Is Sri Lanka a failing State? If so, why not arrest this decline, starting now?

In Sri Lanka the security apparatus does not function smoothly basically because of certain weaknesses in the 1978 Constitution such as the lack of checks and balances or the independence of the Legislature, the Judiciary and the Executive. The last in turn is split into two between the President of the Republic and the cabinet of ministers headed by the Prime Minister; if they are from two different political parties there can be differences of opinion leading to contradictory decisions and actions – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara

The purpose of this article is to discuss whether Sri Lanka (SL) is at present a ‘failing’ (fragile) state or a ‘failed state’. This writer contributed two articles that appeared in the DFT of 26 February and 27 March this year on strategies to avoid economic collapse and the leadership needed to implement them respectively; these suggest solutions that may help the country to avoid a ‘failing’ or ‘failed’ situations.

Failed states

The Fund for Peace describes a failed state as having characteristics such as ‘loss of control of its territory, erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions, inability to provide public services, and inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community’. Examples of such states are Somalia, Afghanistan and South Sudan. SL is not among them.  

Causes

The causes of state failure according to scholars on the subject are ‘corrupt and self-seeking leadership , malpractices of indigenous elites, prevalence of social conflicts, internal violence, foreign interference, authoritarianism, poor economic performance particularly a steady decline in global terms of trade and environmental degradation’. 

Failing or fragile states 

According to the OECD ‘a state is fragile when it is unable or unwilling to perform the functions necessary for poverty reduction, the promotion of development, protection of the people and the observance of human rights’. In other words the state is unable to perform basic functions in the areas of security, rule of law and basic social services. Sadly SL fits this description. The Fragile States Index, 2018, ranks SL at 50 from the bottom occupied by South Sudan, out of 178 countries.

Indicators 

The Fragile States Index describes fragile states under three sets of groupings , a) political and military indicators among which are sub indicators such as the security apparatus, rule of law, state legitimacy , public services, human rights and external intervention, b)economic indicators, among which are sub indicators that include uneven economic development, poverty and economic decline, and c) social indicators such as demographic (population) pressures, internally displaced people, group grievances, human rights and brain drain. Such ‘weak states fulfil expectations in some areas and perform poorly in other areas’ (Rotberg, 2003). 

SL’s present failing situation is discussed below under some of these and other selected indicators. 

Security 

The primary function of the state is to provide security to the people. Security provides a foundation on which all political, economic and social activity in a state takes place smoothly. (This situation in the country is reflected by the Rule of Law Index 2019 which ranks SL at 63, while Venezuela occupies the bottom position of 126.) 

In SL the security apparatus does not function smoothly basically because of certain weaknesses in the 1978 Constitution such as the lack of checks and balances or the independence of the Legislature, the Judiciary and the Executive. The last in turn is split into two between the President of the Republic and the cabinet of ministers headed by the Prime Minister; if they are from two different political parties there can be differences of opinion leading to contradictory decisions and actions. 

The situation is made worse by Article 55 of the Constitution which enables the politicians in the cabinet of ministers to appoint or promote public officials on the basis of political affiliations and not purely on merit as in Singapore; the public service consisting of qualified and experienced personnel functioned smoothly before the enactment of the 1972 Constitution as the appointment and promotion of public officials was undertaken by an independent commission. 

The current situation where a few criminals had openly planned over a long period of time and executed the massacre of hundreds of innocent Christian churchgoers and the destruction of hotel property on Easter Sunday is an example of the worse kind of damage that could take place due mainly to the above mentioned weaknesses in the Constitution; the concerned officials though forewarned about it did not take any action as the culture among them after 1972 is to await instructions from the politicians; the Head of State and the Ministers concerned apparently woke up to the situation after it happened (as claimed by them). 

Another example is the tsunami of bribery and corruption that has siphoned off an enormous amount of capital that could have been invested to realise development goals; the Corruption Perception Index 2018, of Transparency International, ranks SL at 89, Malaysia at 61 and Singapore at 3 out of 180 countries); this is mainly the result of two other weaknesses in the present Constitution, i.e. the parliamentary electoral system where the unit of election is the larger district and not the smaller constituency and therefore election campaign expenditure (normally funded by dubious characters such as drug dealers) is very high; once elected the motivation of members of parliament is to earn this expenditure back by hook or crook; this behaviour on the part of MPs is indirectly legitimised by the constitution as it does not provide for the regulation of the activities of political parties in the country. 

According to the world Human Rights Protection Scores prepared by C. Faris and K. Snackenberg (Human Rights, Max Rosen, 2019), human rights protection in SL had been rather satisfactory from 1949 to 1977 (0.75 and 0.63 respectively), but decreased drastically in 1990 to -2.5 into negative territory; from then onwards it has increased slightly to a negative of -1.18 in 2013. The period after 1990 roughly coincides with the war with the LTTE from 1983 to 2009 and afterwards.  

The urgent need is to arrest the decline of SL into a failed state. This can be achieved only by electing leaders who are both honest and passionate about serving the needs of the people at the forthcoming elections. In this effort they have to think of ways and means of creating a consensus for a well-integrated nation like a closely-knit family with a single dream or vision of a prosperous life for all in the different communities in the country instead of allowing them to live segregated lives as at present. Practically the only way of doing this is by enacting a new and complete constitution like that of the USA or India. Once political stability is created in this manner (that will help to attract investment especially FDI into the production of goods and services mainly for export), it is a matter of speedy adoption of strategies similar to what was proposed in my article of 26 February, to lead to economic recovery. If this cannot be done the country could slide into a failed state!

In the case of Singapore the score has increased gradually to a positive of 1.41 in 2014 indicating better human rights protection which may have been the foundation of its spectacular economic prosperity. Although the 1978 Constitution has a declaration of human rights, it can be superseded by opposing laws and these rights were never really practically implemented. 

In SL when a crisis occurs there is never a practice of analysing the reasons for it and finding out the ways and means of avoiding them in future; however, after the 30-year war with the LTTE war ended in 2009 a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was appointed; its report of 2011 which examined some of the grievances of the SL Tamils were never fully implemented as is the normal practice in SL.

Although the country is populated by several communities belonging to several racial and religious groups, there has never been and effort at integrating them to a single SL nation as shown by the schools system where the children of different communities are still taught in separate streams and there is no serious attempt to teach English as a link language. A social set up of this nature where there is racial and religious segregation into self -contained ‘tribes’ is guaranteed to explode as it did on Easter Sunday. 

Will foreign investors seriously consider investing in a country where, there is no political stability mainly because of the likelihood of communal clashes as well as the irresponsible conduct of political parties and where there is deep seated corruption under which bribes have to be paid to politicians and officials even for approval of investment proposals? All these problems arise mainly due to a weak constitution under which near-illiterates and criminals like drug dealers can be elected to Parliament.

Uneven economic development and poverty

Economic growth in SL has been declining. According to the latest Central Bank (CB) Annual Report, economic growth in 2018 was 3.2%, lower than 3.4 % in 2017, investment as a percentage of GDP was 28.6% when 35-40 % is required to achieve about 8% growth, per capita GDP was at $ 4,102, lower than the amount in the previous year, the trade deficit surpassed $ 10 billion; according to the CB Annual Report of 2017, Government revenue was at 13.8% of GDP and expenditure was at a high of 19.4% and the external debt was about $ 52 billion in 2017. In other words, the SL economy has collapsed. 

The result is poverty and unemployment which among youth (15-24 years) was 18.6% in 2017. According to World Bank reports the income of individuals earning less than $ 2.5 per day (or poverty) was about 32 % of the population in 2012/13; currently it could be higher. Compared to SL most of the countries in East Asia such as Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea with per capita incomes of $57,714, $ 9,952, $ 29,743 respectively in 2017 have prospered, due to good governance plus strong leadership, higher inflows of foreign direct investment (FDI) and careful management of their economies.

Migration

The number of people leaving the country or migrating because of thorough disappointment with local conditions and a desire of finding better opportunities elsewhere in the world is one of the clearest indicators of fragility; in SL this trend emerged in 1983 particularly because of attacks against the Tamil people. 

According to the Annual Report of the CB by 2008 1.8 million people had left SL; the CB report of 2018 reveals that the number of such departures in 2017 was over 200,000 and that about 36% of them were professional and skilled people. The tragedy is that most of such people never come back to the country where there is a serious scarcity of skilled hands needed by investors. 

Abuse of the natural environment

According to the Forest Resources Assessment of the FAO 2010, the primary forest cover in SL has declined to 2.6% of the total land area. This means we have destroyed most of our natural forest cover which forms the rain water retention area of the country. This is mainly due to the fact that the leaders of the country have not diverted the excess population (26% of the total employed population in 2017, CBSL) engaged in agriculture into manufacturing industries by attracting investments into such activities. It is not surprising that the youth of these people encroach into forested areas and steep slopes for finding a livelihood in the absence employment opportunities in other areas. 

Another result of the abuse of the natural environment is the frequent occurrence of droughts and floods; according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2019, SL takes rank 2 after Puerto Rico (rank 1). The leaders of the country respond to these in a feeble manner after the event; scientists now point out there are ways of reducing the effect of such disasters by cutting down on carbon emissions from a country. 

Conclusion

SL is thus a failing (fragile) state. The urgent need is to arrest the decline of SL into a failed state, as suggested by Robert J. Rotberg, ‘Failed States, Collapsed States, Weak States: Causes and Indicators,’ 2003, referring to SL and two other countries. 

This can be achieved only by electing leaders who are both honest and passionate about serving the needs of the people at the forthcoming elections. In this effort they have to think of ways and means of creating a consensus for a well-integrated nation like a closely-knit family with a single dream or vision of a prosperous life for all in the different communities in the country instead of allowing them to live segregated lives as at present. 

Practically the only way of doing this is by enacting a new and complete constitution like that of the USA or India. Once political stability is created in this manner (that will help to attract investment especially FDI into the production of goods and services mainly for export), it is a matter of speedy adoption of strategies similar to what was proposed in my article of 26 February, to lead to economic recovery. If this cannot be done the country could slide into a failed state!

(The writer is a development economist.)

Source: http://www.ft.lk

Updated On: 9 May 2019 00:00

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