Policy choices in Sri Lanka. Five years. What next?

Jan 28, 2010 (LBO) – The first Choices column (link) was published on the 11th of February 2005. The decision to take time from an already overloaded schedule to write a monthly column (took me several years to get into that rhythm) was taken on the 27th of January 2005, the day that I hit bottom in terms of hope of economic development through good governance.

A lecture on e government that I had organized for a large number of senior government officials at the Sri Lanka Institute for Development Administration (a second in a series) was sabotaged by the ICT Agency. Here was an entity that had been set up to be something fundamentally different from a government organization, marking out turf in crudest manner and preventing SLIDA, the premier capacity-building organization for government officials for participating in the e Sri Lanka initiative. And this was just one month and one day after the tsunami. All hopes of the tsunami shocking us out of our dysfunctional ways evaporated. I wept for my country.

I decided that day to accept a long-standing invitation from LBO to write the column because I knew that the most fundamental thing for economic reform is not good law nor effective implementation, but changes in mindsets. What I had tried to do first at ICTA, then at SLIDA, I would do on a larger canvas; not just for government officials, but for all (or at least those who like business/economics stories).

Just clever new ideas were not enough. “Ideas actioned” were not enough. People needed to understand the ideas, debate them, change and make them their own.

So for five years and over some seventy columns, I have been trying to explain tradeoffs. I suggested to Ravaya that translates these columns and runs them under the heading Vikalpa, that we should use a different title: “Ravulada, Kendada?” The Sinhala version of having the cake and eating it.

The low to non-existent level of policy debate in the just concluded presidential election suggests that I’ve barely made a dent. That perhaps the issue is not about policy choices and tradeoffs at all, but a larger question of political culture.

In a longish article that was published elsewhere (constitution )and Transcurrents, modified headline) and which has been the subject of considerable discussion, I tried to identify this underlying factor that seemed to be influencing our myopic choices since Independence.  In one exchange link, I said that the presidential election was the field experiment to confirm my hypothesis that our people were feudal in outlook.

A significant majority seems to have voted for the candidate who did not differentiate himself from the state and who over the past four years selectively ignored the Constitution he had sworn to follow; whose campaign disregarded lawful directives from the Elections Commissioner and pretty much broke every rule in the book. The vote went to the antithesis of the rule of law. My hypothesis appears confirmed.

The question now is whether there any value in continuing to write about good governance, as in
Choices – statehood. There appears to be no market for this product.

Daniel Kaufmann of the World Bank has been vigorously propagating the thesis that good governance is a precondition for economic development. My writing and teaching on regulation for the most part fit into this framework. If good governance and effective regulation are preconditions, we surely are in trouble.

Mushtaq Khan of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) advances the opposite thesis. He concludes that fighting political corruption, or ensuring better electoral processes are good things but they will not solve the structural instability of democracy. . . . In the long run if stability can be maintained and economic growth continues advanced country variants of democracy will slowly emerge.” My recent work on policy and regulation that seeks to leverage business models resonates with this thinking.

In this light, perhaps the choice is to focus on actions that contribute to economic growth without asking too many questions about commissions and kick-backs. I do have an example Choices: Toll or troll?
from what I wrote in the past five years: I documented that there are large kickbacks in the Chinese-financed highways. But, the productive thing to do is to get the highways built and provide ideas on setting reasonable tolls and other ways of efficiently managing them and not carp excessively about the commissions.

What do my readers think?

Perhaps the column’s time has passed. There is a time and a place for everything. Perhaps this is not the time to be discussing policy tradeoffs. Perhaps Sri Lanka is not the place.

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka. To read previous columns go to the main navigation panel and click on ‘Choices’ category.