framework to facilitate inclusive growth and thereby advance the economic, environmental and social welfare of all our people. The benefits of economic growth have to be more widely distributed because inclusive growth is the cornerstone of sustainable development. 

Mainstreaming sustainability considerations in policymaking will, in turn, support inclusiveness. We need measures to reduce extreme poverty in many of our regions, along with broader development. But much work remains to be done because higher growth is contingent on strong and sustained domestic reforms. 

Structural weaknesses, such as poor infrastructure, low investment in education, low productivity and huge social deficits unless addressed, would prevent us from reducing our levels of poverty.


Important lesson
The important lesson of recent decades is that although economic growth is vital and necessary, it is not enough to create shared and sustainable prosperity. That requires shifting the focus of development policies to address not only ‘inequalities of income’ but also ‘inequalities of opportunity’. This distinction is important because different kinds of deprivation reinforce each other. 

Lack of access to adequate healthcare, basic nutrition, clean drinking water, better sanitation and quality education, for example, can harm people’s employment prospects, widening the gap even further between the haves and have-nots and creating a vicious spiral of inequality. For sustainable development to succeed, growth must be made more inclusive, by addressing social and environmental deficits. 

It is essential for the government to launch integrated and well-designed packages of inclusive policies to boost opportunities for productive employment and job security, equitable access to finance and to provide adequate access to basic services, such as education, healthcare, energy and water. 

Addressing the shortcomings of inclusive growth, together with prudent and consistent management of risk to growth, has to be a key part of our country’s transformation for the real sustainable future the people want. 


What Sri Lanka needs
The package of reforms proposed by the two main presidential candidates – Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa, needs to be very clear about how they plan to address these critical issues. Both candidates talk of a new deal and shared prosperity. 

Premadasa is fully committed to inclusive growth, while Rajapakse has been more focused on the security of the nation. 

There should be no additional indirect taxes passed on to the poor. Wasteful and unproductive public expenditure has to be curtailed; public institutions have to be more efficient and demand-driven; public enterprises have to be on equal-footing with private enterprises. When it comes to managing our debt burden, the strategy must be to reduce our commercial borrowings and make the debt stock manageable. 

Tax collection has to be fair and efficient. Then for years we have lived on a fragile exchange rate. Weak external finances clearly show the vulnerability of our exchange rate. In the current account of our balance of payments, it should be the export potential that should reflect the country’s productive strength. But, for years our net exports have shown a deficit, which is covered by worker remittance. These are surely not signs of economic and social prosperity. All this needs to change. 

Unless the next president initiates a clear course of action with targets, nothing will change in the country and we will remain a lower-middle-income country.
(Dinesh Weerakkody is a thought leader)


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