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.