Photo courtesy Beyond Borders

The Sri Lankan government shut down state universities on the 23rd of August in a bid to prevent an “Academic Spring”, rising amidst calls for 6% of GDP to be spent on Education. Other countries in the region spend between 3-6% of GDP on education. Academics have been on strike, exam papers remain unmarked and student’s have no indication of the trajectory of this stalemate; effectively leaving them in limbo.

For Sri-Lanka this is not good news, because in the past we have seen both the ignition of the ethnic conflict and the JVP insurrections stemming from Universities. It is therefore a hotbed; but for what? These students are either being fed with crazy ideals, of terrorism or nationalism or as in the present case, their right to a competitive education and opportunity. Since 2005, Government spending on Education has been reduced from 2.9% of GDP to 1.9%, whilst in the meantime Sri-lanka has secured infrastructure development projects that are providing below marginal returns and are only increasing foreign debt servicing.  Reading the Mahinda Chintana which is the current Government’s roadmap to development, we can see that the focus for Sri-lanka’s development efforts are placed on manufacturing, harbours, electricity, and villages. Their successes are all debatable to varying degrees. The document however has completely glossed over and disregarded our greatest national asset even after a 30 year civil conflict; YOUTH.

Here is a signal for the average lankan. If any government truly cares about the long term development capacity of a country it would invest in its social capital by producing policies that increase investment in youth and most importantly give youth a chance to exercise their citizenship.

Invest in youth! Unlike many other countries in the developing world Sri-lanka has a very high literacy rate ranging from 91%-94%, this provides the government with a resource pool that is already educated to a certain degree but needs the skills and knowledge to make the leap in order to sustain middle-class incomes. . If a government is committed to reducing poverty then it needs to increase and enhance opportunities that are presented to create employment. Youth is Sri Lanka’s biggest resource, and government policy that threatens to keep youth uneducated and employed in jobs that are below their capabilities will most definitely lead to further manifestations of conflict given the volatile situation of Sri-lanka’s Universities. This can lead to socio-economic instability as youth become more frustrated.

Youth is when people begin to be heard and establish identities as individuals while they begin to interact independently with the community around them and begin to either be a positive or negative influence on their environment.

The problem with Sri-lanka is that the onus is not on being liberal. The mere existence of competitive elections does not mean that the institution is free and fair. Democracy is essentially the process of election and therefore even a Hitler could be elected through the democratic process. If we are to have true democracy and development then it is the youth that needs to be capable to make the difference. The current generation that has wrath war and terror in Sri Lanka is over. You cannot leave it to warmongers to perpetuate peace. For them peace, is merely the absence of war but for youth, peace is much more than that, it is the ability to have a fulfilled, free life of hope and enablement.

The way to create a better democratic institution is to emphasise citizenship. If youth have greater political participation then they will be able to see how to hold public officials accountable, demand justice, and be tolerant of others. There must be meaningful civic engagement so that youth can see how they should run the country in the future and what vacuums exist to be filled by novel technology and ideas. If the Government was genuine and smart, it would involve youth in universities and communities in the dialogue of the country’s future.They need to be given a voice for grievances and subsequent change. Formal political participation and involvement in social organizations are essential for good governance which works two fold as this paves the way for increased investment and growth. 8% growth rates mean nothing when only the rich are getting richer and there is no overall benefit for all cohorts of society. The Mahinda Chintana endorses youth to take up employment outside the country, which means there is further brain drain and migration. Thus even if policies that attempt to harness the social capital of the nation are put forward we would not have the skilled labour required in order to equip these policies.

The other way that youth can be mobilized especially in this day and age of Twitter and Facebook is through collective action. Make youth responsible for their environment. This is the best way to manage schools, forests, public parks, community centres, recreational facilities etc. When there is a sense of community and ownership that is delegated to youth they assume a sense of purpose, responsibility and accountability that are important characteristics that need to be cultivated for future leaders. If they do not feel responsible for their surroundings and if their voices are absent from community they are more susceptible to take on negative often nefarious social roles, such as gang membership, drugs and political violence.   In fact, giving youth a voice through civic participation and formal recognition through policy implications may be of greater national consequence than the right to vote as collective bargaining can yield better results in areas like public services than top down policy approaches.

Increasing youth participation has further positive externalities on development. As youth become more educated and aware, the social and human capital of the country increases, this means that international companies see an asset that they can tap into for service oriented industries. Many companies that have fair-trade and corporate social responsibility platforms will be more inclined to invest if they know that there is a stable pool of educated labour that is protected by political processes.

Between 1984 and 1996 alone the civil war cost Sri-lanka most of its tourists and roughly $2.8 billion at 1996 prices in lost revenue, representing 23% of GDP. However what cannot be measured is the total cost of the war in terms of lost human capital, brain drain, degradation of institutional accountability and investment. This burden is the burden of the youth in the future as they do not have the social infrastructure to live peaceful, productive fulfilled lives since they haven’t been equipped with the tools for it.

Institutions that sincerely care about democratic principles will attempt to foster the futures of young people by equipping them with belief, opportunity, hope and active citizenship. Instead, what young people find as evident in Sri-lanka is that they are excluded from citizenship, this makes them more cynical and less willing to participate in what they perceive is a corrupt system that protects only the privileges of the privileged. In many countries, state power has been devolved and decentralized so that politics is sub-national. This allows for greater participation by youth who find it easier to work in their communities instead of having to move to major cities in order to get their voice heard. This may be one path to increasing reconciliation in Sri-Lanka as youth in local areas can find community based solutions to their problems.

But yes, this is ambitious and optimistic. Mainly, because in order to promote such policies there would be a need to have a proper functioning democracy that has a competitive voting platform, so that the true feelings of the populace are reflected in voting outcomes. Sri Lankans should not have to choose the “lesser evil” or the “known devil” anymore, instead they HAVE to have the choice in the future of the right candidate for the future of the youth.   This needs to be structured within a constitutional framework that does not empower one man more than our government has empowered our incumbent President. The direction of many African states after independence and conflict has been to fatten the coffers of the elite in the cities with aid remittances whilst further impoverishing large tracts of the population. Similarly hood winking the capital of Sri Lanka with rugby games, Bollywood award nights, cricket, appearances in glossy magazines and attendance at weddings, in a bid to take the focus away from our ever depreciating social capital will not bode well in the long term for the current government.

In the end it must not matter what government we have, and who our President is, all that matters must be that at least now after 30 years of civil war; we the youth have a REAL chance.

  • Ward

    1.There seems to be a confusion between the 30 years of conflict in the second para and 30 years of war in the last para. It’s 64 years of conflict and 30 years of war.

    2. There seems to be a misunderstanding that lack of development is the cause of the conflict

    • Neville Perera

      If the adults stop lying, the youth are very likely to find a way out of the mess.

  • Ward

    Awareness of the 64-yr political oppression leading to economic, social,cultural and environmental degradation of ethnic minorities is absent. This leads to the assumption:

    ”both the ignition of the ethnic conflict and the JVP insurrections stemming from Universities. It is therefore a hotbed”.

  • author

    1. yes indeed 64 conflict vs 30 yr war. Length of conflict is not of significance here to the youth as it is their future that is of concern here- it is the last 30 years which would have deprived the current generation of youth and those in their early/ late 20’s.

    2. the article is not concerned about the past conflict instead it focuses on the future; lack of development NOW will lead to conflict in the future as (youth become more frustrated) but perhaps not ethnic or may be? that may be in the hands of the government?… 🙂
    thank you for the feedback

    • Ward

      We all want the youth to have a good future – different from what we’ve been having in the last 64 yrs. Surely the ongoing conflict is a reflection of the unchanging mindset and a block to that goal. Hence we need to resolve the conflict. The conflict is the result of bad governance. So we need to change the governance to resolve the conflict so that the youth can have a good future.

      • silva

        In the absence of Democracy and Rule of Law, how can our children and grandchildren have prosperity:

        An Ideology of Reconciliation Cannot be Built Without Basic Ingredients of Democracy and Rule of Law, Dr. Deepika Udagama (Head, Department of Law, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka), 15 August 2012,

  • Sie.Kathieravealu

    A good analysis. Youth is the FOUNDATION in the development of the country. Development includes various categories like social, economical, physical, mental and much more.

    Present day development is making the rich richer ignoring the poor thus making them poorer.

    But the recent PC election results show that the people including the poor made poorer and the youth deprived of education do support the policies of the Government.

    So where does the country stand in terms of Youth Development?

  • Citizen

    For a country to develop there must be investment in human capital. Knowledge, Education,Skills and Development go hand in hand. Without human enterprise development of infrastructure is of no use. Govt needs to understand this situation and invest in education, vocational training and research & development.

    The youth of this country need to be given a fair deal. Not only those sons of politicians but the children of all Sri Lankans. Nowadays even the Foreign Govt Schols are not advertised and are being grabbed by our politikkas. Local universities sre for the hoi poloi while politicians send their children abroad to the best universities.

    Local universities and schools are used to brainwash children to become mindless subserviant zombies who will prostrate and lick the boots of our politikkas. Thats what this leadership training is all about. Discipline them, Tear gas them, lock them up and thrash them into submission seems to be the attitude of our Ministers.

  • luxmy

    There is support for the youth:

    ”………… Another cause of concern is the educational system, to which the government of Colombo responded closing universities after the failure of negotiations. The Catholic UCANEWS agency reports that teachers have been on a strike for over two months. Unions, religious figures and students are taking the streets against budget cuts that undercut the public education sector: it went from 0.52% in 2005 to a current 0.27%. “The government must deal with the issues raised by the professors without delay because Sri Lanka’s young people are paying the price”, warns the CBCSL” – Sri Lanka: Bishops Denounce Human Rights Violations And Education Void, 8 September 2012,

  • The youth can join the NIL BALAKAYA of Namal and the THARUNAYATA HETAK for their expression and participation. These organisations are actively recruiting the young. Gota is giving leadership training for university freshmen so that the younger generation will be a subservient brainwashed set of zombies like in North Korea the pathway SL is taking if the population do not take remedial action soon by way of dumping the stupid presidential system and this is the root cause of all the ills and the massive corruption that is prevalent.