Sri Lanka needs a confidence boost to lift it out of the morass it is in; Time for a National approach to governance?
Posted on January 4th, 2021

By Raj Gonsalkorale

The year 2020 ended with the COVID pandemic raging unabated, not just in Sri Lanka but throughout the world and bringing down the world as we all knew it. Economies of countries from the superrich to the very poor have all crumbled and health services are bursting at the seams. Education has been disrupted and so has the functioning of society as we knew it. Confidence in governance models, particularly democratic models is shattering as a consequence of the Trump led attack on the US system. 2021 is heralded amidst challenges perhaps not witnessed during the life time of those who are alive today.   

Sri Lanka is no exception in having to face these serious challenges and while there seems to be an increasing public opinion that the current government has retreated into a state of slumber, many overlook the fact that all countries in the world have been shaken to the core by the pandemic and that there are limits to what any government in the country could have done in the circumstances. There is also a tendency to blame a government while people themselves have chosen not to share their share of the responsibility and behaving in the most irresponsible manner endangering themselves and so many who could be infected by them.

However, this is not to say that things could have been done differently. What seems to be missing is a mindset that looks at things differently and then undertaking them differently. The need for a mindset change is not directed only at the government. It is directed at the Opposition, all political parties, public and private institutions, civil society organisations and religious institutions as well. In the post COVID world, one could argue quite rationally that it is essential to have a mindset change if Sri Lanka is to raise its head and keep it above the water that is drowning it.

Economically, from all accounts, Sri Lanka is perhaps at a stage when liquidators may have to be called in to manage a State that is either bankrupt or is heading towards it. It does not appear that the country could meet its debt obligations and finance its essential fuel requirements, health needs and food requirements without a substantial infusion of funds into the government’s coffers.

All indications are that such an infusion will only be possible through massive loans from international finance institutions and/or countries able to provide such loans. Besides institutions such as the World Bank, IMF, ADB etc, the only country that would be able to provide a large loan would be China and China will want their pound of flesh if they were to provide such a loan. What that pound of flesh means and entails is the billion-dollar question.

If Sri Lanka succumbs, and there does not seem to be any other light at the end of a long and dark tunnel, the consequential international politics involving the USA and India is bound to have a serious impact on what is left of the country’s sovereignty.

Much of what the current government is facing today is a consequence of the disorder in the world as a result of the COVID pandemic. While it can be argued justifiably that some things could have been done better, it should be accepted, justifiably, that whatever government in power would have been subject to the helplessness the country is placed in at present.

In the present circumstances therefore a major mindset change that could help the country would be a national approach to governance rather than a partisan approach. Major issues faced by the country such as its economy, education, health, energy needs and very importantly, its food security could be approached from a national perspective where the government, the Opposition, all political parties, business and religious institutions, unions etc, agree on what should be considered as national priorities and also agree on strategies to address the challenges faced by such national priorities.

Partisan politics and other divisions should go into hibernation at least for a short period like 3-5 years during which time the welfare of the country rather than the welfare of individual institutions takes precedence. The issue in hand which is the survival of the country as a sovereign nation is what is at stake. This issue is bigger than any individual or any one institution.

Perhaps the President could lead the way and call for a summit meeting of concerned institutions and individuals in order to arrive at broad strategic policy and action parameters on key national priorities.

Such an initiative would lead to an increase in public confidence that the country has a way forward to the future, and it will increase business confidence that is currently at a very low ebb. It will also increase confidence amongst possible investors, local and foreign, that the country is stable, and able to withstand international pressures on account of its more inclusive and strategic policy and action settings.

To paraphrase Bernard Shaw, COVID offers several opportunities for the country to look at things as they never were and ask why not rather than continuing to look at things as they are and continuing to ask why.

We have a so called representative democracy that votes in people’s representatives which fundamentally does not represent the wishes of the those who vote in their representatives. The Parliament and Provincial Councils are a farce in this respect. There is hardly any consultation with the people on key policy matters.

The country’ s suffocating foreign debt has been incurred over the years without any discussion amongst stakeholders. Business institutions, unions, societal institutions, women’s organisations, religious institutions and other entities that better represent their areas of interest have not been consulted although they should be part of a policy determination process. One should have a very serious look at the need for 225 Members of Parliament, in particular if they blindly follow their party positions rather than national priorities.

While the female population of the country exceeds the male population, there is hardly a voice for women in Parliament or in provincial councils. This is a major anomaly that needs to be addressed and a national approach to policy making would be an avenue to correct this major imbalance in governance in the country.   

Amongst other key areas that needs a national approach is the ever smouldering ethnic issue concerning the Tamils of Sri Lanka and also the issues concerning the Muslim population of the country. A mechanism must exist to address these on a long term basis and also in an ongoing basis, but both from a national perspective outside of partisan politics.

Education is perhaps one of the most important areas considering that it is the sphere in which the future of the country is nurtured and moulded. A longer term national education policy particularly for secondary education is a must as such policies should not change every time a government changes.

The country cannot and should not revert to the failed political practices of the past 73 years. COVID has given an opportunity to look at new and alternative ways of governing the country. Affording an opportunity for people to vote every so many years and re-elect or change governments is not effective democracy while it is a vital element in a democratic system. Avenues have to be introduced for greater participation by people in formulation of key policy settings. The ever evolving developments in information technology provides these avenues to a large number of people. They can be consulted and they can be heard. In fact, this facility will negate the need to have so many members of Parliament as they have proven to be mostly ineffective and an utter waste of public funds.

The governance model has to change if Sri Lanka is to learn a lesson from its position as a State that seems destined to fail if life goes on as usual.

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