Photo courtesy of Eurasia Review

Sri Lanka has reached out to the Russian Federation owing to the growing national crisis in the country, a national crisis that involves foreign exchange, fuel, power and of course basic essentials that have been scarce at intervals in the past several months. Yet the biggest crisis facing Sri Lanka is the lack of decisive strategizing. The country is on the eve of its 75th anniversary of independence in 2023 but has no clear idea where it will be in the next couple of weeks let alone next year. Countries strategize by aiming for where they want to be and what they want to achieve for generations to come but Sri Lanka has been left in the lurch due to poor decision making and shortsighted policies of consecutive administrations, which have put personal gain and party politics ahead of the country and its future.

Reflecting on 1931, when the British deemed it suitable to foist universal franchise on the Ceylonese it is possible to deduce that this was probably one of the biggest mistakes they made or it was perhaps done with a view to continuing the unhealthy policy of divide and rule. Many Ceylonese leaders themselves were not overly thrilled with the prospect of universal franchise at the time owing to their own concerns. However, with the testing of the waters in Ceylon so early in the last century, the nation received, it can be argued, an early start over the rest in Asia.

The pros and cons of that decision can be long debated but from independence onwards, the people of Sri Lanka enjoyed the ability to elect leaders to lead the nation. Yet have the people matured as a polity? Churchill himself opined that, “the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” While the statement maybe deemed arrogant in some quarters, it is proven continuously around the world. Just as leaders have focused on personal gain and party politics, voters too have focused on personal gain instead of questioning policy or seeking policy options, especially at times of elections, nor have they held their representatives accountable for decisions taken.

Russia is in the throes of a conflict and Sri Lanka did not defer the financial request despite this situation. The insult is increased when news of Sri Lanka’s abstention at the UN on a vote condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and information regarding the request are both made public at the same time, giving rise to the notion that Sri Lanka abstained expecting assistance in return. Russia is a country that has consistently supported the country in the UN Security Council ever since diplomatic relations were established 65 years ago and the position of Sri Lanka is justifiable but a lack of communication or effective explanation of the stance has given rise to misperceptions.

Countries such as India and China are probably dreading calls, requests for meetings or any form of correspondence emanating from Sri Lanka. They have been continuously approached and have consistently responded positively to requests that have been forthcoming from Colombo. Other countries must be worried when approached by Sri Lankan diplomats in their capitals or when they are invited to the Foreign Ministry in Colombo. A country that has had a long history dating back thousands of years even sought assistance from Bangladesh, which came into existence just fifty years ago. Bangladesh is currently galloping into the future as a result of effective and decisive strategizing. Turning to countries far and wide and expecting them to keep Sri Lanka afloat only raises the stakes against the country.

The abysmal point at which Sri Lanka finds itself at present is not one from which the country can never hope to return. It is reversible, thankfully. Yet the reversing needs to be done by those who decided to progress this far down this road. Borrowing from other countries, seeking currency swaps and begging around the world has resulted in Sri Lanka falling in esteem, respect and recognition, which has in turn eroded investor confidence, damaged its image and added to its woes on the world stage.

It is not only the pandemic that is to blame. It is not only the lack of tourists in the last couple of years that is to blame. It is not only the Easter Sunday attacks and the fear it caused that is to blame. It is not only the decades long conflict that ended nearly 13 years ago that is to blame. Undoubtedly these developments and events have contributed to the current situation but it is clearly the lack of strategizing by successive governments that has brought the country to this abysmal point.

Sri Lanka is highly dependent on the outside world and has been from independence onwards. This is true of most countries, owing to growing interdependence brought about through trade, investment and financial interactions. Yet one of the key errors that were made was in not focusing sufficiently on the apparatus that engages with the outside world – the Foreign Ministry and Foreign Service. Since 1977 when J.R. Jayewardene decided to appoint Sri Lanka’s first non-prime ministerial Foreign Minister, in A.C.S. Hameed, the Ministry and Service have received step-motherly treatment. There were slight gaps of exception but against the entirety of history those periods remain relatively brief.

Budgetary allocations for the ministry have been well below the requirements. Missions around the world have been understaffed or staffed with political appointees who have been incompetent, except for a handful who went beyond the call of duty to enhance Sri Lanka’s image globally. For a country that is dependent on the outside world, it is clear that the institution tasked with international engagement must be strengthened. Capacity development should have been a crucial area of emphasis. Instead of sending Foreign Service officers for short term all expenses paid courses in other countries upon receiving invitations only, carefully constructed programs in renowned international institutions aimed at improving quality and capability should have been the focus. Such programs naturally require financial resources and this is just one reason why the ministry requires a higher budgetary allocation. The list of possibilities remains endless and it is understood that resources within the country are limited but excellence as an end result cannot be expected if mediocre input is all the country can afford.

Despite these challenges the progress made and achievements to date are highly praiseworthy. The Foreign Service has been able to make this amount of progress owing mainly to individual capabilities rather than collective synergy. However, those with immense ability are forced to function in a stifling environment. On the other hand, the refusal on the part of the bureaucracy to step forward and explain policy options, highlight concerns and warn when peril is at hand has collectively resulted in misguided policy decisions. The entirety of the bureaucracy in Sri Lanka has a responsibility to support a government in implementing its policies but must also be able to flag issues, raise concerns and highlight pitfalls as otherwise it is the leadership that goes astray, taking the country with them.

In the year leading up to its 75th anniversary of independence, Sri Lankans, and notably the state and private sectors, should be preparing for the future; instead all are grappling with the present and completely unaware of the future. Can the situation get worse? It can and it will. Adopting piecemeal measures to tide over daily activities, waiting for ships to arrive and then hoping that sufficient dollars are available to pay for fuel or turning to our neighbors and seeking their assistance on a daily basis is not the future that Sri Lanka or Sri Lankans deserve.

Sri Lanka is rich in resources, potential and opportunity. Strategizing for the future has been a key requirement in the years gone by and is undoubtedly the burning need of the hour. It is not too late to do just that. Rather than continuously asking for fish, it is time that Sri Lanka learns how to fish. Herein lies the importance of a country’s foreign policy through which Sri Lanka must identify areas requiring development within the country; draw up a clear national plan of action; seek investment to suit the Sri Lankan plan; engage with technically advanced countries and seek technology transfers especially in the energy sector; ensure value addition within the country prior to natural resources being exported; and most importantly guarantee that Sri Lanka comes first in policy formulation and implementation.

Although the present predicament might be thought to be a situation in which Sri Lanka is returning to an old policy, of begging around the world that Professor Ediriweera Sarachchandra highlighted in a publication many decades ago, the question that begs answering is whether Sri Lanka ever deviated from this policy.