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The Presidential Election in Sri Lanka is due on 08 January 2015. This article argues the case for three critical policy priorities to steer Sri Lanka into an inclusive new era.

Economic Empowerment of the Youths

There is a critical mismatch between supply of the education sector (primary, secondary, and tertiary) and the demand of the labour market in Sri Lanka. In spite of significant expansion of and access to primary and secondary education in Sri Lanka since independence, poor quality and lagging relevance of such education has resulted in non-competitive cognitive skills of the labour force. Paradoxically and unfortunately high level of educated youth unemployment in Sri Lanka coexists with unmet demand for skilled labour in various fields and in various parts of the country. It is clearly evident that the education sector in Sri Lanka is supply-driven rather than demand-driven. Resources (financial, human, and material) are allocated based on inputs (e.g. number of students enrolled, variety of courses offered, etc) rather than outputs/outcomes (number of pass-outs, employment after qualifying/training, salaries of passed-out pupils, etc).

The welfare-state fostered by the successive post-independence governments has embedded a dependency culture on the people where goods (e.g. subsidised inputs like fertilizers to producers and subsidised consumption goods like rice and wheat to consumers) and services (e.g. universal free education and universal free health services) are demanded from the state as a RIGHT rather than inculcating a culture of RESPONSIBILITY (promoting a culture of work ethic) to incentivise citizens to earn to purchase consumption goods and services.

This welfare-state inspired development model has always promoted quantity over quality. That is, broadening accessibility is prioritised over deepening excellence. Every year the government strives to increase the total number of intake to public universities and professional and technical colleges; once in a way the government strives to increase the number of further or higher education institutions as well in order to facilitate the increase in the total number of intake. The foregoing is necessary but NOT AT ALL sufficient to enhance the competitiveness of the Sri Lankan economy. In spite of the emphasis on increasing the quantity of intake through universal free education from grade one to undergraduate degree level, the share of the population in the country with secondary or tertiary qualification is very low.

The cardinal principle on which the strategy herein is proposed is to foster QUALITY education and skills trainings. This quality is envisaged in terms of international benchmarks so that an internationally competitive labour force is created over time. The quality enhancement should take place both among the teachers as well as the students. Of course, quality improvements entail additional cost (and so does quantity increase). It would be ideal if the quality could be improved at the same time as the quantity is increased. If a critical choice has to be made between the two (for example, due to public resource constraints) then this author would choose quality improvement over quantity increase. Since the services sector dominates the national economy it is high time to promote the service culture which entails attitudinal changes among teachers and students alike.

The overarching goals and proposals outlined herein are based on the author’s knowledge of the macroeconomic development of the national economy in recent times, especially constantly declining share of the government revenue as a share of the GDP and the consequent ever shrinking fiscal space, and the government’s policy shift towards abandoning the monopoly of the state in the provision of higher (post secondary school) education and inculcating competitiveness into higher education.

The business of primary, secondary and tertiary education (further and higher education) and learning cannot and should not be business as usual in Sri Lanka. There is a long-felt need for complete overhaul of the metamorphosis of the education and learning sector. Quantity is priced over quality in primary, secondary, and tertiary education which has been the bane of education policy in Sri Lanka during the post-independence period, especially after 1956. Thus, the outreach of schools and further and higher educational institutions to the nooks and corners of the country has been the goal of successive government policies rather than enhancing the quality and relevance of schools and further and higher education institutions. Technical colleges and vocational training institutions, Law College, accountancy institutes, computer studies institutes, etc, are generally referred to as ‘further’ educational institutions and universities are generally referred to as ‘higher’ educational institutions.

The government’s role (through the University Grants Commission – UGC and the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission – TVEC) should be limited to policy development, institution of international standards, financing, monitoring, and evaluation. In all the foregoing functions (especially on policy development and institution of international standards), core stakeholders, namely employers and industrialists in the private sector and representatives of students, should play an active role. The provision of education and training should be subject to accountability, competition, and outcome/performance-based compensation to educators and trainers.

Given the ever shrinking fiscal space the state cannot continue to be the overwhelming provider of relevant and quality primary, secondary, and tertiary education (including the Technical and Vocational Education and Training – TVET) in Sri Lanka. Swift promotion, incentivisation, and facilitation of the private sector to become the leading or primary provider of educational services are sine qua non for Sri Lanka to transition from a low-paid labour intensive, public sector led, patronage-based, and factor-driven economy into a higher-paid capital intensive, private sector led, merit-based, and efficiency-driven economy of the twenty-first century.

The decision-making powers of the Universities Grants Commission (UGC) and the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission (TVEC) should be swiftly transferred to individual universities and technical and vocational education and training institutions throughout the country. Devolution of administrative (selection of heads of technical colleges/institutes, hiring of teachers/trainers, etc), course/curriculum-development (courses/trainings offered and the contents of such courses/trainings), and financial (determination of salary for academic staff, course fees to be charged, etc) powers to the individual universities and vocational and technical colleges and training centres would spur innovative demand-driven and outcomes-based university and vocational and technical education service provision in the country. Individual university and tertiary education institution should independently and autonomously decide on the criteria for selection of teaching staff and students, how much each staff should be paid (solely and strictly based on performance), and how much course fee to be levied (gratis to really needy students).

Under-qualified and/or incompetent teachers have been hired to keep the public education system (school as well as tertiary) running. These teachers have been made permanent public employees over time; which has become a vicious cycle of poor quality teachers producing poor quality students who in turn become teachers and produce poor quality students. It not only costs scarce public monetary resources to pay for these teachers but even more critically these teachers have caused poor outcomes of their students, which is a double jeopardy for the country. The under-qualified and/or incompetent teachers should be relieved of their teaching jobs or reassigned to other public sector jobs but the government should continue to pay their salaries until retirement in order to make the process politically acceptable and manageable; voluntary early retirement with lump sum compensation is another means of relieving such teachers of their jobs. By this way, at least the students would benefit from not being taught by under-qualified and/or incompetent teachers although public expenditure on such teachers may not be reduced.

The financing of the education sector, especially higher education and TVET, by the state should be market-driven as opposed to the current mandarin-driven process. In lieu of funding institutions (primary, secondary or tertiary education), the state should fund the students directly who (along with their parents) should decide what educational services (type of course/s) to buy and where (private or public). The state should make avail a set amount of money in the form of a promissory note to every school drop-out or pass-out at primary or secondary level which could be traded for buying tertiary educational services either at a private or public university, technical and vocational education and training institution, or any other professional educational institution such as the institute of chartered accountants, law college, ICT colleges, etc. This game-changing mechanism of tertiary education funding has the potential to greatly improve the standards and quality of tertiary educational institutions and teaching and learning outcomes of the courses on offer.

COMPETITION should replace MONOPOLY and MARKETS should replace MANDARINS!

Empowering the Provinces through Fiscal Devolution

For too long, the political processes in Sri Lanka to resolve minority grievances have been preoccupied with the nature of the state (unitary versus federal), unit of devolution of political and administrative power (village, district, or province), language, land, police, and other administrative issues. Very little discussions have taken place regarding the division of financial/fiscal powers between the centre and the peripheries. All the previous political processes have failed on one political and/or administrative issue or the other.

Even the externally imposed provincial council system under the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution has not lived up to the expectation of the minority communities because of the lack of devolution of land, law & order, and fiscal powers. Though land and law & order power devolution continue to be contested, the matter of fiscal devolution has not attracted the attention of the protagonists or the opponents of the Thirteenth Amendment thus far. So, this window of opportunity should be made use of to promote fiscal devolution as a stepping stone towards a durable political solution to the grievances of the minorities, particularly the Tamils of East and North.

There is a lot of concern about the lop-sided economic growth and wealth concentration in Sri Lanka whereby the Western Province (Colombo, Gampaha, and Kalutara districts) accounts for almost half of the national Gross Domestic Product. There could be several causes for this concentration of economic output and wealth in just one province out of the total nine provinces in the country. The tax incidence or the source/s of tax revenue is one of the principal factors affecting income inequality among the population and the regional dispersion of economic growth and wealth. When a tax system overwhelmingly depends on consumption taxes, income will be concentrated in the hands of the wealthy individuals, institutions, and regions of the country. After 1977, indirect or consumption tax as a proportion of the total tax revenue has increased at the same time direct or income tax has decreased. This is one of the primary causes of the skewed production and wealth among the people and places in Sri Lanka. Moreover, the consumption tax revenue and savings of people from the provinces are transferred to the centre (part of Western Province) which promotes regional inequality. Therefore, giving freedom to the provinces to retain their respective consumption tax revenue and savings of the respective populations and increasing the proportion of the direct or income taxes in the total tax revenue would significantly disperse production, income, and wealth to the regions away from the Western Province. Therefore, fiscal devolution is proposed for inclusive equitable growth among the different provinces as well as a means of conflict resolution in Sri Lanka.

Not only spatial economics but institutional economics is also necessary to understand the dichotomy between the ‘leading’ and ‘lagging’ regions within nation states. Whilst physical infrastructure (roads, transportation services, etc) and information and communication infrastructure (telecommunications, internet, etc) connect places, it is the institutions such as rule of law, property rights for land, political, administrative, and fiscal devolution, financial integration, education and skills development, and development of inter-regional markets that connect peoples across the national boundary. Thus, the connectivity in terms of physical distance and connectivity in terms of human distance are sine qua non for spreading economic growth and competitiveness to the regions and integrating the national economy.

There is empirical evidence to show that democratisation and fiscal decentralisation dilutes primary cities and promotes secondary cities. Davis and Henderson (2003), using panel data from 1960 to 1995 with instrumental variable estimation, find that moving from most centralised to least centralised government reduces primacy by 5%. Similarly, moving from least democratic to most democratic form of government reduces primacy by 8%.

Although the Thirteenth Amendment to the current Constitution has vested some powers of revenue mobilisation to the provinces, it falls short of an effective and efficient mechanism to make the provinces financially viable and minimise their dependence on the national government. The tendency in the past twenty two years of the operation of the provincial councils (1988-2010) has been the monopolisation of taxation by the national government.

The political establishment of Sri Lanka and the psyche of the masses at present appear to be incapable of undertaking radical changes to the political and administrative architecture. Therefore, incremental devolution appears to be the pragmatic way forward for durable conflict resolution in Sri Lanka. Fiscal devolution, one such step in the incremental devolution process, could presumably attract stronger government and public support (than the devolution of political and administrative powers) under the present Unitarian government.

Economic Empowerment of Women in the Eastern and Northern Provinces

While the civil war in the Eastern and Northern parts of Sri Lanka (NE) may have resulted in changes in the geography, demography, economy, and the polity of those regions, ethnographic evidence suggests that certain socioeconomic and cultural practices such as caste and gender marginalisation and discrimination stubbornly persists albeit at a diminished intensity or scale than that existed in the pre-civil war period.

Sri Lanka has one of the lowest labour force participation of women in South Asia. Within Sri Lanka the Eastern and Northern districts have the lowest labour force participation rate by women (Ampara 16.6%, Batticaloa 19.0%, Trincomalee 19.8%, Jaffna 21.0%, Kilinochchi 15.1%, Mannar 12.8%, Mullaithivu 20.4%, and Vavuniya 25.5%).

The unemployment rates are higher among females (by several folds) than males in all the districts of the Eastern and Northern Provinces according to the latest available data. While the unemployment rates among males have been less than 4% in the eight districts under consideration (relatively higher in the East), the unemployment rates among females have been between 9% and 30% (relatively higher in the North). Nationally, the unemployment rate among females was 6.2% and among males was 2.8% in 2012 (overall 4.0%).

An empirical research study jointly undertaken by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES, Colombo) and the Point Pedro Institute of Development (PPID, Point Pedro, Northern Province) involving primary data collection is underway (October 2014 – September 2017) to identify the causes of low labour force participation by women and high unemployment among women in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka to inform policy with the financial support of the Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) Program of the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada.

According to a preliminary ethnographic assessment, women are constrained to reap the benefits of post-civil war economic boom in the Eastern and Northern Provinces due to a variety of community-inflicted institutional-structural and socio-cultural reasons, business-inflicted gender discrimination in employment, and state-inflicted security phobia. We would argue that community-inflicted institutional-structural and socio-cultural factors are the overwhelming impediment to women than the business-inflicted and state-inflicted factors combined.

In order to boost labour force participation by women a carrot and stick approach could be pursued by the state. On the one hand, paternity leave, child care/crèche services at workplaces, better and safer public transport facilities for women could be afforded by the private and public sectors in order to incentivise women to join the labour market. On the other hand, women who refuse to join the labour market without any compelling reason could be penalised by withdrawing public welfare services such as the free health care in order to disincentivise them to remain out of the labour market by their own choice.

Moreover, anecdotal evidence reveals that most homes in the Eastern and Northern Provinces of Sri Lanka still rely on firewood for cooking because of its abundance and as a consequence cheaper, which is a health hazard for women who largely cook (due to high probability of respiratory illness), very time consuming, and environmentally damaging. Therefore, the use of liquid gas cookers should be promoted by subsidising the cost for a limited time period and thereby reduce the time consumed for cooking and make more time available for women to enter wage labour or self-employment. Moreover, the use of consumer durables such as solar-powered microwave ovens, refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines should be promoted in order to free-up the time used for household chores by women and thereby encourage them to join the labour force.

In order to overcome the institutional and structural barriers to women’s more active participation in the resurgent post-civil war regional economies awareness raising for advocating positive changes to the customary laws of different ethnic communities in the Eastern and Northern provinces are necessary. This awareness raising advocacy work should highlight and celebrate women’s numerical supremacy at local level, higher educational level of women vis-à-vis men at local level, and predominant and growing economic contribution made by women at the macroeconomic (foreign remittances, export of ready-made garments, and tea production and exports) and household levels.

As a campaign tool for positive changes to the traditional customary laws of the regions under consideration the post-civil war experiences and best practices of Guatemala, Liberia, Mozambique, and Rwanda should be tapped and suitably modified to suit the local requirement/s.

The socio-cultural restrictions imposed on women by households and local communities are driving women out of the country in order to seek freedom of life. Community-inflicted socio-cultural barriers to realisation of the full potential of women within the majority Sinhala community is what motivated them to seek freedom from home and community and seek largely menial employment in the Middle Eastern countries and in the export garments factories outside their villages and towns since the late-1970s. Similarly, marginalised Muslim women from the East and other parts of the country have also tried to spread their wings of freedom by seeking menial employment in the Middle East. Likewise Tamil women have been fleeing socio-cultural restrictions in their homes and local communities by marrying grooms from the Tamil Diaspora. The local communities should be made aware of dated socio-cultural barriers against women that are impeding upward mobility of female members of the households within the country which is steadily driving them out of the country to seek self-fulfillment in terms of economic and social life.

While designing programmes to address the institutional-structural and socio-cultural barriers to women’s economic emancipation it is imperative to involve parents and/or the spouse of women in order to realise better outcome/s of such programmes.

Gender discrimination in terms of wages and salaries or other conditions of paid or unpaid work in private businesses should be confronted by awareness raising with the employers and communities, failing which legal remedy should be facilitated and sought. In the medium-term an equal opportunities law should be advocated in order to institutionally outlaw all forms of discrimination against women. Established and emerging private business community in the NE (outreached through the district chambers of commerce and industries) should be made aware of the salient features of the female labour market in the former civil war-torn areas and encourage them to self-regulate the prevalent discriminatory labour practices.

Gender-specific insecurity of women in former civil war-torn areas has become a serious impediment to women’s access to gainful employment and livelihood activities mainly because of disproportionate presence of armed forces personnel amidst civilian population (ostensibly to provide security), especially in the Vanni and throughout the NE as well. Former anti-state female combatants and single/divorced/widowed woman-headed households are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment, abuse, and rape by the members of the local community as well as from the security forces personnel. These female combatants and woman-headed households could be organised to provide collective security to themselves as well as the local communities where they live and work through neighbourhood watch initiatives.

The retired and resigned state armed forces personnel (including police personnel) have collectively established private security firms in order to provide employment to their colleagues by providing security services to businesses, homes, and offices in Colombo and various other parts of the country. Similarly, former anti-state combatants and single/divorced/widowed woman-headed households could be encouraged and facilitated to establish security businesses in their respective villages/towns/districts in order to enhance their own gender-specific security and make their services available to business premises, homes, and offices.

Moreover, safe and secure transport facilities to women at night time and in remote places are scarce. This is a severe impediment to women’s mobility to engage in paid employment in shift-based jobs in urban areas as well as in remote places. Therefore, facilitation and promotion of women-driven/run public transport services could mitigate transport bottlenecks to women seeking employment far-away from their homes and habitats.

Sri Lanka is confronted by an ageing population throughout the country. However, the NE has a relatively younger population than rest of the country. But, Jaffna district, for example, has a relatively significant elderly (>60 years old) population along with a relatively youthful population. Ageing population is a significant drawback for women who largely shoulder the burden of old-age care within their households. Nevertheless, ageing population also opens-up growing opportunities for lucrative private old-age care services. The potential geriatric care market could and should be assiduously tapped by less-educated women including former female combatants and single/divorced/widowed women. Geriatric care happens to be an untapped market in the NE and less-tapped in other parts of the country.

The Vanni mainland in the Northern Province (comprising Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaithivu, and Vavuniya districts) and vast areas in the Eastern Province are sparsely populated jungle areas where population densities are the lowest in the country. For example, the population density of Mullaithivu is the lowest in the country with 38 people per square kilometre, followed by 53 in Mannar, 81 in Monaragala, 93 in Vavuniya, 94 in Kilinochchi, 128 in Anuradhapura, 131 in Polonnaruwa, 149 in Trincomalee, 153 in Ampara, and 201 in Batticaloa.

Due to the very low population densities, setting-up of businesses in the foregoing districts are difficult because of lack of economies of scale. Under this topographically trying circumstance innovative marketing strategies such as the door-to-door direct marketing should be promoted by employing local unemployed women to become micro-entrepreneurs. Consumer produces (such as personal hygienic products) should be packed in smaller quantities (that could be affordable to poor people) and marketed in remote places through a network of micro-enterprises operated by local women.

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan (Ph.D. Wales, M.Sc. Bristol. M.Sc. Salford. B.A. Hons. Delhi) hails from Point Pedro (Northern Sri Lanka) and a Development Economist by profession and the Principal Researcher of the Point Pedro Institute of Development, Point Pedro, Northern Province, Sri Lanka. [email protected]