Dr de Silva’s interventions, along with those of Fuss Budget’s Thrift Column in LBO, served the country well. In particular business and the asset-poor benefited. While LIRNEasia would like to take credit for this stunning achievement, it cannot. Dr de Silva was our Lead Economist, only part of the time. He did all his macro-economic work in the rest of his time. That subject falls outside the remit of LIRNEasia, however broadly defined.
His other great achievement was in advancing the understanding of the role of information in agricultural markets and contributing to well-designed applications that mobilize ICTs, especially the now almost ubiquitous mobiles, to reduce the frictions that characterize the agricultural value chains.Here, LIRNEasia has played a role, but we cannot claim credit for getting Dr de Silva started on this path, or even for the majority of the work. He started investigating the functioning of a specialized agricultural market, the market for tea, back around 2000, after selling his share of ORG MARG Smart, the company that he co-founded upon his return from his studies in the US. That company is today Sri Lanka’s leading market-research firm, Nielsen Lanka. Given the contributions Nielsen and its predecessor firms make to informed policy formulation in Sri Lanka, this too can be listed as one of his contributions to Sri Lanka as a policy intellectual.
Dr de Silva was responsible for one of the successful pilot projects funded under the eSri Lanka initiative, in 2003. This was the beginning of Govi Gnana Seva (GGS), centered on the Dedicated Economic Center in Dambulla, the country’s largest wholesale market for agricultural produce. The ICT Agency was very pleased with the success of the project, especially when it received the highest evaluation. But the funding did not continue.
Dr de Silva kept the project going, paying the salaries of the workers out of his own pocket and twisting the arms of companies and organizations to assist with some of the technical functions. While the project could not be continued at the previous levels, the basic data collection continued, with GGS becoming the source of daily price reports given out by Sirasa FM and being even picked up for free by government organizations. It was at this point that LIRNEasia entered the picture, funding some exploratory research on transaction and information costs in agri-markets in the Dambulla area.
The research got written up, people started citing Dr Harsha de Silva in papers and proposals, and appointing him to international research advisory boards and such. Now some of the key ideas developed in this stream of research are being incorporated into the design of commercial services. Another great achievement of Harsha de Silva the policy intellectual.
But the work of a policy intellectual is never done. The UNF manifesto included a section on the necessity for forward contracts and better market design in agriculture. Without question, the policy debate has to be shifted from the easy focus on spot markets to forward markets. We know that Dr de Silva will use the bully pulpit afforded by his seat in Parliament to advance the debate on improving agricultural value chains and ensuring that the people who grow our food do not remain in poverty. Inflation is creeping up again and his informed voice is still needed on the macro-economic front.
I congratulate the Leader of the Opposition on his decision to include professionals such as Dr Harsha de Silva and Mr Eran Wickramaratne (the founding Chair of the ICT Agency and a key proponent of the eSri Lanka initiative) in the National List, honoring the intent of the Constitution. We urge the President and the ruling party to draw upon their considerable knowledge and experience to solve the pressing problems besetting our people.
Rohan Samarajiva, Chair and CEO of LIRNEasia
Cape Town, 21 April 2010