Janaka Perera wonders whether Sri Lanka is genuinely advancing as a nation

Over the past 71 years or so, we’ve been told that Sri Lanka is a ‘developing’ country. So when will it be fully ‘developed’? The likes of Singapore and South Korea were far behind us in the 1950s in terms of quality of life but have since surpassed us by leaps and bounds.

When the Korean War ended in 1953, South Korea was one of the world’s poorest countries. Today, it belongs to the rich nations’ club.

Something has gone terribly wrong with Sri Lanka’s socioeconomic and political systems although we’ve claimed to be a parliamentary democracy for seven decades. When South Korea began to develop in the ’60s, it was run by dictatorship under President Park Chung-hee. Even Singapore under former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew could be considered semi-autocratic.

But our society, its leaders and most citizens are blinded by party politics – they seem to have got their priorities wrong. This may be the primary reason for successive governments losing their bearings. We became a testing ground for policies based on different parties’ pet theories.

Sri Lanka lacks strategic policies in major areas such as education, healthcare, agriculture, industry, national security and foreign policy.

From the closed economy of the 1970s, we embraced the opposite extreme of an open economy based on free market capitalism. These systems may have had positives but both failed to address the basic challenges facing Sri Lanka since independence. During the last 50 years or so, this failure expressed itself in the form of two insurgencies in the south and a long-drawn-out war in the north.

Yet, no ruling party or alliance has succeeded in eliminating the root causes of this recurring violence. Instead, they’ve tried to address this through patchwork initiatives and short-term solutions… until the next election.

Shielding politicians and others suspected of wrongdoing for the sake of votes has been the tradition of the major parties. And this comes on top of unbridled corruption and wastage. Unsurprisingly, the law is rarely if ever enforced to prevent this.

Rather than finding lasting solutions to problems, successive governments have tinkered with the constitution or introduced new constitutions since the 1970s.

Do our leaders really understand what sustainable development means?

The public perception is that they approve mega projects to earn commissions – consider airports without aeroplanes, ports without ships, bridges without rivers, cricket stadiums without matches, floating markets that sink, garbage dumps that collapse and power stations without power!

Sustained economic growth is necessary for progress on the social front. This means not confusing development with construction – such as infrastructure – although no one denies its importance.

A developing society’s highest priority is economic justice. If this country was truly developed, we wouldn’t be sending women to work as domestic workers in the Middle East.

There’s no automatic trickle-down from economic growth to human and social development. Policies and institutions are needed to translate economic growth into social progress.

A family that is uncertain about where its next meal will come from is less concerned about media freedom, right to information, gender equality, LGBT rights and other such issues.

Some activists forget that human rights first and foremost include the right to a standard of living that’s adequate for a family’s health and wellbeing. This includes clothing, housing, affordable medical care, equal educational opportunities and access to essential social services.

Launched in 1995, the Samurdhi programme succeeded Janasaviya. Both were supposed to reduce poverty and help low income groups stand on their own feet. So where are they today?

According to the Ministry of Lands and Parliamentary Reforms, over two million people received Samurdhi benefits in 2017. Samurdhi means prosperity but there is no indication of this becoming a reality for its beneficiaries in the foreseeable future.

The Centre for Public Impact (CPI) says that one reason for this failure is that the selection of beneficiaries has been “biased towards individuals of particular political affiliations.” In other words, supporting a ruling party ensures benefits.

If constitutional reforms are truly needed, the first step should be to prevent these glaring injustices.

A law should also be introduced to ensure that any politician who has been in power and fails to declare his or her assets will not be permitted to contest elections. All NGOs should be transparent about the sources of their funds and how they’re utilised. And one law should apply to all citizens regardless of their status, ethnicity or religion.

In the end, what matters is not GDP but GNH – ‘gross national happiness.’ This should be achieved by integrating spirituality and compassion with governance, as Bhutan has done.