How good is Sri Lanka?

Nov 29, 2012 (LBO) – I came across a little index from The Economist that I tweeted about. I was surprised by the reaction: lots of retweets; even caused the ranks of my followers to swell. So it appears that the question addressed in the Index, “which country will be the best for a baby born in 2013?,” has great resonance.

I’ve always been interested in indicators, especially parsimonious ones. So, for example, I’ve always considered the net migration rate to be highly significant in assessing a country.

The fact that large numbers of people make the sacrifices necessary to leave their loved ones and familiar ways says something powerful about a country. Their actions speak far louder than endless reiterations of “Loken uthum rata Lankavayi.”

I had studied the Irish migration patterns that turned from net outflow to net inflow in the heyday of Celtic Tigerhood ( and then again to outflow in recent times.

It seems that the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), a sister company of The Economist, has taken a very serious approach to the problem with the above Index. It tries to answer systematically the question a Sri Lankan getting on an illegal boat headed for Australia answers with his or her gut.

Its quality-of-life index links the results of subjective life-satisfaction surveys—how happy people say they are—to objective determinants of the quality of life across countries. Being rich helps more than anything else, but it is not all that counts; things like crime, trust in public institutions and the health of family life matter too. In all, the index takes 11 statistically significant indicators into account. They are a mixed bunch: some are fixed factors, such as geography; others change only very slowly over time (demography, many social and cultural characteristics); and some factors depend on policies and the state of the world economy.

A forward-looking element comes into play, too. Although many of the drivers of the quality of life are slow-changing, for this ranking some variables, such as income per head, need to be forecast. We use the EIU’s economic forecasts to 2030, which is roughly when children born in 2013 will reach adulthood.

So, first the good news.

Of the 80 ranked countries, Sri Lanka shares 63rd place with the Philippines. It is three places above India (66th), five ahead of Vietnam (68th) and eight ahead of Indonesia (71st). Bangladesh, despite remarkable progress in recent times, is 77th, just two places behind troubled Pakistan (75th). So of all the SAARC countries that have been measured, Sri Lanka is number one.

The only country that is likely to be ahead, if measured, is the microstate of Bhutan, a fast growing economy with a strong bureaucracy and “Gross National Happiness” as the national brand.

But that is still 63rd out of 80. Back of the class. We are 13 places behind Thailand (50th) despite that country’s dysfunctional Red-Yellow polarization, floods and what not.

We are 11 places behind the Dominican Republic, which has the economic and demographic profile most like Sri Lanka. South Korea, a country we used to name our slums after in the 1960s, is in 19th place, just three below the US. And Singapore, which used to look to Sri Lanka as a model, is highest ranked in all of Asia at 6th place.

Thailand illustrates the value of my favored indicator of net migration rate. Despite the proliferation of Thai takeout, it is still rare for Thais to leave their country. Even the few who do are more than balanced out by in-migration from Myanmar and other neighbors.

Just eye-balling it, the only country that is high in the list that has significant numbers trying to leave is Mexico (39th). But it may be an anomaly because of the proximity to the US. And in any case, I understand the rate has slowed down since the Great Recession.

Cuba too is an anomaly. The fact that half the country will leave if given a chance is well known. What is surprising is that Cuba ranks so high (40th), above even China (49th).

Putin’s Russia is ranked 72nd, the last among the BRICS and well below Sri Lanka. I don’t know what to make of that, seriously.

Other than feel good, I suppose. As a frequent traveler in South Asia, I always come back to a good feeling about Sri Lanka. That is confirmed by this Index.

But it would be nice to get out of the fourth quartile in my life time. That is not too hard. 63 to 59, overtaking the Philippines, El Salvador, Bulgaria and Egypt . . .. Then, maybe, the multi-day fishing vessels will go fishing and nothing else. And my people will willingly stay in this beautiful country.

Rohan Samarajiva heads LirneAsia, a regional think tank. He was also a former telecoms regulator in Sri Lanka.
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