Nilakshi Parndigamage urges Sri Lankans not to tolerate leaders who steal public funds

Q: What are your perceptions of Sri Lanka today, in the context of the progress it is making in the post-war era?

A: Sri Lanka has achieved substantial progress. But it can do much better in terms of investing thoughtfully in sustainable development projects and borrowing less from foreign countries.

Q: How do compatriots in your country of domicile view Sri Lanka?

A: I do my part to make them see Sri Lanka for what it truly is – a stunning country with a lot of potential.

Q: What were your impressions of Sri Lanka on your last visit here – and how much has it changed?

A: I am fortunate to be able to visit often and witness the gradual changes, so I’m never completely taken by surprise on seeing massive developments.

But if I were to compare where it is positioned now with the state of the country 14 years ago, when I left Sri Lanka for the US, the obvious superficial difference is the absence of security checkpoints and the fear that went along with them.

It is also nice to witness how the tourism industry is booming. This has created many different livelihoods for people in various parts of the country.

Q: How do you view the brain drain – and why is there still no reversal of it, in your opinion?

A: I am not a big fan of the term ‘brain drain.’ The concept implies an irreplaceable loss of talent that leaves the country worse off, unless those who leave return for good.

I believe that it is inevitable that locals will be attracted to opportunities overseas. But I also believe that their departure does not necessarily mean that the country is worse off. Those who have the ability to study or work abroad have access to valuable resources, opportunities and information that can help Sri Lanka. I don’t believe that there is a need to physically and permanently ‘return’ to serve or invest in the country.

For example, global warming will continue to wreak havoc on the lives of Sri Lankans. It is probable that Sri Lankan experts who work on these specific issues abroad have much more access to information and research, and their collaboration with local experts can help us implement long-term solutions quickly.

As a tiny and independent country upon which no one relies, Sri Lanka needs to be creative in finding long-term solutions to its problems. I absolutely believe that Sri Lankans abroad can play a major role in that endeavour.

Q: What must be done to entice Sri Lankans living overseas to contribute or return to their country of birth?

A: Based on my own experience, most Sri Lankans living in the US are eager to maintain and build on their connections with the country, and feel a duty to give back. This is especially the case among those who have benefitted from a public school education. And those who genuinely care have found ways to give back in some capacity.

But we can do better in terms of more organised efforts. Sri Lanka should encourage local agencies to connect with experts abroad and use their services to supplement local efforts. It must host roundtables, so that experts within and outside Sri Lanka can come together to exchange ideas, share technological advances and brainstorm on solutions to some of the nation’s pressing problems.

Initiatives such as WorkInSriLanka should be encouraged, so that more folks abroad are also aware of ways in which they can serve.

As much as we call on those overseas to serve and invest in the country, we also need to fight the systematic corruption and nepotism that plague our country.

For instance, it is mind-blowing to me that some of our most respected educational institutions engage in the horrific practice of ragging, award honorary degrees to children of politicians who have not even completed their studies and are so politicised to the point of paralysis at times.

Changes at a local level are long overdue; and until they occur, Sri Lankans will continue to look outside for opportunities.

Q: In your opinion, what should Sri Lanka focus on most in the coming decade?

A: Corruption. We are our own enemy when it comes to selecting our leaders. We need to recognise that no one – especially not those purportedly serving us – is entitled to commission violence or steal public money. When the safekeepers of the country are held accountable and can be trusted, then everything else can and will fall into place.

Q: What are your hopes for the country in the post-conflict era?

A: I truly hope that Sri Lanka forever remains in a ‘post-conflict’ state, and that our collective sensibilities and memories of the conflict will prevent us from falling prey to politicians and extremist religious leaders who try to stoke communal tensions. I hope that we all realise that our enemies are not among us.

Sri Lanka’s challenges include eradicating poverty, strengthening the economy, presenting solutions to climate change, competing in the global economy and introducing more educational institutions – whether they be public or private – that can produce a competent workforce. Let’s not once again add ‘war’ to the list of challenges our children may inherit!