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Social Development might be the key to the Economy, Not Neo-liberalism

7% GDP growth is below our potential. The sluggishness might be due to social problems that require immediate attention.

As I write this, the whole country anticipates the appointment of the new cabinet of Sri Lanka. Following the outcome of the general elections held in August 2015, much controversy has arisen regarding finalized national lists and the main opposition. With the portfolios finalized soon and the parliament reinstated much has to be done. The new leadership has a great opportunity in hand and it is vital that they utilize these years to pursue effective strategies.

I read many posts by individuals voicing their ideas about what has to be done by the new cabinet. Everyone highlighted that corruption should be minimized, state institutions should be made more effective, government costs should be regulated and simply that good governance should triumph. I too intend to try my hand at this by pointing out the potential Sri Lanka has, to develop.

The excuse of a civil conflict no longer plagues political action. The due recognition of ending the conflict is given to respective individuals but no longer can political leaders turn to that factor as an excuse. I agree that a conflict of that scale is a hindrance for a country’s development and effective policy implementation, but it is not rare where we saw politicians use this to cover up tracks.

The country developed at a rate of 7% since the end of the war and I must say that it is commendable. But we could have done better. I say this after a personal assessment of certain policies that were implemented and at a neutral political stand point. So simply said, the new leadership has to minimize this margin of error.

The premier insisted that he is focused on economic growth of Sri Lanka. He intends to create economic zones in the country which would act as hubs. I would think that each hub would be specialized in few specific commodities and hence would be able to reap maximum benefits, as per standard economic theory of comparative advantage. Even though ‘new employment opportunities’ in these economic hubs are a good campaigning statement the underlying requirements to make this entire concept successful remains under stated.

In a previous post, I emphasized on the importance of education in today’s economy. To summarize my reasoning I would say that, ‘today we live in a knowledge based economy’, hence we need to focus on education. Even though developed countries went through a long phase of industrialization before they moved towards a service and knowledge based economy; it doesn’t hurt us to try to skip a few steps in the development trajectory to try to incorporate ourselves to the new shift. The new government should implement an inter-industry collaborative plan to industrialize key sectors while pushing towards enhancing education based economics within borders. Complex as it sounds it’s not actually that difficult as long as effective policies are formulated.

Universities and vocational training institutions play a vital role in providing the necessary labor force for the economic hubs yet to be established in the country. Volkswagen took the spotlight in Sri Lankan politics over the past few months and what really interested me about this investment was the technical training institute which will be established. Such institutes are key if we are to raise technical knowledge about industries among the country’s labor force, especially in the rural areas. Further these hubs need effective infrastructure to prove its economic importance. Do we have the necessary roads? Yes we do. Transportation of manufactured goods from these industrial towns have to be efficient and should be time saving. However with past improvements in the island’s road network the new government need not invest in that sector. So that’s one less thing to be done and hence should result in a faster output formation.

Apart from economic growth based on textbook liberal market strategies that the new government is prone to follow, it needs to take immediate steps to promote social cohesiveness; mainly between the former war torn areas with a Tamil majority and the rest of the country. The national youth survey of 2013 found that highest participants in the survey believed that ethnicity was the main dividing force in the country. This trend should be changed. I’m surprised by the lack of air time given by local media to report about issues in Northern and Eastern areas of the country. Steps need to be taken to minimize the gap between these factions. Empowering the youth in these areas and educating them of employment opportunities along with civil rights should be initiated. Even though narrow minded voices would scream at any attempt to reach out to the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, it is in fact the most important step towards solidifying peace. This would require special government supervision and dedication.

Public sector needs to be restructured completely and steps need to be taken to promote professionalism and efficiency. It can be said that any individual who would shirk during work hours in the public sector would work over time in the private sector. This difference in productivity is mainly due to the lack of incentives in the state sector and also the lack of proper regulation. Given Sri Lanka is home to a large state sector, it is important that every step is taken to promote core values of effective service. 2 hour lunch breaks, and two tea breaks is not the way to go. Proper regulation in this area will benefit the entire community.

Each of the above mentioned factors are important for development. In a scenario where the new government is able to answer these questions, the country will surely be positively rewarded. It shouldn’t go without mentioned that in case of a failure in certain aspects of governance these would be valuable years lost for the country. With the development race at full throttle countries try to capitalize on each possible factor. We live in a peaceful, literate, multinational country with great environmental resources, coasts all around and now a democratically elected government for the next 5 years. Each of these factors can and should be translated into development. It is easier than one might expect, as proper and careful policy formation and implementation is all it takes to take Sri Lanka to a golden era. The question is; will this government be successful at it?

About the author: Raveen Ubeysekera is a former student of D.S.Senanayake College Colombo, and is currently an undergraduate of the University of London, studying for his BSc in International Development. He was awarded a merit for his diploma in Social Sciences from the University of London during the first year of his degree. He acts as the editor of Global Affairs for the International Cauldron and writes on areas of globalization, politics, and development and complex emergencies.

Twitter: @raveen_ube

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