Economy, brain drain and foreign employment

5 February, 2023

Sri Lanka, then Ceylon gained independence from British bondage in 1948 after over thirteen decades. It is true that the British rulers exploited our natural resources, historical monuments, ancient documents, artefacts of archaeological value, ivory and various other valuable national assets.

At the same time they had done an immeasurable service to the country during their long reign such as constructing a railway network covering most parts of the country, island wide road network, introducing cash crops such as tea and rubber and most of all introducing an effective civil administration along with an impartial judiciary system. With these changes a vast strides were made in the social fabric of this country.

At the time we gained independence in 1948 the country was in a sound financial footing and our economy was second only to Japan among all other countries in Asia. Our history records reveal that we had financially supported even Great Britain to balance their annual budget deficit when they were faced with an economic meltdown. Up to the early fifties Sri Lanka never sought financial assistance from any of the countries or from organisations for our survival or for development activities.

Our economy was mainly based on export of tea, rubber and coconut which brought in over 75 percent of the national income and the balance from non- traditional goods such as cinnamon, coffee, cardamoms and cloves.

Visionary leader

Our first Prime Minister D.S.Senanayake who was a visionary leader initiated a large number of projects to economically, socially and culturally develop the country while maintaining the inter communal harmony. His main focus was to agriculturally develop the country making it self sufficient in rice production. He never sought foreign financial assistance for any of his development projects.

However, with the passage of time the Governments changed from time to time and since the late fifties all Governments started obtaining foreign financial assistance for country’s development and the smooth maintenance of the economy.

Slowly but steadily our debt burden increased and the United National Front Government headed by Sirimavo Bandaranaike adopted the closed door economic policy as her strategy to govern the country with her Finance Minister Dr. N.M.Perera ably supported by Colvin R. De Silva, Peter Keuneman, Felix Dias Bandaranaike and a number of other political stalwarts.

Nevertheless quite contrary to her expectation the system failed miserably and shortages and scarcities were the order of the day in respect of all essential food items, clothing and all other requirements. Some food items commonly used by affluent class such as cheese, butter, ham, bacon, corn mutton, beef and fruits such as apple, grapes, pears were banned in the country. Foreign Exchange restrictions were imposed on travelling abroad for higher education.

In this economic backdrop a large number of professionals such as doctors, engineers, accountants and academics left Sri Lanka for greener pastures on foreign soil marking the beginning of “Brain Drain” in the country.

Most of these professionals got themselves domiciled in those countries and rarely visited Sri Lanka to see their kith and kin. It is rather doubtful whether there is even a marginal contribution to the national coffers from the earnings of these professionals.

President Jayewardene’s regime

With the advent of the Government headed by J. R. Jayewardene, he immediately opened the economy and liberal policies were introduced and vast changes were made in the entire social fabric of the country. Large scale development projects were carried out especially in the agriculture sector to liberate the people from economic shackles. With his open economic policies a number of foreign direct investments came into the country and the country’s economy significantly improved recording about 7 percent development growth rate surpassing growth rates of all other developing countries in Asia.

However President J. R. Jayewardene also sought the financial assistance from donor organisations to carry out his development projects in the country. Setting up Free Trade Zones was another great step taken by J.R.Jayewardene to boost the economy in the country. The Foreign Employment Bureau was set up and streamlined in order to obtain mainly Middle East employment for the Sri Lankan workforce consisting of skilled and unskilled categories.

However, the latter stage of J.R. Jayewardene regime was confronted with immense difficulties with the escalation of a ruthless war in the North which resulted in the 1983 riots in the city and most parts of the country.

Following the 83 communal riots and subsequent negative developments, peaceloving people, mainly professionals irrespective of communal differences left the country intensifying the brain drain once again which had been dwindling during the previous two decades.

Losing professionals in any discipline is a great loss to any developing country and we have experienced this in a number of occasions since independence.

To produce a professional in any discipline the State has to spend on average Rs. 1 – 1.5 million and unless they serve the country at least for 10 years, it is a waste of public funds.

Some State officers go abroad for higher education, some go after obtaining sabbatical leave and never return and serve the motherland. The Government should formulate a regulatory framework to get these officials bonded for a specified period to return and serve the country or to enforce a heavy penalty on the defaulters.

With all these problems our national economic growth rate also decreased slightly and the Government was compelled to seek more and more financial assistance from the World Bank , ADB and other donor organisations.

Garment industry

During President R.Premadasa’s regime a commendable step was taken to earn the much needed foreign exchange by opening garment factories all over the country on which the Sri Lankan economy still depends on heavily. Sri Lanka which earned its national revenue from the exports of tea, rubber and coconut for a considerable period of time was replaced or overtaken by the remittances of our expatriate workers, garment industry exports and tourism. However, the high economic growth rate recorded during President J. R. Jayewardene’s period couldn’t be continued mainly due to the mass scale destructive activities of the LTTE movement in the North and equally destructive and atrocious vandalism committed by the JVP hooligans in most areas of the country who now try to pose as paragons of virtue before the general public.

Since 1994 there were three other leaders namely Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena who ruled the country up to 2019. But none of them had the vision, courage or ability to introduce a modern program of work or a novel project which brings in much needed foreign exchange to the country.

Although their political ideological were slightly different none of them were able to make any significant impact on the national economy of Sri Lanka. They depended heavily on the foreign borrowings for all the development activities.

During the second tenure of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, large scale unviable development projects were carried out squandering huge amounts of monies with absolutely no dividends to the national coffers in return. Most of these projects were executed with the foreign loans obtained on high interest rates. Hence the country’s debt burden rose to unbearable proportions.

With the fall of the Yahapalana in December 2019 Gotabaya Rajapaksa became the Executive President of the country with a landslide majority. Quite contrary to the expectations of the general public from the very outset he failed miserably to conduct himself as a worthy leader since he didn’t possess an iota of knowledge on State administration, financial matters or general regulations.

Within a two years the Government became totally unpopular due to the wrong decisions taken by President Gotabaya without listening to the expert advice of the professionals. Shortage of essential food items, fuel, gas and infant milk food and even kerosene were not available and people had to undergo immense difficulties in their daily life.

In this economic backdrop the Aragalaya activists who had been staging a protest against President turned out to be a violent force triggered by opportunistic bankrupt political groups and created a chaotic situation in the country destroying the public and private properties and venturing into violence. Under the circumstances the Prime Minister resigned and went into the wilderness and subsequently the President had to flee the country to save his life.

New beginning

After a lengthy constitutional process the solo parliamentarian, the leader of the United National Party Ranil Wickremesinghe accepted the challenge displaying his statesmanship qualities once again and he was elected as the 8th Executive President of the country by majority parliamentarians.

However, due to the wrong economic policies of the Rajapaksa regime the country’s economy was reduced to abysmal levels. The country’s foreign reserves had been completely exhausted and our debt burden had skyrocketed. The present administration had been forced to take various unpopular measures to stabilise the economy amid severe Opposition from the public. The President is making every effort to salvage the economy with the help of the IMF and other donor agencies.

Brain drain intensifies

During the past year the country experienced a huge exodus of professionals mainly due to the pathetic economic and political situation in the country.

Some of them had not even informed the relevant authorities and also there are another substantial number of professionals who are lined up for departure soon.

Not only the doctors, engineers and lecturers and IT experts but over 20,000 teachers of A/L classes teaching science, maths and English have left the island without informing the education department and the ministry finds it has been made difficult to make the replacements. The loss of services in these educated sectors will negatively impact the entire higher education in the near future.

Foreign employment

It is a common sight at the Department of Emigration and Immigration, and the Foreign Employment Bureau and even at foreign employment agencies that huge crowds are in queues to obtain the necessary documents for foreign employment.

Most of them are skilled and un-skilled workers in their prime youth who presume that they have no future for them in this country.

At the same time the Government authorities also negotiating with foreign countries and various other organizations to obtain employment opportunities for different categories of workers mainly with the intention of earning badly needed foreign exchange for the national coffers.

There is a big demand for nurses and healthcare workers in some European countries while the skilled workers such as masons, carpenters, plumbers, drivers and mechanics have more opportunities in Gulf countries.

Our youngsters who obtain the NVQ certification level 3 or 4 can easily obtain well paid jobs in their relevant fields of specialization.

It is true that with the dismal economic situation in the country, the Government is also promoting foreign employment right now but the foremost duty of the policy makers should be to innovate an effective and viable program to limit the numbers going out of the country in order to avoid the inevitable vacuum that would be created in our local industries in the near future.

– Sunday Observer Sri Lanka

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