20 May 2013

Development without human capital will be stillborn or deformed


[This article was first published in the Daily Mirror, April 30, 2010]

Jehan Perera is not talking about the LTTE.  He’s not even talking about the Tamil National Alliance. No, not even about Douglas Devananda. He’s talking about a man called Tissa Vitharana.  That’s how much federal-hope has shrunk these days.  It is even evident in Dayan Jayatilleka.  His shrunken-hope rep is not Tissa. It’s Douglas Devananda.  Dayan thinks Dougie delivered.  Well, 28,585 votes (almost a quarter of this from EPDP stronghold, Kayts) was more than half polled by the party he contested under, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), but is still just 6.6% of the total number of electors. 

Tissa’s situation is worse. He didn’t contest.  He couldn’t.  Even had he contested from districts that Jehan and Dayan might believe are partial to devolution, it is safe to say he would not get in. Not even if he contested under the ITAK/TNA.

These gentlemen are clutching at straws and if that would save them from a watery political death, I wish them all the best.  They’ve missed the point in terms of what the electorate wants.  The point was made in January and reiterated in April: DEVELOPMENT and not devolution.   This does not of course mean that concerns of minorities should be summarily and unceremoniously dumped in the trashcan for things that ought to have been trashed the moment they reached expiry date.  Concerns, of minorities or any other group, are always fresh.  ‘Solutions’ based on myth, legends and fantasies can get stale. But that’s another debate.  My concern is ‘development’.

If you want to reduce the manifesto put before the people by President Mahind Rajapaksa when he wanted to be re-elected to a single word/promise it is development.  Not a word was changed when his party went before the people a few weeks ago seeking yet another term to govern this country.  Sure there was the expected lip-service to democracy, good governance and resolution of conflict, but take all the frills away and development is what we’ve got in the sense it is what remains pledged. 

Now Mahinda Rajapaksa has trotted out now and then all kinds of excuses for not delivering on certain of his promises such as much needed constitutional reform and the ensuring of good governance.  He’s used the war-excuse. He’s used the lack-of-numbers excuse (i.e. in Parliament).  These were legitimate excuses, but that time has passed and that’s largely thanks to his political will, leadership and unwavering faith in the ability of his key lieutenants to deliver and of course the people’s continued trust.   He worked hard to eliminate these excuses.  There’s no terrorist threat anymore.  And he has the numbers. Well not quite, but still he is close enough to get the two-thirds and given his powers of persuasions it would be a piece of cake for Mahinda Rajapaksa to obtain the support of 6 more MPs. 

On the other hand Mahinda Rajapaksa promised ‘development’ and to all intents and purposes only mumbled in footnote things like good governance, and setting up structures, mechanisms and processes that produce greater efficiencies and ensure accountability and transparency.  Does this mean that we don’t have the right to keep demanding that he delivers on these things?  We do.  For two reasons.

First of all, structures that deliver better governance is a ‘solution’ to a real grievance and, unlike the whining associated with devolution, this has nothing to do with myths, legends and fantasies.  Secondly, all these constitute pre-conditions for any meaningful development drive.

‘Development’ does not fall from the sky, although there are people who thought this actually happened, the World Bank and IMF and certain ‘experts’, especially from the USAID being seen as ‘the sky’ and their blueprints for resource extraction, exploitation of labour and mismanaging economies as ‘development’.  Development that is sustainable and wholesome, in other words benefits the people across region, identity-group, class and gender and therefore ‘meaningful’, happens best when the relevant structures ensure that the most qualified get to occupy the most relevant positions and that the best ideas get currency and do not get covered in the cobwebs spun by incompetence, arrogance, inferiority complexes and red tape.

To put it bluntly, as of now, we have a system that generates just a handful of brilliant minds and even these are wasted due to mis-placement in the relevant institutions.  The manifest absence of checks and balances and a political culture that promotes sloth, apathy, inefficiency and unprofessional approaches to work would take a lot of correcting, but getting our institutions right would take us a long way in this regard.  This is why good governance is necessary in terms of the mandate given to the UPFA and President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is not just about ‘democracy’.  It is about ‘development’.

There is another massive roadblock that Mahinda Rajapaksa has to contend with.  It is called ‘Human Resources’. Mahinda Rajapaksa doesn’t have to look far to get a sense of the human resources problem that his administration faces.  He struggled to get the right people into the right portfolios.  He’s got the numbers alright but he’s clearly not got the necessary competencies. That’s less an indictment on the voters than a clear assessment of the woeful state of our entire system of education. 

‘Development from above’ is possible.  History has shown that dictators and kings have achieved as much as have ‘democrats’ in delivering ‘development’.  There’s one prerequisite: a population with a critical mass of thinkers, strategists, planners, builders, teachers, academics etc etc.   Without skills and capacities development will be slow and could very well flounder.  Without these things, we can get ‘development’ but not sustainability. We could get ‘development for some’ and the ‘underdevelopment of others’. We could get rising expectations along with unfulfilled aspirations leading to frustrations, a double-distilled mix that could bleed to revolt and destruction.

Human capital is the bedrock of any meaningful development. This is the bottom line.  This fact is borne out by development’s post World War II success stories.  What does this mean if not proper and adequate investment in the development of human and intellectual potential?  Is this not the unconditional priority of social politics of countries such as ours?

Mahinda Rajapaksa has spoken about a ‘Semata  Sarasaviya’ programme, or a system where everyone gets a university education. In his swearing-in speech he said he would not hesitate to do all he can to build a knowledgeable, skilled, strong and healthy citizenry.

Today he needs to stop and take stock.  We are a country that had universal free education. We didn’t really progress and yes ‘free education’ cannot be faulted for all our ills.  The fault, rather, lies in a manifest reluctance to see education as part of development and lack of political will to operationalize those mechanisms demanded to correct the current mismatch between education and the overall human resource needs of the economy. This is an old debate and one doesn’t need to go over it again and again.

We don’t have a proper classification of jobs in the first place. We don’t even have the mechanism to generate such a classification.  We don’t have a needs-assessment exercise or the thinking that demands such an exercise to be done on an ongoing basis. We don’t have enough English teachers. We don’t have enough teachers for science subjects. We lack the laboratories and other equipment.   There’s overcrowding in the Arts stream because there are more teachers in these fields and you need just a piece of chalk and a blackboard (the ‘logic’ that persuaded Peradeniya University to break up the Arts Faculty and locate part of it in Polgolla to satisfy the whim of a local politician, apparently, and not the Medical or Engineering Faculties). 

We need economists, geographers, historians, sociologies etc., and need those who are fluent in literature, philosophy and religion, just as we need doctors, engineers and dental surgeons.   On the other hand, shouldn’t there be logic and reason applied in the structuring of the university system, resource allocation and intake for particular fields of study?  Shouldn’t there be a system where those who don’t make the cut have alternative technical and other fields to engage in and acquire marketable skills?   We need, for example, doctors. We need nurses too.  There is clearly a ‘right mix’ in terms of numbers. There is also, sadly, a clear lacuna in people thinking on these lines and a clear absence of interest in the politicians to deliver on the recommendation of those who have done the relevant research. 

Mahinda Rajapaksa and indeed Basil Rajapaksa, the new Minister of Economic Development must take into account that a study has shown that 90% of teaches in the Central Province are unqualified and that the number for Sabaragamuwa, Southern, Uva,  North Central, North Western and Western Provinces are 87%, 85%, 84%, 81% and 67% respectively.  With this lot teaching it is a miracle that more than 200,000 students at least make it to the A levels.  Both the President and his Minister of Economic Development seem to have the intention but they will not be able to deliver without the requisite human capital.   

Only 3% of our children have the opportunity for higher education.  Of the 100,000 who join the labour market every year, only 30,000 are fully employed. The rest are either unemployed or underemployed or worse, mis-employed. We won’t get the kind of progress we desire or have to potential to achieve unless this situation is addressed. 

There is no doubt that there are areas that need to be picked up, especially the sciences.  There is no doubt that full access to university education must be obtained and that since the state cannot deliver 100% on this, it should rope in the private sector in a regulated manner so that standards are met and children not hoodwinked.

Mahinda Rajapaksa wants to deliver development. He can.  He has to first take a hard look at who is going to do the nuts-and-bolts thing.  There aren’t many, Mr. President.  You have to do something about the woeful lack of human capital. 


Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com


Arjuna Seneviratne said...

A much touted mantra arising from the Human Development Report of 1996 goes as follows: "The basic purpose of development is to enlarge people's choices. In principle, these choices can be infinite and can change over time. People often value achievements that do not show up at all, or not immediately, in income or growth figures: greater access to knowledge, better nutrition and health services, more secure livelihoods, security against crime and physical violence, satisfying leisure hours, political and cultural freedoms and sense of participation in community activities. The objective of development is to create an enabling environment for people to enjoy long, healthy and creative lives."

Let us for the moment assume this is true. Personally, I would go one step lower and state: Development, regardless of the expansion of choices, should at the very least ensure security and equity for all citizens of a country. In either case, it is quite clear that development is not putting up a bunch of buildings or roads. Just as much as environment conservation driven by a desire to keep nature intact is silly, development driven by the desire to construct is equally foolish. Both of these efforts are only relevant if they make sense to the human beings impacted by them. If efforts to conserve natural resources enhances the harmony of the human-environment interface then such an effort is both positive in its impact and useable as a step up in human development. If the efforts to develop a country increases the security, equity and choices of the people, then such an effort is b oth positive in its impact and useable as a step up in human development.

A key requisite of either of these efforts is the ownership of the people of any development exercise. This, can only be ensured through high quality governance and adherence to due process. This, the current regime has not been able to engineer. Therefore, not only is governance to be questioned but the promoted positives of efforts driven by a development agenda that is designed to serve itself regardless of its impact on the people need to be equally questioned. I question.

You are right in saying we have a problem with our entire education system. In fact, the whole world has a problem with an education system that religiously believes in education for a living and not for a life. This is not unique to Sri Lanka. What is unique to Sri Lanka is not misguided efforts at educating its citizens. Rather, it is in the slotting of these people into positions from where they can make a positive contribution to the expansion and consolidation of citizen well being. Why? The current regime has painted itself into a corner and has to choose from within its internal circle of trust and that is a very limited talent pool. I sympathize with them but they seem to have brought this down on themselves. The same reason prevents quality governance from ever taking off and that in turn will ensure that development outcomes are mostly negative from a human development perspective.