By Bradley Emerson | November 9, 2020
The inception of my career as a banker in the late 70s was about the same time that Sri Lanka acted on a revolutionizing move to become the first South Asian nation to liberalize its trading economy. Ever since I have been hearing Sri Lanka as a “developing” nation. Fast forward to four decades and several regimes later we are still a “developing nation”. What is it to be a developing nation; What is to be a rich nation and what is it to be a poor nation. The Department of Census and Statistics records Sri Lankans per capita GDP for the year 2019 at $ 3,852 per annum whilst Singapore, who’s open trade regime were developed much later recorded a thumping $65,977. Singapore’s benchmark strategies are spoken of at many forums to highlight its economic ascension from what was once a poor country with a GDP per capita of only $320 in par with Sri Lanka. The success story of Singapore’s economic and demographic development surpasses a single systematic exposition, however, it is crucial in this context to act as an expediential comparison and maybe give an insight or two for Sri Lankans.
Following an economic growth of just 5.3% after the civil war ended and low fiscal revenues combined with mountains of debt,Sri Lanka is classified as among the developing economies by the United Nations Secretariat (UN/ DESA). Comparatively, Singapore ranks sixth highest in the world for a country that possesses half the natural resources as Sri Lanka.
I have been hearing of Sri Lanka being trapped by this economic definition for as long as fifty years. Our present standard of living is at least ten times behind that of Singapore, and our drastically slow pace is only weighed down by our debt portfolio. Whilst searching for answers, numerous evidence pointed to the lack of persistence and political instability coupled with low demographic development with a relatively large population earning an income that is just enough to survive.
A radical change is required to overcome this crisis, but what will continue to be a barrier to growth is only ourselves, which arrives at the core lesson to be learned before we begin our mandate. To be nationally poor is a public choice; to navigate this crisis is dependent on our determination. Only we are stopping ourselves from capitalizing on our potential.
Mynt (1973) suggests the key indicators of economic development are the level of per capita income, rate of growth of per capita income, and the widening inequality in the distribution of income, but there is much debate on the contribution of economic production to the country’s prosperity. Sri Lanka’s current account deficit in 2018 amounted to $7.57 billion which was exacerbated by a challenging external environment with the Easter attacks and now the latest COVID-19 outbreak. The country’s export performance declined from a growth rate of 4.1% to 1.44% by the end of 2019, losing out on much-needed foreign exchange that can be utilized to pay off debts. With little to no reserves and a declining rate in the exports, a call for transformation in the policies is imperative to focus on export growth.
In 1969 following the independence of Singapore from the Malaysian Federation, a Singaporean Dollar was exchanged at $0.35 against the Sterling Pound whilst the same could be purchased at SLRS 13.40 in Ceylon. Since 1981, the monetary policy in Singapore was centered on the control of the exchange rate, and today, their currency is equal to £0.57 whilst the SLRS is 237. How did we get here? Is it not by choice? Sri Lanka like any other developing nation is a political economy. What does it mean? It means that every economic policy has the flavour or influence of the political agenda of the incumbent regime. The result is that our direct debt to GDP is around 70% and nearly 90% of our national revenue is expended to service these debts. How do we survive? Just imagine if 90% of your family income is used to service debts, how could you sustain your family without sinking deeper into debt?
There is no doubt that our country is in dire need of an effective policy to reduce an approximate one billion trade deficit a month. The deficit stems from importing more than we export which impacts our reserves. The exchange rate against the dollar reached an alltime high of Rs. 191 in April 2020. The early 2000s experienced a 2.8% yearly depreciation and it was as high as 9.1% for the four year period of 2015-2018 alone. The public has failed to grasp the reason behind the depreciation over the rupee – but the Central Bank’s quick-fixes through injection of money contributed towards a further hindrance to the growth.
In attempts to achieve the government’s export target or rather reduce the trade deficit, stringent measures and banning mechanisms have come into play. However, the effectiveness of these proposals are far from favourable along with strong opposition from the public. From an accountant’s point of view, where we are today as a nation with political interventions on the implementation of policies, fiscal account deterioration and racks of debt; we will easily be written off as ‘bankrupt’. Sri Lanka is in a fight for survival and it is our responsibility to help the nation get back on its feet.
The late Prime Minister Hon. Sirimavo Bandaranaike took oath in 1960 as the world’s first female Prime Minister, yet another disruption against the conventional norms in the political economy. Her regime prioritized incentivizing the local industries and capitalizing on domestic knowledge for production. It is agreeable that the lack of an open economy failed to drive economic opportunities, however, the brutal “produce or perish” notion encourages self-sufficiency that which we lack today due to our dependency on international trade.
‘Tea, rubber, cocoa and coconut is a common man’s answer to what our main drivers of export revenue were, yet it is shameful that during 2018, our imports consisted of 5.13% of rubber and 1.89% of tea. We even import coconuts.
Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Modern Singapore implemented systems based upon the development of the country’s resources to improve trade and the quality of life. A notable example being the revival of the Singapore River around which businesses and factories developed. The project which took up to 10 years created a foundation for innovation, improvements in transportation, tourism, and water supply.
We possess abundant resources for our island to thrive; the agriculture industry, tea destinations and massive potential to become a global tourism hub. Known as the pearl of the Indian Ocean, our island is at a prominent location which is of the essence to create a competitive advantage. Yet, it is ironic that we import salt and fish when the sea surrounds us. In 1978 when I embarked on my first trip to India, we carried bags full of spices to be locally sold to a country where the demand for our spices was unaccountable but now we are importing spices from India. The largest contributor to export revenue of spices in 2018 was Cinnamon, which totaled at only 11.1% traded to India. The great voyager Vasco da Gama referred to then Ceylon as the land of spices and we chose to lose out on that status.
Paddy cultivation in Sri Lanka traces its roots back to 161 B.C. when Sri Lankans were skilled at making a living out of this industry. Rice crops occupy 34% of total cultivation with over 1.8 million of our population engaged in producing around 2.7 million metric tons of rice annually. The trading of cheaper and quality rice from other nations exerts pressure on Sri Lanka to improve on production. Sri Lanka has the capacity to gain international recognition as the primary rice exporter as well as create a source of employment to improve the livelihoods of many.
However, the policymakers must prioritize their earnings to invest in equipment for pre-harvest operations and marketing of the produce. According to research done by TB Adhikarinayake, the majority of the problems farmers face are related to high losses in the production chain and lack of skilled workers.
Where are we heading? We are importing what we can produce, increasing the trade deficit, increasing the pressure on the exchange rates, and depriving our children of foreign education. In such a competitive world, the need to solve the Balance of Payment crisis is pivotal to managing the country’s finances in order to avoid a disastrous downfall. The government’s attempt to reduce the deficit by imposing import controls will only create inflationary pressures in the country if we don’t optimize the encouragement given by the government to grow.
Science and technology have given us “formula one” seeds for rice, chilies, and potatoes which can treble the output per acre. Are we making a choice to optimize these opportunities to be self-sufficient?
We have a choice, to change our destiny. Can we, yes, we can! We are poor because we chose to be so. Likewise, we can make the choice to be rich as a nation. Let’s look at a change in direction by seizing opportunities to make exports competitive, using innovative methods of technology, and by utilizing our human resources. It is about time we make use of our knowledge in agriculture, natural resources, land, diverse cultures, and our climate to attract foreign investors.
Every generation has a responsibility towards creating a sustainable nation. It is our choice to change directions to reach the destination we intend. It is our obligation to ensure that majority of our children do not experience a poor quality of life, rather a high standard of living and not to be referred to as people of a poor nation.