Export or perish.
Posted on May 16th, 2024

Sugath Kulatunga Founder Director General of the EDB

I am delighted to see both the President RW and the leader of the opposition claiming that the only way to tackle the economic problems in the country and to develop the country is to make it export oriented. This message has become a manthra and is being repeated ad nauseam. It is the tragedy of the country that this realization was not accepted by RW and elder Premadasa 44 years back, commencing 1980. That was the year that the Export Development Board (EDB) presented the maxim ‘export or perish’ and urged the country to adopt an export-oriented growth strategy.

RW was the Minister of Education in 1980. This was the time that South Korea and Taiwan made radical changes in their education policy. The high performing countries in the Far East considered education as the foundation of economic development and social advancement. They focused on developing human capital in science and technology and vocational skills as they are pivotal to economic development. Taiwan and South Korea were both agricultural economies like Sri Lanka in the early 1980 with low per capita earnings.

Taiwan is an Island smaller than Sri Lanka with a similar population. Before 1980s it was a predominantly an agricultural economy. Today it is a high tech powerhouse leading the world in a number of high tech industries. It has a per capita income of 36, 000 dollars. At the beginning of the 1980s, Taiwan increased the ratio for senior vocational schools and general high school to 7:3. By 2012 there were 155 senior vocational schools, 14 junior colleges, and 77 universities/colleges of science & technology, totaling 246. It is the education system that has sustained the significant development of this small nation. RW as the Ministe of Education was blind to the tehnology based education policies in those countries which made them world leaders in high tech exports.

RW has served as Prime Minister of the country on five separate occasions, leading six governments, from 1993 to 1994, 2001 to 2004, 2015 to 2018, 2018 to 2019. He was also the Minister of Industry, Science and Technology in 1989. During these regimes when the Far Eastern countries were forging ahead on export oriented economic development, based on industrializaion and technology upgradation, RW did not speak about the importance of export.

Neither did his policy makers, bureacrats, diplomats and the think tank Central Bank consider the  importance of export development. Only the EDB believed in the slogan that the country would perish unless there is focus on export development. But the irony is that it was the EDB which was made to perish. It began with the appointment of retired Central Banker as the head of the organization. His vision of export development was confined to tradional trade promotion. He disbanded the unit (Projects division) in the EDB which was responsible for project identification, formulation and evaluation. This unit also acted as a venture capital faciliy and financed the implementation of several pioneering projects. During this time the Treasury illegally seized the EDB cess collection depriving the EDB for funds for export development. The Exporters’ Forum which was chaired by the Minister of Trade where through open discussion day to day problems of exporters were resolved was discontinued. The popular Export Production Villages program was neglected and alllowed to wither away. The National Developmnt plan which is a requisite of the EDB Act was not prepared. The worst crime was that the Export Development Council the National policy direction body on export development was not convened for 25 years.

EDB and the Export Development prgram perished due to the new set of Chairmen of the EDB and the Board Members were political appointments and not selected on merit.

RW did not consider export development all that important at that time. He as a five time Prime Minister could have taken a little more interest in export oriented development and sustained the 1980 policy on export development. All goverments since then allowed those policies to perish and with that the county to perish.

I hope the new realization on the importance of export development is real and wish the President every success in its implemention.

Sugath Kulatunga Founder Director General of the EDB

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