Decentralisation: Taking governance to the ground level

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


Why should we have a limited government? – Part II

By Aneetha Warusavitarana

When speaking of a limited government, the first thing that comes to mind is the fact that governments tend to be so expansive. A plethora of ministries and an innumerable amount of departments and agencies spring to mind. However, it is important to keep in mind that when speaking of a limited government, the rationale goes far beyond arguing for fewer ministries and reducing the duplication of work and responsibilities within the government system. A limited government is one that is limited in scope – it identifies its key functions and expends all resources to achieve them. When speaking of the role of the government, its primary functions can be described as the protection of life, liberty, and property. When a government’s main role expands beyond this, there is a strong likelihood that the government will prove to be ineffective and even harmful.

How can a limited government run a country?

It’s all well and good to say that the role of the State should be limited to the protection of life, liberty, and property, but governments also provide a myriad of public goods. Doing all this requires resources, people, and departments. Given that this requires a significant amount of administration, how do you ensure the government does this effectively, while staying within its key mandate and with minimal corruption or abuse of power?

Can decentralisation be the answer?

Decentralisation

Why should Sri Lanka move away from a centralised system of governance and increase the levels of decentralisation in the country? While there are some very theoretical explanations for decentralisation (which are important in their own right), we will use a simpler approach. In a population of approximately 21 million diverse people with different interests, preferences, and disposable incomes, how do markets allocate resources efficiently? Any A/L economics student will reply with the brief answer of the “invisible hand”. In reality, of course, there is no puppet master moving fruits and vegetables from one place to another. Each individual business acts in their own self-interest, resulting in a more efficient allocation of resources. Prices signal to these businesses – and the profits or losses these businesses make guide decisions to produce or sell – and thus, without the convening of committees or the presentation of any findings, an entire country is provided with goods and services it requires. William Easterly sums up this phenomenon as such: “The wonder of markets is that they reconcile the choices of myriad individuals”.

Price signalling works well in allocating resources because at any given point of time, it is impossible for one bureaucrat, or even a host of committees of bureaucrats, to have all the information necessary to dictate the production and distribution of a single good in an economy, much less all goods in an economy. This is because information and knowledge are localised, time sensitive, and tacit. In other words, information and knowledge cannot be transferred effectively in their entirety or in time. The fall of the Soviet Union is a testament to this.

What do markets have to do with decentralisation?

The same principle applies. The decision-making in a market economy is never centralised. While decentralisation will, of course, function differently – the spontaneous order created by price signalling in markets will not be making administrative decisions – the principle that centralised decisions are not effective stands. The reason behind this is that the information problems, which plague centralised decision-making of economics, also plague centralised decision-making for administration and governance. As much as a bureaucrat will find it impossible to distribute exactly the number of potatoes required to each province of this country, it is equally difficult for a bureaucrat to be located in a central government and to take decisions on local infrastructure. Any decision taken at a central level will not be ideal. There will always be information and local contexts that a bureaucrat is not privy to, and as a result, the decision will not be as effective.

Decentralisation brings governance and administration down to the ground level – it means decisions are taken by local government authorities who are best placed to make that decision. They are aware of local contexts and have been elected into office by the people in the locality, which would mean they have an understanding of what is needed. Of course, where the rule of law is weak, decentralisation can mean that local government authorities succumb to crony capitalism, as a system it is not without its faults. However, when comparing central governance and decentralised governance, in the case of decentralisation, there is greater opportunity for electorates to hold their representatives accountable, make their demands heard, and push for the reform that they want. In other words, it puts more power with the people and makes elected individuals more accountable to their voters – an admirable objective not only in principle, but also because of its effectiveness.

Should you say no to that government pension?

Originally appeared in the Daily Mirror

By Aneetha Warusavitarana

From a purely individualistic point of view, working in government can seem as a great choice. Government jobs come with perks; allowances of all natures and a guarantee that even if you underperform, the worst that can happen to you is a transfer – you will not lose your job. 

Once you hit 55, the deal is sweetened. At the point of retirement, you are provided with a pension package that beats ones offered by OECD countries, hands down. The best part of the pension package? You don’t contribute a single rupee towards it.

Why? Because the Sri Lankan government currently runs a non-contributory pensions scheme. Simply put, the government provides a monthly pension payment from the point of retirement to the point of demise. The World Bank places this monthly payment between 83 percent – 88 percent of the employee’s final salary, to which the employee does not contribute. In contrast, the private sector is covered by two provident funds, namely the Employers Provident Fund (EPF) and the Employers Trust Fund (ETF). In the case of the EPF, employers contribute 12 percent and employees contribute 8 percent. Employers contribute 3 percent to the ETF. When looking at the public sector pension scheme from a purely welfare perspective, it is difficult to find fault – a benevolent state is providing its retired government servants with a generous pension plan.

Why should citizens be wary of such benevolence?
According to the World Bank Development Update 2019, the current cost of pension payments amounts to 1.4 percent of GDP, and it is set to increase in the coming years. This is a considerable financial obligation that the government has made – and it is clear that there is worry about how financially sustainable a scheme like this is.

The government has made it clear that reform in public sector pensions is needed, and has taken an initial step to stem the outflow. All government employees hired after the 1st of January 2016 are not included in the present pensions scheme. The government has stated that a new pension scheme will be introduced for all employees hired after this date, making it evident that they wish to phase out the existing scheme.

Apart from the unaffordability of this public sector scheme, the consequences of it are far reaching - it affects productivity in the government service and labour markets in general.

 All the wrong incentives
Complaining about government inefficiency is a fond past time for many Sri Lankans. Some would say that nothing goes as well with a strong cup of tea than a good rant about the government. 

Let’s put the cup of tea down for a minute (just a minute), and ask why the government is so inefficient? There is a general understanding that if you want efficiency, you should look towards the private sector, and not the public sector. 

But why? Surely the government could hire the same sort of people and thereby achieve similar levels of efficiency. Part of the issue lies in the perverse incentives created by a culture of status, consistent increments which are not dependent on performance, and a guaranteed retirement. 

It seems a bit cold blooded to say that guaranteeing someone a decent retirement is a bad thing – but the argument runs deeper than that. Providing employees with retirement plans is not inherently bad. However, these plans need to be structured in a way which incentivizes your employees to work productively and efficiently, while ensuring that the employee (the government in this case) is not crippled by the financial obligation. 

Right now, in the government sector, part of the problem lies in the non-contributory pension scheme. Receiving a pension; receiving a good pension that you did not contribute towards creates a sense of entitlement.

A pension is now a right and not a benefit that is worked towards. After all, people are self-interested, and require the right incentives to be productive and efficient. The public service overall does not provide these incentives, and the pension scheme is only one contributor to this problem.

Labour markets 
Pensions also affect the flexibility and mobility of a country’s labour force. The long vesting period (requiring a worker to stay in that firm or that sector for a defined period of time to be eligible to receive a pension) of the government sector’s pension scheme affects labour mobility as workers are less likely to move between jobs and sectors. While one outcome would be that skills and knowledge would not be transferred across sectors, a more economically damaging outcome would be the perverse incentive for people to join a sector simply for the pension benefit, reducing labour productivity and competition.

This can be seen in Sri Lanka where many university students only want to work in the government sector. There are routine protests against the government for their not being provided cushy government jobs, and in response the government provides 10,000 students around election time. 

How does this impact labour markets? There is a continuous surplus of unemployed graduates, waiting for government jobs – and not considering other options.

Additionally, there is a significant opportunity cost that takes place - people join the government under the assumption that this is the best job available - the option of a job in the private sector is completely disregarded, even though opportunities for job progression, creating an impact, and better wages are all a possibility. 

Prudent financial management could mean that one retires with greater stability than a government pension provides. It is only a shift in mindset that is required. 

Sri Lanka pensions

 Solutions
Nevertheless, the budget speech 2019 stated that a national pension plan would be introduced, implying that this plan would extend beyond the public sector to include private sector and informal sector workers. However, the greatest reform need lies with the current government sector scheme. A few small reforms could be implemented to ease the financial burden that the government currently has to bear for all government employees hired before Jan 1st, 2016. 

The first would be increasing the age of retirement and changing the pension calculation to one that is based on the average wage over the best five years of employment instead of final salary. In order to make this reform more palatable, it is possible that these changes are introduced for the younger cohorts of employees and not those who will reach retirement age in the next five years. In conclusion, before acting on the promise of a national pension plan, the current one should be better managed and made 
financially sustainable. 

The burden of unprecedented costs

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


Why should we have a limited government? – Part I

By Dilshani Ranawaka

“The government that governs best, governs least” – Thomas Jefferson

A state has three core tasks within a society: Protecting the life, liberty, and property of the people. As societies evolved, these core tasks were overlooked when more emphasis was given to managing economies. Should the state intervene in economic affairs? Would that be more beneficial to the economy and society?

For the following four weeks, “The coordination problem” will discuss why large governments cause more harm than good when they engage in tasks beyond ensuring freedom and security of the citizens and the rule of law.

The series titled “Why should we have a limited government?” will justify why large governments are a bane to the economy through arguments on costs, problems of coordination, and corruption. The series will then conclude with a fourth piece on what an ideal state looks like.

It is intuitive that larger governments incur larger costs. This takes place through two avenues: recurrent expenditures and management expenditures. The present Government has lost count of the number of enterprises the State owns, as revealed by the Advocata Institute’s recently published report “The State of State Enterprises in Sri Lanka – 2019”.

As of 2017, 1,389,767 of the labour force in Sri Lanka are employed in the public service. This is around 14.5% of the labour force. The enormity of these numbers is clear when compared with developed countries. For instance, Canada, which has a population of 37.6 million, has a public sector of 262,696, according to the official Government of Canada website, making it clear that a government does not need to be expansive even in the instance of a large population.

To make things even worse, the Government introduces salary increments either at the onset of an election or during a new budget proposal, instead of having increments dependent on performance.

With the recently proposed increment of Rs. 10,000 for the public sector, the expenditure for wages adds up to Rs. 768 billion for the year. This is around 25% of the government’s expenditure, as per the Budget in 2019. This exceeds the amount allocated for public investment (Rs. 756 billion) for the year 2019, which is around 24% of the budgeted expenditure for this year.

These complicated numbers bring questions to mind: Is providing jobs a role of a government? What is the opportunity cost? What are the indirect consequences? What is the concealed political gain from this process?

A state’s role goes beyond providing job opportunities. Some of the crucial elements a state should look into are national defence and maintaining law and order. The Easter attacks and ensuing events highlighted that the Government should be focusing more on its core functions before moving beyond.

Furthermore, when looking retrospectively at political campaigns, politicians target the votes of government officers mainly through the introduction of wage increments. While increments are positive incentives for productivity, politicians use them for popularity. In such cases, two factors increase the costs for the government. Since larger governments require more state officers for administration purposes, the costs incurred just for administration purposes increase. When politicians promising higher increments become popular, the cost burden for the government piles up.

Every decision made in the economy has an opportunity cost. A state could allocate resources either for consumption or for investments. Investments generate direct income in the long run while consumption creates effective demand which indirectly generates income. Given this backdrop, it is important to answer why unregulated and irresponsible expenditure by a state is catastrophic.

Let us explain through a simple example. If a household spends on consumption which does not generate income, the household has to resort to loans. A similar argument can be transposed towards a state. If a state spends on consumption (in this case the cost for expansion of the government), they have to utilise other methods such as loans or taxes which are reflected back on the taxpayers of the country. These wage expenditures incurred by the government are utilised for consumption most of the time. Alternatively, if politicians stop promising salary increments and reduce the size of the government, these wages could be utilised for public investments – a critical requirement for economic growth and long-term income generation.

Cost Burden

Leaving vital services aside, what do state officers incur to the government? Losses or revenues? Would an additional state officer cover the cost of their wages and generate revenue through their productivity? Would it increase the efficiency of the department? These questions should be standard criteria before unnecessarily expanding particular state departments. The experience one has at most government institutions speaks for the inefficiency that plagues these institutions.

What is the underlying cause of incompetence of the State in Sri Lanka? If the government is supposed to facilitate services, why do they operate their entities in a manner they generate losses? Why do we constantly see power cuts through the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) if larger governments are meant to provide better services? Could we keep our trust on the State, given the way they function with our money?

Do larger governments function better? The evidence seems to indicate otherwise.

Excessive regulations in tourism – ‘So Sri Lankan’

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


By Dhananath Fernando

Tourism – a topic that politicians and bureaucrats never get tired of. Following Easter Sunday, the tourism industry is now on a different trajectory. Security concerns have affected over 170,000 people directly employed and 220,000 people indirectly employed in an industry that contributes about 5% of GDP. The initial plan the Government had for 2020 was to increase tourism earnings to $ 7 billion from its current earning position of about $ 4.3 billion, and increase spending per visitor to $ 264 per day from the current position of $ 178 per day in 2018.

The approach taken by every successive government to increase numbers has been to make their mantra “promotion”. Just as the country follows the same traditions every new year, every successive government and the minister of tourism proposes a new campaign and a slogan for the Sri Lankan tourism industry. They produce scenic showreels and graphics of this splendid island to showcase at many travel exhibitions and to run promotions online as well as offline. We were the “Wonder of Asia”, then converted to the “Little Miracle” for a short time, and to the “Land Like no other”. And now we are “So Sri Lanka”.

While the slogans and promotion campaigns are of paramount importance, governments have failed to provide sufficient focus on the actual details that matter to the industry. This is reflected in the debt relief package offered in the aftermath of the Easter attacks. It might seem unrealistic to expect the Government to address concerns across such a large and diverse industry – when stakeholders range from high-investment airline operators to the destination point trishaw. However, a few simple business principles can be applied regardless of the stakeholder category.

  1. Minimum regulatory barriers to enter and exit the market

  2. Lower taxation so the prices will be affordable

  3. Minimum government intervention to allow greater efficiency at the ground level

Let’s go into detail with a few regulatory barriers mentioned on the website of the Tourism Development Authority for registrations of online/offline travel agents (destination management companies).

Travel agents and destination management companies are entities that coordinate an entire trip within Sri Lanka for tourists. They recommend the travel route, book the hotels and lodging on behalf of the tourist, and arrange everything from airport pick up to drop off. In short, they do an extensive coordination job. These travel agencies can be found on the internet and tourists can directly reach them over the web. There is also a business to business (B2B) model which is common in the industry. In the B2B model, the respective agent from another country approaches the local travel agents and the local travel agent acts as an agent of the particular company, and this works vice versa.

The profile of tourists shows that about 2.3 million tourists only spend an average of $ 163 per day over 10.8 days. The industry needs to be accessible for business newcomers to enter the travel market and create new value propositions to attract more tourists to Sri Lanka, especially at a time where the entire industry is shaken by the Easter attacks.

In the category of registering as a travel agent of Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA), there are certain requirements which have to be met. Prospective businesses must show a 1.2 million working capital for a sole proprietorship and a one million working capital for a limited liability. Additionally, a bank guarantee of 10% of the working capital is required. Furthermore, SLTDA wants the new travel agent to have 250 square feet of furnished office space with a reception, telephone line, fax line, and a computer reservation system.

They have further made it mandatory to employ a minimum of three professionally qualified or experienced staff to work on transport, accommodation, currency, outcome regulation, reservation of airline tickets, and general information on travel and tourism-related services.

I am sure all these guidelines must have drafted with good intentions, but this has made it almost impossible for a new entrant to enter the market as a travel agent. To fulfil all the guidelines to get a license, you need more than Rs. 3-4 million, which makes it very difficult for a small and micro entrepreneur to enter the industry. In reality, a small operation as a travel agent would require one laptop with internet an individual with excellent coordination and communication skills. It would require a maximum of two to run a small-scale operation. A reception is not required as your clients are visiting scenic destinations and staying in hotels – they will not be visiting your office.

Even if a company wanted to impress their clients with attractive office space, there are many co-working spaces in Colombo where you can hire a desk space and a board room for a few thousand rupees on an hourly basis. While other industries, most notably tech recognising the benefits of a co-working space for start-ups, SLTDA still wants telephone and fax lines for an industry where most clients communicate on email and database call apps.

The guidelines provided for recruitment are a clear-cut case of how government agencies create bottlenecks affecting the ease of doing business. An entrepreneurial individual starting small will never take a risk of having three professionals on the payroll during the start-up period. They will instead hire a semi-skilled person who has the capacity to learn on the go. A travel operation simply does not require a professional graduate to run a small-scale business.

The Government initiated “Enterprise Sri Lanka Loan Scheme – Erambuma” provides a maximum of Rs. 1.5 million for a young graduate with an innovative business idea. While this is commendable, the regulations brought in by SLTDA will make it virtually impossible for a young graduate to set up a travel agency, even with the loan.

If the Government is serious about getting tourism on the track, it is of paramount importance that they reduce entry barriers for new entrepreneurs. If not, the plan of creating a tourism industry worth Rs. 7 billion will remain a castle in the air.

While regulation is important, especially to maintain standards and ensure quality, it is also important to distinguish between regulations that will help the industry grow and those that will stifle it. SLTDA regulates more than 25 such industries from hotels to scuba diving, and bringing all these regulations to light would fit a decent-sized book. It is necessary that SLTDA revisits its guidelines, keeping in mind how these guidelines affect both established players as well as new entrants who would really make a difference.

It is said “how you do small things will determine how you do big things”. While tourism authorities run promotions on the “So Sri Lanka” slogan, it would be useful for them to keep this phrase in mind too, before imposing regulations which restrict entry into the market.

How many committees does it take to fix an airline?

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


By Dilshani Ranawaka

On 1 March, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved $ 164.1 million under the Extended Fund Facility after successfully completing the fifth review for the country. According to the IMF, restructuring and enhancing the governance of SriLankan Airlines and other state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and the implementation of price formula are key issues that should be addressed.

SriLankan Airlines has a new CCO and CFO as a result of the numerous numbers of commissions formed to assess and come up with a restructuring process. Presently, the losses alone had accumulated up to Rs. 40 billion in a time frame of 2016-2018.

The solution is pretty straightforward – find the root cause and then come up with recommendations. However, restructuring in the case of SriLankan Airlines appears to be a rather daunting process for the Government, with endless committees and subcommittees working on a strategy. The Government started off by appointing Cabinet members and state officials in the first commission. It took them three years to realise that it is crucial to appoint experts to look into this matter. Even after appointing four committees plus consulting the best in the aviation industry, Nyras, what they have achieved so far is the appointment of a new board and a new management along with the CCO and CFO. Given the climbing amount of debt from operating the airline and also knowing the intensity of the losses, why have they taken such a long time to plan a way out of this?

The first such committee was formed back in May 2017, focusing on privatising the airline. The council was headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and consisted of officials from the Cabinet and other state officials. Following up on the process, it was reported that the Prime Minister was to take the decision on restructuring the airline in July 2017.

“By 31 July, we have to give an internal restructuring plan to the Prime Minister, basically looking at what we have to do internally with SriLankan – irrespective of whether we are getting a partner or not, we need to move forward,” a statement given by then Minister of Public Enterprise Development Kabir Hashim.

However, implementation did not materialise, and on 8 December 2017, the President appointed another special ministerial committee and a committee of officials to assist them to decide the fate of SriLankan Airlines with a deadline of two weeks, with a report due to be submitted on 20 December 2017. The actions regarding the airline were to be implemented on or before 31 July 2018. Why does the Government take such a long time – almost half a year – to implement these recommendations? The role of any government in an economy is to adjust market failures, not to cause more.

By 2018, Nyras, one of the leading aviation consultancy firms, was hired after the initial round of recommendations, and it presented a comprehensive report. However, the consultancy group has now filed a lawsuit against the Government because of delayed consultancy payments. While these measures were taken and international consultants were hired, SriLankan Airlines was still piling up losses at an exponential rate.

By 7 January 2019, the President formed yet another commission to conduct a comprehensive study – review the present vision and mission objectives, strategies, corporate plan, and action plan of the airline – and come up with recommendations for restructuring, which does not consist of any member of the previous committees formed by the President. Does this mean that the previous four committees appointed (two committees in 2017, one in 2018, and another in 2019) are redundant?

Exercising our rights as citizens, we need to push for fast reforms as this is a black hole sucking out tax-payer money. It has taken five committees, including consultancy from Nyras, to address various issues of SriLankan Airlines for the past three and a half years. With these five committees, what the Government has achieved so far is inducting the board of the airlines.

What we can take from this is:

  1. The commissions have submitted recommendations that wouldn’t work

    or

  2. The Government is incapable of implementing these recommendations

    or

  3. The Government is being willfully negligent by not taking action and implementing recommendations.

Given past experiences, these failures indicate a combination of the second and third conclusions.

SriLankan Airlines, which is operated under Emirates – a renowned carrier of United Arab of Emirates, enjoyed Rs. 4.4 billion in 2008 only except for three years during the time period of 2000-2008. The next 10 years, once the airline was taken over by the Government, suffered heavy losses due to the decline in performance and poor governance. The national airline had been climbing down in terms of performance as well as losses.

How many committees would it take for the Government to really execute any of these plans? When the good governance regime started their office in mid-2015, the losses of SriLankan Airlines were Rs. 16.4 million. The losses of the airline had more than doubled up to a cumulative loss of Rs. 40 billion for the time period between 2016 and 2018. It took Rs. 40 billion and three years’ worth of planning to appoint two vital roles, the Chief Commercial Officer and the Chief Financial Officer, to the airline. How enormous should the losses be for the governance to implement restructuring procedures? What would be at stake by then? This is indefinitely an answer Sri Lankans would not like to find out.

Keeping track of our state enterprises

Originally appeared on the Daily News

By Aneetha Warusavitarana

The Sri Lankan government is currently in a rather confused state of having lost track of the number of state enterprises it runs.

While the Ministry of Finance tracks the financials of 55 key SOEs, the government does not have an official number for the enterprises it runs. The Annual Report of the Ministry of Finance states that there are 400 and this is true to a certain extent. In the Advocata Institute’s 2019 report on the state of state enterprises, it has identified 424 principal SOEs, 84 subsidiary SOEs and 19 sub-subsidiary SOEs; bringing the total to a shocking 527 entities.

While it is bewildering that the government runs a minimum of 527 entities, the losses sustained by these enterprises are a greater cause for concern. When looking at the financials of the 55 strategic SOEs (which account for only 10.4% of the 527), the cumulative losses for the period of 2006 – 2017 amount to a massive Rs. 795 billion.

Reform promises

Apparently, the government has taken note of this. Reform has been promised by a variety of politicians at pivotal political moments. The election manifesto of President Maithripala Sirisena stated,

“I will implement a plan corresponding to Singapore’s Thamasek model to regularise the Management of State owned strategic institutions and sectors such as state banks, the harbour, energy, water supply, airports and transport.”

This is essentially a good starting point. Under the Singaporean Temasek model, one holding company is responsible for countries’ public enterprises. This is a model that has worked, with variations being adopted in other countries.

The Indonesian variation of the model has one holding company for each sector – given that Sri Lanka is a much smaller country it is possible that we could manage with one holding company.

The benefits of adopting this model lie in the accountability it creates. Having a holding company creates distance from the government and its SOEs, reducing chances for political intervention. It’s important to note that the Prime Minister has also expressed his support for this model, which meant the policy had buy-in from both sides of then unity government. While the Temasek model is a step in the right direction, if we want our SOEs to be efficient, privatisation is where the final solution lies.

On that note, the ‘privatisation of state-owned enterprises’ was mentioned early in the 2016 budget speech. The speech highlighted the loss-making nature of SOEs and the negative impact this it had on the budget. The solution mentioned was the use of ‘corrective measures’ to transform SOEs into commercially viable enterprises.

The methods recommended were selective, market-based pricing mechanisms for public utilities, rationalising of recruitment and exploring public-private-partnership opportunities.

The budget speech of 2017 also stated that steps would be taken to make SOEs viable business entities through cost reflective pricing structures and operational autonomy.

It went further, committing to the listing of non-strategic enterprises such as the Hyatt, Grand Oriental Hotel, Waters Edge, West Coast, Manthai Salt, Hambantota Salt and Hilton. The rationale was that the money raised could be used for debt repayment. Notably, both the budget speech of 2018 and 2019 were silent on the topic of SOE reform.

Working under the assumption that these promises were made in good faith, there is the question of why reform never materialises. It is possible that we have been trying to run before we can walk. While SOE losses have to stemmed, it may be better to have smaller, digestible phases of reform than a large reform agenda which will never move beyond a statement or speech.

Reform is vital, but should realistic

A key point highlighted in the recent IMF staff report was the losses sustained by state owned enterprises. Three main SOEs; the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and SriLankan Airlines have recorded a combined loss of 1.3 per cent of GDP in 2018, compared to 0.5 per cent of GDP in 2017. The report also puts the financial obligations of non-financial SOEs at 11.8% of GDP.

Given rising losses and the urgent requirement for some level of action to be taken, it may be that the government should focus on smaller, more achievable reform that lies within the realm of political possibility. In Advocata’s 2019 report on the state of state enterprises, a few key reforms were identified.

These reforms were chosen because they are politically feasible and because they will have a targeted impact on the root causes behind SOE losses. Two of the main reforms are detailed below.

  1. Conduct a survey of all state-owned enterprises: it is impossible for the government to regulate or monitor these entities, when the government is uncertain of the scope of its responsibility. Once the survey is completed, the government can institute basic reporting procedures.

  2. Strengthen COPE, COPA and the Auditor General’s Department: these institutions are the main source of accountability for state-owned enterprises and as such should be given a mandate which allows them to take sufficient action.

Once these steps are taken, the government could expand its reform agenda to encompass the OECD principles of corporate governance, which include clearly defining the state’s role as an owner, establishing an effective legal and regulatory framework for SOEs, ensuring transparency and disclosure, while emphasizing the state’s responsibility to stakeholders. In short, the OECD guidelines will nudge SOEs towards a path of transparency and efficiency.

However, in the short term, the first two reforms mentioned above remain crucial.

SL SOE Count

It’s bloody unfair!

Originally appeared on Daily FT, Ceylon Today and Daily Mirror

By Anuki Premachandra

Today (28) is Menstrual Hygiene Day. Most of you might not be aware of it because in Sri Lanka, we pretend that women don’t bleed. 

Poor menstrual hygiene is caused by a lack of education on the issue, persisting taboos and stigma, limited access to hygienic menstrual products and poor sanitation infrastructure that undermines the educational opportunities, health and overall social status of women and girls around the world. As a result, millions of women and girls are kept from reaching their full potential. 


In Sri Lanka, we treat access to menstrual products as both a luxury and a black market good. Steeped in social stigma, the negative characterization of these necessities have overwhelmingly resulted in a growing prevalence of ‘Period Poverty’. 

Period Poverty isn’t just another term 

Period Poverty refers to having a lack of access to sanitary products due to financial constraints. This problem is quite serious in the case of Sri Lanka. Commercially produced sanitary towels typically sell between Rs. 120-175. Imported brands can go up to Rs. 350, putting them out of reach for most women, thereby making it a luxury for some. 

The heavy tax on sanitary napkins is a key contributor to these disproportionately high prices. 

In September 2018, the Minister of Finance reduced the tax on sanitary napkins to 62% from 102%, following the removal of the CESS tax. The Minister for Finance Mangala Samaraweera recently mentioned in a Reuters article that he was looking at ways to reduce the tax further as he recognises the effect of period poverty on girl’s school attendance and the participation of women in the economy. 

The average woman has her period for 2,535 days of her life. That’s nearly seven years of depending on unhygienic cloth rags and makeshift solutions if sanitary napkins are beyond your financial reach. 

This is a classic characteristic of a luxury good. Expensive watches or perfumes are only within the purchasing power of some, because only they are rich enough to afford it. 

Unfortunately sanitary napkins have fallen to the same misfortune. Is it justifiable that something so essential as a pad is something that only those with financial capacity can afford? 

This year’s tagline is ‘Menstruation Matters’ and could not be more relevant to Sri Lanka. A few weeks ago, a Sunday newspaper ran an article on urbanisation that expressed views on how the ‘modern’ woman buys sanitary napkins in this country – indeed, a round peg in a square hole. Nonetheless, it is interesting to analyse the thinking behind this narrative. 

The writer explains how women in modern society now purchase their sanitary napkins in broad daylight over supermarket counters, instead of the sanitary napkins being sold wrapped in newspaper or brown bags in efforts to hide the identity of the product. There is clear disapproval of purchasing sanitary napkins out in open! 

Unfortunately, the ideal transaction etiquette the writer holds dear is more common in Sri Lanka than we’d like to accept. A few weeks ago, when I purchased a packet of sanitary napkins in Kandy, the grocery uncle went to great lengths to wrap my purchase up in newspaper, because god forbid if someone finds out I’m on my period, right? Some blame culture, some blame our values – but the result of this stigma is the imminence of ‘Period Poverty,’ which 10.5 million women in our country are burdened with. 


How does stigmatising our periods aggravate Period Poverty?

This little charade of hiding your pads and the norms which reinforce this act makes it almost seem like you’re buying a boxful of heroin, and not pads. 

Treating a product this essential like you would a good sold in the black market means that the social stigma around periods extends to the purchase of sanitary napkins. 

The stigma is so strong that stores don’t sell the product without masking its identity, women don’t openly discuss the purchase of this product, leading us to accept the product as it is, without questioning its price or quality merely due to the lack of open conversation. We’re made to accept whatever that is sold to us – at a higher price and with little variety. 

The local sanitary napkin market is dominated in Sri Lanka by a few brands. The protection of these brands is also why there is such a huge tax on the imports. When compared to supermarket aisles in India, Sri Lankan aisles carry very limited variances of the product. 

The demand for specific types of sanitary napkins differ from woman to woman – our physiologies are different. We barely see pads that are for example, organic cotton, washable and reusable, etc. in our aisles because when we treat pads as a black market product, we’ve put ourselves in a situation where we’ve just got to accept whatever that is available in our reach!

No, your pads are not a packet of drugs whose identity needs to be masked and sealed. No, it is not fair that pads are made expensive (through taxes and very minimal competition) to the point that only a selected few can afford them. 

This Menstrual Hygiene Day, I urge you to start having open conversations about issues of this nature. We need to change this narrative. Pads should not be a luxury. Period. 

The COPE reports

Originally appeared on Echelon

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

The Parliamentary Committee on Public Accounts (COPE) reports on state enterprises

The COPE, a key oversight committee, is by its own admission under-resourced. It lacks staff, particularly for audit and legal support. They also lack IT systems and, apparently, even a proper office. Despite these limitations and the fact that the reports are not comprehensive, they have examined a limited number of issues in a few institutions. These reports are a devastating critique of the state of governance, underlining the need for a re-think in the role of the government.

Excerpts from the reports are as follows:

SRI LANKA PORTS AUTHORITY: RS 5.8 BILLION TO CONSTRUCT SURIYAWEWA CRICKET STADIUM

As per the Auditor General’s report on the SLPA (2016):
“The Authority had conducted the architectural and construction activities of the international cricket stadium in Suriyawewa on behalf of the institute of Sri Lanka Cricket. According to the contract agreement entered into between the contractor and the Authority on the said construction, a sum totalling Rs5,838 million, inclusive of the interest amounting to Rs2,881 million, had remained payable to the contractor by the Authority up to 31 December 2016 in respect of the said constructions made under the variation order (emphasis added) of the contract for construction of the Hambanthota Harbour.”

Note: A variation order is an alteration to the scope of works in a construction contract in the form of an addition, substitution or omission from the original scope of works. While these are not unusual in large projects, it is bizarre to treat work on an entirely new and unrelated project as a variation in a port construction contract.

“Despite the non-availability of any verification that the said sum would be borne either by the Treasury or the institute of Sri Lanka Cricket, the sum had been accounted in the financial statements of the Authority as being receivable from a Government institution, but the receipt of that sum remained doubtful”(ibid).

Separately, the third COPE report observes that Sri Lanka Cricket owes the State Engineering Corporationan amount of Rs818 million on 7 projects as at 31.12.2015.

PEOPLE’S BANK DUD LOAN

1. NON-PERFORMING LOANS AT RS395 MILLION – KANDY CITY CENTRE
An overdraft facility of Rs245 million and a long-term loan facility of Rs150 million were granted to a customer for a construction named Kandy City Centre on 30 January 2009 and 27 January 2009, respectively. However, these loans were classified as non-performing loans after 3 months. Though the customer agreed to pay the loan in installments of Rs1 million per month, it was decided to offset the loan against the monthly rent to be paid on behalf of the People’s Bank branch housed at Kandy City Center.

However, even if the customer repaid the loan in monthly installments of Rs1 million each, the bank would have to wait for 62 years to recover the outstanding amount. The chairman stated that several such unsystematic transactions had been done.

Note: As per CBSL guidelines, ‘Credit facilities repayable in monthly installments: when 3 consecutive installments, principal and/or interest, have not been paid’ are to be classified as non-performing loans.

The loan granted in January 2009 was classified as non-performing within three months of disbursement, which indicates that there was no attempt at repayment. Subsequent to COPE recommendations, Rs20 million had been recovered. Legal action had been instituted, but the defendants did not appear in courts when the case was called on 1 December 2016.

Credit approval in a bank should go through multiple levels of authority – the branch manager, credit officer, credit committees, board committees and risk management committees – depending on the size of the loan. A loan in excess of Rs100 million would typically require approval at the highest levels. The chairman’s comment of ‘unsystematic transactions’ seems to indicate serious control weaknesses, further examples follow.

2. NON-PERFORMING LOANS GRANTED BY JA-ELA BRANCH AT RS619 MILLION
The Ja-ela Bank branch had granted three loan facilities and three overdraft facilities to a customer, his spouse and an enterprise; and subsequently, these loans were categorized as non-performing.

I. At the date of 12.11.2013, the outstanding balance of Rs619,867,345 of the three overdraft facilities and one loan facility could not be recovered.

II. The chairman stated that legal action has been taken to recover more than 60% of the loans that had been granted in an unsystematic manner and discussions are being held with regard to the remaining portion of the loans.

Note: Subsequent follow-up by COPE indicates that the husband and wife were directors in a company engaged in property development. Loans had been obtained in the names of the individual directors and the company. The unsettled balance of these loans was Rs197 million and the interest to be collected was Rs503 million, making the sum total due to the bank Rs700 million by September 2016.

AIRPORT AND AVIATION SERVICES

1. Rs. 7 MILLION FOR THE CONSTRUCTION OF KATARAGAMA HOLIDAY RESORT
Rs7 million had been paid to a private party in 2002 to purchase land to construct this holiday resort. Thereafter, the Kataragama Divisional Secretariat informed that the land belongs to the government and that it had been obtained on a 30-year lease from January 2008 for an annual lease of Rs460,000. However, the sum of Rs7 million paid to a private party had not been recovered.

Note: Following the COPE report, legal action had been instituted in the Gampaha District court for recovery of the Rs7 million. The question as to why the title was not properly checked prior to purchase remains unanswered.

2. AIRPORT AND AVIATION SERVICES LIMITED: RS248 MILLION PAID ON A CONTRACT SIGNED FOR RS27 MILLION TO DEVELOP AN ERP SYSTEM. THE PROJECT WAS NOT COMPLETED.
The contract had been awarded to a private company for Rs27,464,632 (without VAT) in June 2012 for the implementation of the project within 8 months. The company had paid a sum of Rs248,600,000 (without VAT) to the contractor and the period of the contract had been extended on four occasions. Though over four years have lapsed since the awarding of the contract, the contractor had failed to carry out the contract properly. The work of this institution has currently been suspended and it has submitted an appeal.

SRI LANKA TOURISM DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY

1. SPENT A TOTAL OF RS113 MILLION ON FOUR OCCASIONS FOR WORK THAT WAS NOT CARRIED OUT
A sum of Rs11 million out of Rs29 million had been received for renovating 30 rooms of a holiday bungalow belonging to the Authority had been for work not done and overpaid taxes. According to the report obtained by the Authority from ICTAD, a loss of nearly Rs5 million has been incurred. Steps had not been taken to recover that amount from the contractor or the officer who approved the payment.

A sum of Rs3.2 million had been paid to suppliers based on three letters, which the suppliers had produced stating that they had provided dozers to construct the Kalpitiya Mohottuwasama Jetty. This payment had been made without a certificate of fixing work hours according to the daily meter reading by an officer of the authority.

Even though the Kalpitiya integrated Tourism project commenced in 2008 on an estimated cost of Rs5.5 billion in order to construct holiday resorts with 4,000 rooms and infrastructures facilities to be completed within 5 years, not a single room had been constructed despite an expenditure of Rs88.7 million at December 2014.

2. PAID RS7.3 MILLION AS PART OF THE INTEREST OF A LOAN OBTAINED BY A PRIVATE HOTEL
Four hotels had been selected close to the Hambantota International Cricket Stadium (which was selected to host cricket matches for the 2011 Cricket World Cup), to develop accommodation facilities.

It was revealed that this sum of Rs7.3 million, a portion of the 4% interest of a loan obtained by the Peacock Beach Hotel from the Bank of Ceylon, had been paid out of the Tourism Development Fund on a number of occasions. According to the documents furnished to this committee, the approval of the minister in charge had not been obtained to make the payments.

Note: A letter appended to the COPE report provides some explanation of the circumstances of this payment. It indicates that the four hotels had to be upgraded to four-star status in order to host the 2011 World Cup matches. The hotels had apparently informed the SLTDA that there was no commercial viability to the exercise and requested that the government subsidise the interest cost on the loans required to finance the upgrade.

The cost of upgrade for three hotels is indicated as being “Rs414 million”. The upgrade cost of the fourth hotel was apparently not available. The letter was written by the Director General of the SLTDA and addressed to the Secretary of the Ministry of Tourism had been copied to the Bank of Ceylon, People’s Bank and Hatton National Bank. The interest rates on the loans were supposed to be 12% and the SLTDA was supposed to pay 4% as a subsidy. Based on these figures, the subsidy for the three hotels would amount to Rs16.5 million annually, assuming loans to the values indicated were granted. It is not known if this was the case and if further liabilities exist.

NATIONAL WATER SUPPLY AND DRAINAGE BOARD

There was a cost escalation of 338% in 11 water supply projects that were funded by a bank loan of Rs54 billion. The board has received an unsolicited foreign-funded project, and work has commenced without a contract. Strangely, the NWSDB has been appointed as a sub-contractor on the project by the main contractor, to the value of $64 million (it appears that the unsolicited proposal was accepted by the NWSDB and the work has later been sub-contracted to the NWSDB itself).

Lanka Mineral Sands Ltd. spends money on tasks that are contrary to the objectives of the company – Beach Park The company’s welfare funds have been utilized for the construction of roads and buildings in various other areas in contravention to the objectives of the institution. Information pertaining to spending Rs40 million for the construction of the Hambantota Beach Park and spending money for making improvements to the Devinuwara Maha Devale have come to light.

All eggs in the tourism basket?

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


By Aneetha Warusavitarana

The Easter Sunday attacks devastated Sri Lanka. As much as the attacks shattered lives, the economy too has taken a hard hit. According to Reuters, full-year median growth could drop as low as 2.5%, with analysts concerned that second-quarter growth could be zero or even drop to negative. To give these numbers context, these growth numbers are the worst the country has seen since 2001, when Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) was attacked. The economic hit to the tourism sector is the most visible, due to the nature of the attacks, with occupancy dropping drastically from 75% to a paltry 5%.

Officially, the tourism sector accounts for 5% of GDP, but in reality, the industry adds a lot more to the economy. The growth we see in the formal tourism sector is also an indication of the growth created in the informal sector. If one gets off the train at Ella or walks around Sigiriya, it is clear that a large number of tourists backpack throughout the country; staying at low-budget homestays and eating at local eateries. The result is a boom in local industries as people work as tour guides, make cheese kottu, drive a trishaw, and take a loan to build a homestay on their property.

This addition to the economy is notoriously difficult to enumerate, and it is virtually impossible to include all economic activity created by tourism into national figures. However, one can conclude with certainty that tourism is an important sector on which the livelihoods of thousands of people are dependent.

While this seems positive, the downside is that this means that the lull in tourism has an impact that goes far beyond what’s calculated. The economic losses and instability brought to thousands of livelihoods is difficult to comprehend. The Government put forward a relief package for the industry, and while this is timely, it is also important to look at the rest of the economy.

Before the attacks, the industry was optimistic – Lonely Planet ranked us the number one destination for 2019, and the Government launched the “So Sri Lanka” brand. It is clear that growth in this sector was and continues to be a priority. However, if we want to create long-term, sustainable growth for the country, more needs to be done.

Resilience beyond the comfort zone

While tourism is important and we do need to focus on this, we cannot neglect the rest of the economy. Ideally, our economy should be resilient, with other sectors of the economy able to absorb a shock, reducing the time taken for the country to recover. While we have a comfortable comparative advantage in tourism, we need to move into other areas.

For all intents and purposes, Sri Lanka opened its economy in 1977. While we were one of the first countries in the region to open up, our export sector failed to keep pace with our comparator countries. Nationalist sentiment drove mainstream discourse, and free trade is perceived as a threat to local industries and local jobs. Successive governments were swayed by or actively promoted this perception, resulting in a country which is in practice, not very open.

The Government’s role

Export diversification has been a buzzword over the last few years. GDP growth in countries such as Vietnam and Indonesia was driven by strategic export diversification. As is visualised in the chart, these countries are miles ahead of Sri Lanka in the contribution their exports make to GDP. Sri Lanka has recognised the importance of export growth, and key areas have been targeted through the National Export Strategy. However, export diversification will not happen overnight, and it will not happen in isolation. There needs to be a legal and regulatory environment that is conducive to this growth, creating the right incentives for businesses to take the initiative and diversify. As such, the Government should push a much wider reform programme.

The Singapore-Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement, signed in 2018, was the first trade agreement we signed in a decade. This is only a partial victory – the trade agreement faced significant opposition, even after it was signed. The Government needs to take the initiative, not only to sign free trade agreements, but also to make sure the local businesses are in a position to take advantage of these agreements.
A vital part of creating buy-in on a national scale is the effective and timely dissemination of information. Open, transparent discussions should be held before signing free trade agreements; these would go a long way in countering anti-free trade mentality.

In addition, regulations should be eased for export-oriented businesses; making it easier and not more difficult for an entrepreneur to sell their product abroad. Finally, the Government should speed up its current programme of tariff removal. Restricting imports to the country via tariff barriers actually suppresses the growth capacity of our export industries. Free trade works best when borders are truly open and intervention is limited, and our export industries often depend on imported inputs which are cheaper than local alternatives. By removing tariffs on these imported inputs, the Government will allow export industries to produce goods at lower prices, and price their final goods on par with global competition, creating opportunity for our export industry to grow and diversify.

While it is important that focus is given in the short term to industries that have been hit the hardest, a responsible government would take this opportunity to assess the health of other key sectors of the economy, and take steps to facilitate their growth, as opposed to hindering it.

A veil of incorporation or a shroud of secrecy?

Originally appeared on Echelon

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

SOEs incorporates under the companies act

State-owned Enterprises (SOEs) in Sri Lanka come in a bewildering variety of forms, ranging from departments, authorities, boards and state corporations, to limited companies. The traditional forms are the first four, which are usually created by a special act of parliament. The advantage of this is that it creates direct accountability of the SOE to the parliament.

When SOEs are formed through acts of parliament, they are subject to the stringent financial and administrative regulations of the state and are obligated to report to the parliament.

The Companies Act is intended for use by private businesses and the principal accountability is to shareholders. There is no obligation under the Act to comply with the regulatory and accountability mechanisms that govern state entities.

The Auditor General reports that, unless the majority of shares are owned by the government, even the audit of limited companies is beyond their purview. Therefore, the recent trend for increasing numbers of SOEs to be incorporated under the Companies Act instead of by an act of parliament is unusual. A list of 452 state entities includes 149 incorporated as limited companies, a fact that the Auditor General (AG) has drawn attention to in his Annual Report of 2016:
“In recent years, it was observed that a considerable number of limited liability companies have been incorporated under the Companies Act by certain Public Enterprises and the universities even sometimes without the approval of the Cabinet of Ministers.”

Another trend is the evolution of complex corporate structures within SOEs, some having multiple subsidiaries and associate companies. The list includes 100 subsidiaries and 19 sub-subsidiaries. Is there a rationale for this? A perusal of the COPE and Auditor General’s reports reveals some systemic problems (examples are highlighted in the boxed sections).

Even within the private sector, complex corporate structures present governance challenges as risks can lie undetected within subsidiaries/associates. These risks, if left unchecked, can expose the group to significant liabilities, and the same is true for SOEs. Vigilance of subsidiary activity is essential for risk management and compliance, but as the AG notes:
“However, it was observed that most of the Public Corporations do not exercise their controlling power over the subsidiaries although their members constitute the majority of the Board of Directors” (Auditor General, Annual Report, 2016)

A classic example is the Ceylon Electricity Board, which has some 22 associate companies, subsidiaries and sub-subsidiaries. Such structures are difficult to penetrate, obscure transparency and leave room for corruption.

The subsidiaries may provide goods and services to other companies within the group via transfer pricing arrangements instead of open tendering. When the directors or key management of these companies are also employees or associates of the parent body, it gives rise to serious conflicts of interests that are difficult to avoid; a point highlighted by the first COPE report.

The failure to disclose details of related party transactions (with subsidiaries) was one of the reasons that compelled the AG to qualify the audit opinion on the financial statements of Ceylon Electricity Board for 2013.

The Ceylon Electricity Board had eight contracts with LTL Project (Pvt) Ltd , a related party to build transmission lines and strengthen infrastructure. The value of four contracts amounted to Rs5.9 billion; the values of the others were not disclosed in the report. Contrast this with the governance of listed companies. Local listed companies are now required to have a Related Party Transactions Review Committee made up of independent directors who must review and report on related party transactions to the Board. The CEB has failed to disclose details even to its auditors! In some cases, it appears that complex group structures have evolved to conceal transactions, hide assets, divert revenue streams or simply enrich connected parties; the very reason such structures are also encountered in instances of money laundering. Some selected examples appear below.

If we leave aside for the moment the government accountability mechanisms and simply view SOEs as businesses, how good is their governance record? The critical tests for a private company are the auditors’ report and timely publication of reports. An analysis in the COPE report of 2014 showed that, of 46 institutions that were reviewed, only 15% had unqualified or clean audit reports. A full 75% of reports were qualified, while 4% were disclaimers of opinion and 6% failed to submit accounts. Things were not much better in 2017. The AG notes that, of 218 entities reviewed, only 80 (36%) received ‘clean’ audit opinions.

These are shocking revelations and the problems appear to be systemic. The complex structures created under the Companies Act seem to provide a shroud of secrecy that hampers oversight and enables systematic corruption. A select list of examples is listed here. The government should shine some light on the dark corners of these SOEs, first by compiling a full list of entities and second by implementing basic regular reporting structures to establish a minimum degree of control.


Electricity Piracy

THE ARBITRARY NATURE OF THE SUBSIDIARY AND SUB-SUBSIDIARY COMPANIES OPERATING UNDER THE CEYLON ELECTRICITY BOARD AND THEIR LACK OF RESPONSIBILITIES TO THE BOARD

The Committee on Public Enterprises undertook a study on the members of the Boards of Directors of 20 subsidiary companies operating under the Ceylon Electricity Board and observed that the same person represents the Boards of Directors of many of those companies.

For example, the Committee observed that the chairman of the Ceylon Electricity Board is a member of Boards of Directors of 6 subsidiary companies, which enables him to take different positions in regard to the same issue, thus jeopardizing the main aim of the Board to provide electricity to the consumers at an affordable price. The following traits of the subsidiary companies operating under the Ceylon Electricity Board were identified: Taking steps to retain a majority of dividends in those companies The Ceylon Electricity Board has no control over those companies. It was observed that the meetings of the Board of Directors of those companies are not represented by an official of the ministry or the Treasury. Those institutions are informed only of matters of specific importance Even though the Ceylon Electricity Board holds a majority of shares of these companies, they are reluctant to be responsible to the Board.


At Arm’s Length?

PEOPLE’S BANK: CONSTRUCTION WORK WORTH RS1.9 BILLION BY SUB-SUBSIDIARIES

The People’s Leasing Property Development Company, a sub-subsidiary company of People’s Bank that was established through the People’s Leasing Finance Company, has made 13 construction works worth Rs1.96 billion.

An unusual payment of Rs11,000 per square foot, exceeding the ordinary payment of Rs6,000 per square feet, was made in the case of these construction works. Further procurement processes have not been followed, and a Bill of Quantities has not been prepared.

The chairman has stated that a decision has been taken not to award construction contracts to this company at the moment and to carry out construction work by People’s Bank itself.


Unauthorised Formation Of Subsidiaries To Perform Services For The Group?

THE FOLLOWING FOUR PRIVATE COMPANIES WERE FORM ED UNDER THE ROAD DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY:

1. Maganeguma Emulsion Production Company (Pvt.) Limited
2. Maganeguma Consultancy and Project Management Services Company (Pvt.) Limited
3. Maganeguma Road Construction Equipment Company (Pvt.) Limited
4. Expressway Transport (Pvt.) Company

“It was discovered that neither the ministry nor the authority possessed any information regarding the methodology that had been adopted in establishing the aforesaid companies as per the decision taken by the Cabinet. It was further discovered that share certificates and records of minutes were not available, and that annual general meetings had not been conducted.”

COPE requested a report from the Attorney General around all matters related to the ownership of these four companies, on the matters that should be examined at ministry level and on the significant matters that should be examined in a criminal investigation. (COPE Report, 2014)


Dud Number

SRI LANKA TELECOM’S RS108 MILLION ACQUISITION OF SKY NETWORK LTDv

“Even though Sri Lanka Telecom had purchased 75% of shares of Sky network Ltd. for Rs108 million to obtain the frequency required for the continuation of service related to WiMax technology, the company had been closed down after a couple of years with no adequate business activities done on the ground that the technology had become obsolete. The transaction looks suspicious as the said company, which had been formed in 2006, had carried out no business activities other than retaining a frequency until it was purchased by SLT in 2008. It was also revealed that Rs10,468,000 had been paid as director fees during the period in which the company did not function and the person who had been paid as such had happened to be a director at Sky network Ltd”. (Page ix) (COPE Report 2014)


Wholesale No Transparency

REFUSAL TO SUBMIT ACCOUNTS OF SUBSIDIARIES TO AUDITORS

“It was revealed that account details of C.W.E. Construction and C.W.E. Securities had not been submitted to the Auditor General despite reminders being sent and replies to only 13 out of the 26 audits queries had been submitted to the Auditor General.” (3rd COPE report p7). COPE also notes an instance of selected employees drawing two sets of salaries, from CWE and its subsidiaries (p10).

An income for all – Yay or Nay?

Untitled design (1).png

In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


By Dilshani N Ranawaka

“The time for change has come. I will launch the final assault on poverty”  says Rahul Gandhi, a political candidate competing against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the ongoing Indian elections. Poverty in India is high, with nearly 354 million people classified as ‘poor’. The final assault suggested, is a monthly income for the 20% of people with the lowest income in the country. This monthly income would amount to 6,000 INR which is around 15,000 in Sri Lankan rupees per month.

This “final assault” has roots in the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), an income which is not restricted only to the poor. In 2017 UBI was experimented in Finland through a limited pilot study. Their goal was to understand if there was an impact on lives when UBI is implemented. These findings indicate that levels of life satisfaction increased from 6.7 to 7.3.

Keeping in mind that this was only a pilot, the increase in life satisfaction have been linked to the demographic profile of Finland, and its economic stability. Given the ageing population in Finland, the retirement age has been extended to 65-68 years of age. As working extensively for long hours influences the aged in a negative way, relieving them from work worries and anxieties improves their standard of living. However, the Scandinavian country can afford to be generous to its citizens because of a solid structure of taxation and achieving a GDP per capita of USD 47,558 as for 2017. Based on these factors, either a guaranteed or a basic income had a level of success when piloted.

More on the Western hemisphere, Brazil has gained attention for their “conditional” basic income guarantee, an income granted as a positive reinforcement for actions the government deems a priority such as sending children to school.

Now that India - in this part of the world - wants to adopt a similar concept, it is interesting to explore if our existing welfare state should implement a similar strategy?

Samurdhi - our current social welfare scheme

In Sri Lanka, two of the main welfare schemes, Samurdhi and the fertilizer subsidy (pohora sahanadhara) accounts for 0.5% of the GDP as of 2017 (CBSL, 2017). Samurdhi gives a maximum amount of Rs. 3500 for a household with 3 or more family members. Samurdhi, initiated in 1994, is continued to date with the welfare benefit is offered for households with a monthly income less than Rs.4000 - the official poverty line for the country.  

The targeting process for selecting Samurdhi beneficiaries has been hijacked by politicians - it has now been reduced to a vote buying scheme. This is supported by the World Bank, which states that 50% of Samurdhi beneficiaries are non-poor. If targeting was focused on individuals with the greatest need, intuitively, there should be more Samurdhi beneficiaries in districts with high levels of poverty. The graph below represents the number of individuals who fall below the national poverty line and as such are classified as ‘poor’, highlighting the number of Samurdhi beneficiaries per district. It is clear that the poorest districts, aren’t always the ones with the most number of beneficiaries.

Samurdhi chart revised with units.jpg

Given this backdrop, will it be a feasible option to substitute Samurdhi with a basic income guarantee in Sri Lanka?

The Advocata Institute recently sponsored a discussion on the topic of ‘universal basic income’ through the Nightwatchman Society. At this event, Professor Rohan Samarajiva presented 3 arguments questioning the efficiency of such a scheme in the context of Sri Lanka:

  1. Do we have the fiscal capacity?

  2. Will this be another political instrument?

  3. What should be the process of identifying the beneficiaries?

Do we have the fiscal capacity?

As of 2016, our budget deficit is a staggering Rs. 683 million. Sri Lanka does not have the fiscal capacity to provide a stipend for 5.1 million households. If we follow Rahul Gandhi’s scheme, and implement Rs. 15,000 cash transfers per month for 20% of households it would cost us Rs. 180 billion per year. As this is not feasible at all, winding down to 5% of the poorest will account to Rs. 45 billion per annum. To put this expense in context, a cash transfer for 5% of the poorest households would be equivalent to 0.5% of the GDP, 2.7% of the government revenue and 1.9% of the government expenditure.

Adding another welfare program given this backdrop would clearly burden government spending and our tax payer commitments in the years to come. To add to the mess of these existing issues are the weak methods of revenue collection we have in the country. Given the arguments presented as to why our fiscal position cannot accommodate UBI, should we even discuss the implementation of such a policy in this country?

Will this be another political instrument?

The welfarism that has taken a front seat in political arenas since independence, has meant that citizens lean towards increases in subsidies and other government handouts. Subsidies are still an effective political tool that catch voters’ attention. Do past experiences work in favour of the basic income guarantee? Could we afford to rely on weak governance as a trade-off for positive subsidies? Would this be another instrument used by scheming politicians only for the sake of popularity?

It is with no doubt that the Samurdhi welfare scheme has contributed towards eradicating poverty. However, given the fact that there lacks an assessment process to monitor progress and abusing Samurdhi by using it as a tool to increase political support and grow voter bases gives a signal that Samurdhi either needs to be restructured or perhaps replaced. Lessons learnt from the past offer valuable insights to the future. Given the politicised nature of Samurdhi, and the fact that the welfare benefit is not actually reaching those who are eligible for it, one has to question the efficacy of such schemes. Serious restructuring of our current welfare scheme is long overdue, and the utility created by such schemes needs to be interrogated before moving forward.

Tariffs and the law of unintended consequences

Originally appeared on Sunday Times

By Aneetha Warusavitarana

The law of unintended consequences is a theory that dates back to Adam Smith, but was popularised by the sociologist Robert K. Merton. In short, the law explains the reality that when governments intervene to create a set of outcomes, as the theory of cetris paribus (holding other factors constant) cannot be achieved in a market situation - the result is a series of unintended consequences.

Colonial India and Cobras

This law is also known as the ‘Cobra Effect’, dating all the way back to when the British first colonised India. The British were understandably concerned about poisonous snakes in India, Cobras apparently being a source of some worry. The solution they presented was to provide a reward for every Cobra that was killed, creating a clear incentive for locals to capture and kill any Cobras in the vicinity. While this worked well in the short term, the British slowly realised that enterprising individuals were actively breeding Cobras; creating a very profitable business out of collecting bounties. Once this was clear, the British removed the bounty, and now as this was no longer a profitable venture, the breeders released all their Cobras. The final outcome of this was an increase in the general Cobra population, completely the opposite of what the intervention set out to achieve.

While this makes for a good anecdote, the economic realities of the law of unintended consequences are often more dire. Interventions into the market are often well-intended, but have the potential to backfire. A shining example of this is the case of tariffs. Forbes recently published an article which detailed the unintended consequences of a washing machine tariff imposed in the US. This well-meaning tariff was introduced to protect domestic producers in the US, and boost employment in that industry. If one evaluates the effectiveness of the tariff simply on those two criteria, then the tariff has been a resounding success; US washer and dryer industry created around 1,800 new jobs. This could easily be written off as a success story.

The Cobra effect on washing machines

However, the focus here is only on the producer, and the consumer has been removed from the narrative. The first unintended consequence was that as imported machines were now more expensive, domestic manufacturers could safely raise their prices, without fear of losing out on sales. The second unintended consequence was that dryers also became more expensive. As a complementary good to washing machines in the US, manufacturers of dryers saw this as the perfect window in which to raise their prices and increase their profits (clotheslines would save Sri Lanka from this unintended consequence).

Taking all this into account, according to Forbes, this has cost American consumers around USD 1.5 billion. One could argue that this increase in prices and resultant cost to consumers can be justified by the 1,800 jobs that were created. The reality is that each job is equivalent to USD 815,000 in increased consumer costs. This tariff policy effectively protects the local industry at the cost of their own consumers.

Why should Sri Lankans care about washing machine prices in the US?

While we can agree that this does appear to be an unfortunate example of unintended consequences, and that it is pretty clear that domestic consumers got a bad deal here, why should the average Sri Lankan care? After all, we have sunlight soap and clotheslines.

Sri Lankan consumers should care because the same unintended consequences that took place oceans away in the United States is happening here, in our little island nation. Tariffs have long been the favoured tool of successive governments. Tariffs sound really good on paper, and better if said paper is an election manifesto. ‘We will protect our domestic producers’ is a statement that tugs at the heartstrings of too many voters. The fine print ‘at the cost of domestic consumers’ is not something that is publicised, but it should be.

Tariffs have been imposed on goods ranging from household care, personal care and food. The price of items as diverse as school shoes and construction material are affected by this. The entire country complains about how the cost of living is too high, and unreasonably high tariffs are one of the drivers behind this. Unfortunately for us, the imposition of these tariffs create exactly the same series of unintended consequences that American consumers have to face. The price of the weekly shop an average Sri Lankan does whether it is from the delkanda pola, the closest supermarket or the handiye kade is affected by tariffs. A potato, even if it is locally produced is more expensive than it needs to be, because tariffs push the price of imported tomatoes up, allowing domestic producers to raise prices with the consumer losing out.

Tariffs on essential goods in Sri Lanka can range from 45% to 107.6%. There needs to be a serious re-evaluation of the role of tariffs in our economy – the rationale behind imposing them, the consequences of the tariff (which are well understood and cannot be discounted or ignored), and ideally a faster regime for phasing them out.

Monster monopolies

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


By Dilshani N Ranawaka

Rukshani, is a small business owner running her own grocery store. Her peak hours of business are when everyone gets back home from their jobs around 7-8pm after working in Colombo. Unfortunately, she has been struggling to make ends meet as of late, due to power cuts that are also scheduled in her area around the same time as her peak hours. With just candles lit during these hours, refrigerators and coolers switched off, it adds an additional cost for her to operate her business.

Thilina, who works in Colombo faces a challenge of getting back home as the workers of the Railway Authority have decided to go on strike asking for a pay raise. Even though trains are over-crowded, they are unfortunately the fastest way of commuting back and forth. Alternatively, Thilina has to resort to the next best solution in his capacity; buses, which incurs an additional cost to reach home.

How is that Rukshani and Thilina have no say over the situation? Why does Rukshani have to suffer losses during the peak hours of her business and why should Thilina have to look for alternative transportation for something they are capable of paying, but somehow is beyond their control?

Trains and electricity are two vital services for the day to day functioning of the country. Why do these authorities continue to function when they are failing to provide reliable and efficient services to their customers who pay for these services? They have a monopoly over this service, hence they exploit it.

As of 2017, Sri Lanka Railway (SLR) sums up for Rs. 7.5 billion in losses. The Central Electricity Board (CEB) projects of Rs. 89 billion in losses for 2019. An island-wide poll by Sparkwinn Research, commissioned by Advocata Institute indicates that 81% of the sampled population are not satisfied with the performance of the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). As the numbers have spoken, people are clearly not in favour of having these underperforming SOEs.

Poll on SOE satisfaction

Would a private institute still run under these terrible, burdening losses?

The issue mainly starts with the monopolistic control over services complemented with organized trade unions within these public institutions. The fact that these services do not have competition, offers a fundamental background for wage increases and other demands that usually result in strikes which influences the entire population.

The initiation of these services dates back to the years when the private sector had inadequate resources to facilitate these services. In such conditions, the government established these entities for the benefit of the population. However, due to the monopolistic nature of these establishments, workers were able to unionize forcing the government to lose control over these institutions.

To add on to the burden of failures, is the fact that all these are controlled and heavily subsidized by the government. The lack of incentives to improve their efficiency and productivity are therefore felt heavily by the government.

There are common practices of addressing the issues on monopolies of the economy. Incentivizing merger policies, regulating and controlling the quality of these monopolies and price caps are some of the methods developed countries use to provide better services.

The “P” word; “privatization” is a taboo in Sri Lanka, although it is commonly agreed that the process of privatization paves the way towards an answer to address these issues that burden the entire economy.

“Privatization” in Sri Lanka is identified as “transferring an institute from public ownership towards private ownership”. This is only one such form of privatisation and is known as a “complete privatization”.  However, there exists various forms of privatizations such as transferring assets, Public-Private Partnerships and franchising.

Path towards privatization

The process of privatization should be methodological. Montreal Review (an independent online magazine) identifies few principals that would lead to an efficient privatization process.

  1. The purpose of privatisation

  2. The need to review different methods of privatisation

  3. The extent of the privatisation

  4. Recognising constraints

  5. Finding a buyer

  6. Implementing an investor friendly environment to attract investors

How the United Kingdom excelled in their privatization process of trains and telecom are case studies which could be replicated in Sri Lanka. The United States government remained in control of quality control and maintaining standards while the operations were handled by private sectors. On the other hand, the United States had successfully privatised industries with natural monopolies such as water and electricity supply by the privatization of operations with the government remaining in control of providing the role of maintaining standards while removing excess burden on the budgets.

However, given the extensive amount of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), an initial step towards privatization could be to list down possible institutions or even better, towards creating an index which could be a measurement towards qualifying for privatization process.

Can we breakdown these natural monopolies? Are monopolies simply an excuse that gives the governors the luxury of political lobbying? Something to think about.

“The very term “public consumption products” is an absurd one. Every good is useful “to the public”, and almost every good may be considered “necessary”. Any designation of a few industries as “public utilities or services” is completely arbitrary and unjustified”  - Murray Rothbard, a prestigious American Economist.


The ban that did more harm than good

Originally appeared on Daily FT

By Aneetha Warusavitarana

In the immediate aftermath of the devastating Easter attacks, one of the first steps taken by the Government was to announce a social media ban. This ban was ostensibly to protect us; the rationale being that this would stop the spread of hate, stop the spread of misinformation and fake news, and prevent the inciting of violence. In the Government’s eyes, this ban was the all-encompassing panacea to these problems.

Was the social media ban effective?
Rumour is a powerful weapon at any given time. In the context of a nation that is wracked with grief and fear it was a veritable weapon of mass destruction. Fear is also one of the most effective drivers of hate. If the objective of a social media ban was to prevent further violence, then in retrospect, the first step the Government should have taken would be to speak to the country addressing the fear that would drive retaliatory violence. Instead, the main method of communication was banned, even before the President or Prime Minister of the country addressed the nation. Effectively, the Government followed the precedent of the CEB, and left the entire country in the dark – with no reassurance that anyone in a decision-making position had a grip on the situation.  

In practicality the social media ban was ineffective, as VPNs were immediately downloaded, and people were active on Facebook and WhatsApp. This meant that fear mongering, fake news and hate was prolific. The irony is that if this ban was not in place, the Government would have been able to better monitor and address the slew of fake news. 

Does the Government have the mandate to ban social media?
The right to freedom of expression can arguably be curtailed in instances of hate speech. However, if one group of students organise a rally in campus grounds, and this rally is used to spread hate and incite violence against a different group of students, the answer is obviously not to ban rallies on campus grounds. Banning rallies on campus grounds would first, punish a majority for a crime they did not commit, unfairly infringing on their freedom of expression. Secondly, it would not address the problem. Rallies that incite violence are not exclusive to campus grounds – it could simply be organised elsewhere.

This analogy stands for the ban on social media. Banning social media at such a crucial point meant that the Government officially shut down communication lines among individuals, and importantly cut people from an important source of information. 

This goes completely against the mandate of the Government. What would have been effective was if the Government maintained clear, open lines of communication with constant, timely updates from verified Government sources. As the ban was ineffective, social media was rife with fake news, and the only effective method to combat it proved to be the counter-sharing of verified news alerts or first-hand reports from credible journalists, which disproved the fake news. 

A small but effective group of individuals took up this task, and spent hours sharing verified information and addressing the fake news which incidentally ranged from ‘there’s a tsunami heading this way’ to ‘my neighbour’s aunt’s brother-in-law said that another bomb has gone off’. The Government failing its mandate, restricting the country’s right to expression, and limiting access to information just exacerbated an already volatile situation. 

Who deals with the consequences?
A dangerous precedent has now been set. Last year, during riots in Digana, the Government imposed a similar ban on social media. The Government’s first reaction to the Easter Sunday attacks was to re-introduce the ban. 

According to the OECD, when the Egyptian Government blocked internet for 5 days in 2011, it cost the national economy $90 million. As the internet was still running in Sri Lanka, we can hope that the economic fallout from this disastrous decision will be less in our case. However, this is important. According to Statista, $88 million was spent on social media advertising in 2018 alone. The social media ban negatively affected the plethora of businesses which use Facebook or Instagram as platforms to run on, of which it is safe to assume that small and medium enterprises would have been hit hard. While Government officials are clamouring to propose plans to revive our tourism, they are silent on this front. 

Moving beyond these immediate, short term losses, the long-term consequences are worrying. This ban sends a negative signal to the international community. The Government mismanaged the crisis, to say the least, and the social media ban was the cherry on the top. It is clear that the Government favours this ban in times of crisis, even after the first ban came under criticism and scrutiny. This disregard of individual rights in the face of crisis, the fact the Government clearly has no qualms in compromising these rights, even when they do not translate to increased security or safety is not a message a country wants to send to investors or donors. 

The attacks were a national tragedy, and as a country we need to grieve and recover from this. However, once we do, and once a semblance of normalcy returns, the impunity with which the Government blocked social media with complete disregard for individual freedoms is not something we can ignore or forget. 

Social media ban

Combatting the Cult of ISIS

Originally appeared on Groundviews

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

Featured image courtesy AFP

It now seems clear that the attacks on Easter Sunday were carried out by local radicals, under the aegis of foreign fundamentalists. The problem is contained in that there is little support for this group from the wider Muslim community. While those involved must be swiftly identified with and dealt with, the bigger question is how to check the spread of radicalisation?

A paper [1] by Joel Day and Scott Kleinmann offer an approach that is summarised below.

The central problem with focusing on beliefs is the issue of variation. Simply put, if “radical” beliefs produce terrorists, then why doesn’t every Salafist or political-Islamist mosque produce terrorists? Even more complicated, why have most of those providing material support to Islamic terrorist groups shown little understanding of theology, but instead seem to be attracted to the thrill of jihadi adventurism (Venhaus 2010)

Violent extremism is a cult, not a religion

According to the authors, treating violent extremism as a problem of religion or belief is a mistake. The process of radical, violent mobilisation shows closer links to that of a cult.

Accordingly counter strategies based on empowering moderate, liberal voices to preach inclusion and tolerance to seemingly more “extreme” mosques may not be effective, indeed even counterproductive.

It is therefore problematic to assume that “countering narratives,” showing extremists the error of their ways, or debating theology would do anything other than produce hostility and even spur heightened aggression.

When confronted with countering evidence, individuals may become defensive and cling on initial beliefs more strongly, driving fence-sitters towards radicalisation.

On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old American security guard, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a mass shooting inside Pulse, a gay nightclub. The killer was believed to have been gay, consumed alcohol, not known in the local mosques but showed signs of identity confusion, anger, isolation, and other attributes shared with violent individuals of all sorts.

Countering a cult

To deal with a cult the focus should be on weakening the organisational ties within the movement, not on debate. In debate people tend to rely more on intuition than reason. If people are not working from ideological standpoints there is little possibility of making headway through discussion so it may make more sense to counter the networks and personal ties between individuals and terrorist groups instead.

This model maintains that since ideology fails to predict or abet terrorist violence, other social factors such as alienation, mental health, or bonds with other bad actors explains violence. It is not that ideology doesn’t matter at all, but rather that ideological pulls exist within a social context. It is the social context that counter strategies should be focusing on.

How do cults work?

Cults Create Affective Bonds Around Friendship, not Belief

Most recruits to cults and new religious movements come from those who know one or more members of the group. The personal connection between recruiter and recruited is far more persuasive than the content of the belief system as the testimony of former cult members shows:

“The way the Jesus Army worshiped was a bit odd at first … but I soon got used to it. What really attracted me was the sincerity of the people and the obvious love and bonding that they had with each other”.

Likewise, a participant in another cult reported that:

“after his first visit to the FWBO center, he thought members of the centre were crazy and decided not to go back. However, he thought about all the people he knew there, and he recalled what a great time he had with them. Subsequently he turned up for the rest of the course.”

Similarly, terror networks operate around bonds of kinship and friendship. Scott Atran found that 95% of foreign fighters who joined ISIS were recruited by friends or family. Similarly, in his study of Al Qaeda networks, Marc Sageman found that friends and family ties were involved in the recruitment of 82% of the jihadists in his study (2004, 111–112).

A vast literature finds that terrorists are not goal-seeking or strategic, but instead are motivated by a desire for friends and comradery (Abrahms 2008). It is worth recalling that 6 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were brothers (Wickman et al. 2013).

Social Connections are Deep and Meaningful

A cult is not simply a quixotic fringe group with unorthodox practices: they are a community of practice. For alienated, isolated individuals, cults create affective bonds of love and attention received from nowhere else.

The culture of jihad is more than ideology: a burgeoning literature has found that terrorist groups have cultures of practice that go far beyond doing terror. Terrorists read poetry, weep and hug, sing, eat, and have a culture that can be observed outside of the material threat they pose.

This phenomenon is the “soft power” of jihad, which pulls recruits in not with force, but with cultural appeal and interrelational ties.

Cults Thrive on Intensive Interaction Between Recruits and Elites and Forge Social Encapsulation

Cults rely on exclusive, and isolating bonding practices that forge the conditions necessary for violence. Social encapsulation inoculates the recruits from outside influence, neutralises the stigma frequently associated with participation in such groups, and masks their deviant behaviour.

Conversely, the more civil connections a group has with others, the more engaged they become in the democratic process. Cohesion and overlapping, bridging ties between communities can prevent splintering, ideological isolation, and foster mutual respect.

Cults Offer Direct Compensation and Provision of Goods in Exchange of Allegiance

People may join associations to procure goods they could not otherwise get on their own. For cults and extremist groups alike, rewards can include power, material provisions like food and shelter, as well as ego and cosmically driven outcomes. The former Saddam Hussein Baathists joined ISIS not for ideological reasons, but to procure power and goods they were otherwise denied following the US deBaathification policy.

Many foreign fighters in ISIS don’t have experience in Arabic, which indicates that the ideology cannot be very well developed. Instead, they are promised wives, adventure, and alternatives to the lives they live in the West.

Women are promised comfort, the ability to raise a family in a pure Muslim environment—the utopia is even complete with houses, clothes, and even blenders (Speckhard 2017). None of these core elements of cult-recruitment and radicalisation operate around ideology per se.

Towards a more social strategy to counter extremism

Terrorist groups, like cults, are friend and kin networks that isolate and encapsulate new members, offering various forms of compensation and affection those members could not get elsewhere. Instead of ideology, policymakers should focus on the bonds of affection between friends and kin and build campaigns that target the correct avenues of extremist radicalisation.

The first step is to be able to identify early signs of radicalisation and those best able to do so are an individual’s friends or family. However if reporting can lead to harsh government reprisals, they will be reluctant to do so.

Community-based mosques, youth clubs, and social services should be given more resources to gain the trust of entire friendship networks. Local basketball tournaments, food-drives, open shari’a classes, and drop-in counseling sessions are civic trust-building exercises. Within these civic institutions, friends can feel safe to report warning signs because they trust the community to carefully reprimand and rehabilitate the offender and act as a social bridge to law enforcement. Mosques should be celebrated for building deep community ties, because such social fabric is far more likely to prevent radicalization than debating the finer points of shari’a law in chat rooms.

For example, Denmark has recently employed an affective bond-based counter-extremism program that focuses on linking up would-be jihadis with mentors, learning skills, and providing avenues of hope. This actively combats the cult-like mechanisms of friendship, love, intimacy, and compensation.

Danish mothers have also established a peer network called “Sahan,” where mothers worried about a child can seek advice and counsel from others on how to intervene.

In Canada and Germany, groups have sprung up called “Hayat”—the Arabic word for love—to highlight the loving network that ISIS sympathisers actually have at home.

Second governments should not be about policing -reporting “strange ideas or behaviours.” The government needs to support vulnerable communities-job fairs, tutoring, recreation, and civic engagement to ensure people are productively engaged.

Since religious ideology doesn’t predict violence, but rather the social conditions of groups, governments should think of CVE as simply providing good government. In essence, we guard against violence by making our societies less vulnerable to cult-like groups seeking to isolate, encapsulate, and predate on weak individuals

Mosques should be celebrated for building deep community ties, because such social fabric is far more likely to prevent radicalisation than debating the finer points of shari’a law in chat rooms.

We should target and counter all types of “extremist violence.” The cult analogy points to the social factors that give ideology meaning, but all types of violence have social conditions that constitute actors in particular ways. Countering extremism should be conceptualised as engaging a social phenomenon, not just a set of beliefs and ideas.

As Robert Putnam has argued, the fabric of a healthy democracy is the relational bonds between citizens (Putnam 2001). Similarly, the fabric of a strategy to counter extremism is to build a social network of alternatives to the appeal of violence.

The attacks were carried out by a few individuals, with little broader support. The government, civil society and the Muslim community need to work together to defeat this.


[1] Joel Day & Scott Kleinmann (2017) Combating the Cult of ISIS: A Social Approach to Countering Violent Extremism, The Review of Faith & International Affairs, 15:3, 14-23, DOI: 10.1080/15570274.2017.1354458

A bellyful of taxes!

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


By Dilshani N Ranawaka

With Avurudu week just coming to an end, you have probably realised that the total for your food bill is quite exorbitant. You may have attributed this to the festive season, and the fact that food really is quite expensive in Sri Lanka. However, have you questioned why this is the case? Why do we pay so much for something as essential as food?

Did you know that for every meal your family buys, you are paying the price of a second meal (for an individual) back to the government? You might not be aware but most of the daily consumed food items that you buy for your family are exorbitantly taxed! How informed are we of the indirect taxes we are paying with every purchase we make?

Let’s take a look at the grocery list for a balanced meal of four in a family (Quantities recommended by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Balanced Meal tax figures

When one delves into these statistics, it is interesting to see that we pay around Rs.150+ to the government in the form of taxes, just on this small basket of grocery items. That's the equivalent to one rice packet you could have bought for lunch!  

Taxes are imposed for two main reasons; they are the main source of government revenue, and they can protect local producers from import competition.

In the case of Sri Lanka, 80% of government revenue is collected through indirect taxes. Indirect taxes are imposed on goods and services as opposed to taxes levied on income.

One argument to justify such heavy taxes on consumer items is attributed to the government’s objective of protecting and strengthening local producers. When a tariff is imposed on imports, the price of imports increases, giving local producers the opportunity to compete against what would otherwise be a much cheaper alternative. For example, green beans per kg is taxed 101% on the border of the country (CIF price). This means that if you buy imported green beans, you have to pay double the price of the true value of the good.

This is appealing to local producers as they can offer comparatively lower prices for the same good. Even though these policies can be seen as helpful to local producers, it truly does not help in the long-run.

Consumer loses out

When tariffs are imposed in order to help local producers compete against cheaper imports, the government effectively removes all market incentives for local producers to stay efficient and productive. The tariffs on imported goods guarantees that their main competition is priced higher than that of the local good.

The result is that you and I, the local consumers lose out on two counts. First, if we wish to buy local products, there is no reason for local producers to provide us with a high-quality, appealing good. Secondly, if we are dissatisfied with the local product and wish to buy an imported alternative, we have to pay a much higher price as this good is subjected to high rates of tariff.

This loss to the consumer is compounded by the fact that the high price of imports creates a large gap between the final price of the imported good and at-cost price of the local good. This gap can be transformed into a profit margin for local producers as they can increase the price of their good without improving quality thanks to the high tariff imposed on the imported alternative.

Should we continue to protect?

Our producers get accustomed to inefficient production due to a lack of incentives. In this case should the government protect local producers further? If so, are we carefully considering the trade-offs; the costs incurred for the consumers?

Protectionism is a heated topic in the country. Ever since the Sri Lankan economy opened up in 1977, various campaigns were implemented in order to protect local industries. Moving on to 40 years after opening up the economy, the first ever to do so in the South Asian region, we still lag behind.

Alternatively, what the government could tap into are technological investments with other countries, which would help in exchange of technology and innovation for low-yield, less efficient, protected industries in the country. This involves in opening up the economy for foreign investment and creating an investor friendly environment - relaxing most of the heavily taxed and regulated policies by the government.

Given that this regime of protectionism has failed, are we still going to ask the government to shield our producers from foreign competition?

An ‘unhealthy’ tax regime: Is the Govt. stifling basic needs?

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


By Anuki Premachandra

This year’s global theme for World Health Day, which falls today, is universal health coverage (UCH) for all. In comparison to most countries in the region, Sri Lanka is in a positive trajectory towards this, with a policy goal to ensure universal health coverage to all citizens through a well-integrated, comprehensive health service.

UHC is a health care system focused on medical service delivery – it predominantly revolves around accessibility, affordability, and availability of healthcare services. However, in the case of Sri Lanka, health needs to be looked at from a broader perspective.
This World Health Day, while commending the country on a great public healthcare system and better access to water and sanitation than most other countries in the region, I’m going to explore the case of how some simple taxes on items that contribute to your health can lead to complicated concerns on your health. Are Sri Lanka’s tax policies depriving you of accessibility, affordability, and availability of proper healthcare, hygiene, and sanitation?

Taxing your menstrual health
Menstrual hygiene is not commonly discussed in Sri Lanka, having very little literature and understanding of proper menstrual hygiene management. This is also probably a reason why a basic item required for proper menstrual hygiene – sanitary pads – have total taxes as high as 62.6% levied on them, despite being a country with 4.2 million menstruating women. More often than not, women are compelled to use unhealthy menstrual hygiene products or practices owing to their monetary conditions. Naturally, an intervention like taxes only worsens this situation. The most appalling of findings is that unhealthy menstrual practices can contribute to cervical cancer, one that unfortunately has proven to fall to the plight of many Sri Lankan women.

Every year, 1,136 women are diagnosed with cervical cancer and 643 die from this disease in Sri Lanka (HPV Centre, 2018). Cervical cancer ranks as the second most frequent cancer amongst women in the country, wherein poor menstrual hygiene management is a direct causal factor of this. Of our population, 52% is women, out of which 4.2 menstruating women stand the risk of being diagnosed with cervical cancer due to poor menstrual hygiene. If we are taxing something as necessary as sanitary napkins that contribute to healthy menstrual practise, are we not then making health a privilege instead of a basic human right?

Taxing your access to proper sanitation
In a recent interview, Senior Advisor at the Sri Lanka Water Partnership Kusum Athukorala stated that the main problem they have had to deal with when conducting sanitation programmes in rural schools is the lack of a proper disposal mechanism for sanitary pads. It is either this or the lack of proper toilet facilities. According to the WHO, although sanitation coverage in Sri Lanka is 92% – the best in the South Asian region – an area that they too have identified as one that requires further development is rural school sanitation. Period-friendly toilets matter.

Additionally, although over 50% of our population have access to household sanitation facilities, diving deeper into the breakdown of these numbers is important. Despite great sanitation coverage, 7.2% of our urban population, 7.6% of our rural population, and 17% of our estate population still rely on a shared toilet facility for their sanitation needs, according to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2016. Why then do our rural schools lack proper toilets and why does a portion of our population rely on shared toilets for their sanitation needs? The answer lies in the prohibitively high cost of building toilets.

Total import taxes on sanitary ware like commodes and squatting pans are over 60% and wall tiles, floor tiles, and finishing ceramic are taxed at over 100%. Out of our population, one million people live in temporary houses and 1.2 million people live in underserved settlements. Access to proper toilet and hygiene facilities are very limited in these types of households owing to the exorbitant cost of constructing one. Having access to sanitation is a basic human right, yet a portion of our population suffer on a daily basis from the lack of access to a clean and functioning toilet. Without toilets, untreated human waste can impact a whole community, affecting many aspects of daily life, and ultimately pose a serious risk to health. The issue runs deeper into societal impacts, such as teenage girls often leaving school at the onset of menstruation due to lack of privacy and the risk of contaminating infections due to unhygienic toilet facilities. This narrative needs to change.

An ‘unhealthy’ tax regime

This World Health Day, while we commit our country to global goals that provision for more accessible and affordable healthcare facilities for all, let’s also look at health in a broader perspective. In Sri Lanka, universal health coverage can be realised through affordability, accessibility, and availability of better health, sanitation, and hygiene facilities – end taxes on periods and toilets!


Anuki Premachandra is the Manager – Research Communications at the Advocata Institute. She has a background in public policy with an active involvement in policy communications. She is also an advocate for the reduction of the period tax and contributes to research and policy work in that subject area. If you have any questions or feedback on this article, she could be contacted on anuki@advocata.org or @anukipr on Twitter. Advocata is an independent policy think tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka which conducts research, provide commentary, and hold events to promote sound policy ideas compatible with a free society in Sri Lanka.

Should we abolish the budget?

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


By Aneetha Warusavitarana

On the 5th of March 2019, the Ministry of Finance presented the much-delayed budget for 2019. The budget is a tool of extraordinary influence, which is used to affect government revenue, expenditures and national policy. That being said, our budgets don't appear to be exerting that influence, or creating the impact they could. According to Verité Research’s budget tracker only 8% of projects from the budget 2018 are progressing, with a staggering 59% lagging behind in implementation.

Everyone has come to expect the budget, but what purpose does it serve? Why does it exist? During the rest of the year the government continues to make decisions on policy, pass legislature and try to run the country. The allocations made during the budget to specific ministries are not set in stone. The reality is that these allocations are moved around government in a manner than bewilders all involved, and when a year passes and the next budget is announced, it is found that budget promises have not been met, and very little has actually been implemented.

Budgets by definition should focus on revenue and expenditure. In the case of Sri Lanka and the mountain of debt that we need to contend with, this is all the more important.

Results focused budget

When looking at this year’s budget, a wide variety of topics have been touched on. The Ministry of Finance has revised taxes on multiple fronts, with a focus on reducing the indirect tax base and increasing direct taxes. However, the budget has not limited itself to detailing expenditure and revenues. There has been a substantial amount of general policy which has been included, bringing up the question of whether there is a point to their inclusion in the budget. Surely these general policies would be better suited in a national policy document or election manifesto?

The policy decisions in the budget 2019 have ranged from establishing a national pension plan, increasing government servants’ salaries, to amending labour laws, and this is where the problem lies. Increasing government servants’ salaries would technically be the duty of the Ministry of Public Administration and Disaster Management (an apt ministry to handle the government sector) and salary revisions should follow a system, and not be dependent on ad hoc decisions. A national pension plan, while much needed is not an endeavor that can be completed in a year. The same reasoning applies to amending labour laws. These two in particular will in all likelihood take at least a few years to be finalized and implemented.

The alternative?

The alternative to the current budgeting process is following a medium-term expenditure framework (MTEF). This framework integrates policy, planning and budgeting for the medium term, combining a top-down resource envelope with a bottom-up estimate of the current and medium-term cost of existing programmes. The result is the alignment of macroeconomic stability and broad policies with more specific programmes. It is essentially a three to five year rolling budget, which sets fiscal targets and allocates money for that time frame. This system addresses the reality that very few projects can be successfully implemented within one year and allows the government to acknowledge this and act accordingly.

What does a Medium-Term Expenditure Framework mean for policy?

MTEF

Within this framework, policy proposals are considered in the medium to long term context. Spending agencies have a stronger voice, as they have significant input into the design of sector strategies and some flexibility in managing their resources to meet their objectives. New projects are undertaken dependent on whether they are affordable and implementable in the medium term, allowing the government to have a very clear and mostly accurate statement of fiscal policy objectives, fiscal deficit and debt management.

At a project level, this framework creates two main wins. First, both policy and funding are more reliable and predictable. Second, it allows for policy to drive funding, as opposed to the reverse. This in turn means that budgeting is linked more strongly to results, as focus shifts to specific outcomes and what resources are required to achieve them.

What happens to the annual budget?

The annual budget will be announced, but it will simply reflect what is achievable in the short-term, within the larger three to five-year framework. This is beneficial, as spending will be more specific, and tied to clear targets. Funding is not allocated for an entire project, but only for the section of the project that can be reasonably achieved during the next twelve months. The entire budget is more focused on results, and less on broad policy statements. Given the low levels of implementation mentioned earlier, it is evident that a greater degree of specificity, combined with a results-focused approach to the budget is required.

What needs to be done?

Interestingly, even now a substantial amount of planning follows the structure of a three-year rolling plan. The Public Investment Programme or the PIP, is a three-year rolling document which details government expenditure of projects and programmes. The Ministry of Finance also publishes an annual medium-term fiscal strategy which establishes the general direction or objectives of fiscal policy for the next three years. According to the Ministry of Finance website, budget estimates are prepared in the larger context of a medium-term budgetary framework.

It appears that the key components of an effective medium-term expenditure framework already exist. The next step would be to align the annual budget more clearly with these components. Allocations should be made more specific, with clear ties to the three-year plan. New projects and programmes should be introduced taking into account a three-year resource envelope and fiscal objectives. In other words, the budget in its current iteration should be completely overhauled and refined.


Aneetha Warusavitarana is a research analyst at the Advocata Institute and her research focuses on public policy and governance. She could be contacted at aneetha@advocata.org or @AneethaW on Twitter. Advocata is an independent policy think tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka which conducts research, provides commentary, and holds events to promote sound policy ideas compatible with a free society in Sri Lanka.

Behind the invisibility cloak: Sri Lanka’s hidden state-owned enterprises

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning


By Dilshani N. Ranawaka

Is the Government aware it has gazetted 527 SOEs?

Unveiling an invisibility cloak of the state was the first task I did as a fresh graduate. Behind 55 strategic State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) identified by the Ministry of Finance (MoF) lies another 450+ SOEs making their contribution to the “Coordination Problem”.

SOEs in Sri Lanka

Even at face value, it seems unlikely that a small country like Sri Lanka needs the government to run a pool of SOEs as large as this. Interestingly, the MoF doesn’t have a count of all its SOEs, with the Annual Report only mentioning that there are 400+ SOEs. However, there are at least 527 SOEs, subsidiaries and sub-subsidiaries gazetted. To be specific, the 527 SOEs can be broken down to 424 principals, 84 subsidiaries and 19 sub-subsidiaries.

Of the 400+ SOEs that the government is aware of, the Department of Public Enterprises tracks the profits and losses of only 55 SOEs, which they have identified as ‘strategic’.

This raises two questions.

  1. Why doesn’t the government know the number of enterprises it runs? Anyone running a business should at the very least know the number of organisations it is in charge of.

  2. Why does the MoF only track 55 SOEs? What are the losses that come from the remaining 450?

Let’s take the Ministry of Power and Energy and Business Development for example. The ministry’s losses add up to a cumulative net-loss of Rs. 363,945Mn during the past 11 years. The ministry governs 4 principal SOEs, 6 subsidiary SOEs and 12 sub-subsidiary SOEs adding upto a total of 22 bodies.

When one further explores these subsidiaries, it is quite logical to ponder the rationale for these categorizations. For instance; the Ceylon Electricity Board has two subsidiaries under it. The first subsidiary Lanka Electricity Company (LECO) has three sub-subsidiaries LTL Transformers, LTL Energy, and LTL Galvanizers. The second subsidiary LTL Holdings (Pvt.) has another sub-subsidiary LTL Energy (Pvt.). Is it any wonder that we have erratic power supply? A convenient way to track all these entities would be to establish all of them under one subsidiary; LTL Holdings.

It is time we question the logic of establishing so many SOEs, given that their profits and losses are not tracked, and a majority do not even publish annual reports. When the losses incurred by these entities are added to the equation, it is clear that there is large-scale mismanagement taking place.

The multiple layers of incorporation (principal, subsidiary and subsidiary bodies) enhances the divisibility of responsibilities. Furthermore, the problem with having too many entities makes it hard for them to be monitored. Since SOEs are governed by the state, the debt burden is weighed heavily on the government and then transferred to the taxpayer.

Moving beyond the profits and losses of these enterprises, an equally shocking fact is that out of the 527 SOEs that have been gazetted to date, information of their purpose (classification as commercial and non-commercial entities) of 284 SOEs is not freely available, and cannot be found from government sources.

Can these 527 enterprises be utilized or do a majority need to be shut down because of their losses? The government cannot afford to keep bailing out its mismanaged enterprises - the fiscal space simply does not exist.

The first step to addressing the problem of SOEs, is to figure out the number of entities the state governs. A bi-annual census of SOE conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics, with detailed reports (a current requirement fulfilled only by 55 SOEs) on every SOE is a must.  It is only from here, when the government has an idea of the extent of the problem that we can move into questions of improving accountability and introducing better governance structures.

The question remains, when the government is unaware of the number of entities it is responsible for, why should citizens pay for their loss making, inefficient, institutional excess?  

Sri Lanka has a total of 527 State Owned Enterprises out of which regular information is available for only 55. The inefficiencies and mismanagement which riddle our SOEs are explored in the Advocata Institute's new report  “State of State Enterprises in Sri Lanka- 2019". To read more on SOEs and download full report visit www.advocata.org.


Dilshani Ranawaka is a Research Executive at the Advocata Institute whose main research areas are public finance, behavioural economics and labour economics. She can be contacted at dilshani@advocata.org or @dilshani_n on Twitter.

Sri Lanka’s political system: A Failure of Governance

Originally appeared on Groundviews

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

This essay examines failures of governance in Sri Lanka. Although discussed within the context of State Owned Enterprises (SOE), they affect many other aspects of public life.

The weaknesses in the governance of SOEs stem from those embedded within the larger political system. These problems can be assessed by an examination of the political system, understanding the incentives of actors and the effectiveness of institutions in directing these towards the public good.

Some examples of general weaknesses in the political system

  1. The power of interest groups

  2. Campaign finance

  3. Weak parliament and committees

  4. Citizens as shareholders

The power of interest groups

People may commonly assume that political actors are mainly concerned with public interest and that the state exists to carry out the wishes of the public.

Unfortunately, the State is made up of people and the dominant motive in people’s actions in the marketplace – whether they are employers, employees, or consumers – is self-interest.

When individuals become politicians they do not suddenly abandon their personal interests and turn into public-spirited individuals who make morally correct decisions in the ‘public interest’.

While most people will base some of their actions on charitable instincts only in rare cases are these likely to be primary motives. Politicians are no different, acting to please interest groups that support them, pushing policies that lead to re-election and pursuing other personal agendas.

 Politicians take collective decisions. They are made by politicians on behalf of the public, and not by the public themselves. All decisions involve a trade-off in costs and benefits but when an individual makes an economic choice, they experience both the costs and the benefits. Thus, they will only act if it is in their interest.

In collective decisions, whether they involve giving jobs to graduates or building a road, the beneficiaries (e.g. graduates, road users) are not always the people who bear the costs (taxpayers or homeowners whose property is lost). Further, in a market transaction both sides have to agree, if either disagrees, they can walk away. In political decisions those who disagree cannot walk away, they are bound to accept the decision and bear whatever costs the collective choice demands.

Therefore collective decisions, unlike individual ones, carry wide implications. Good politicians should weigh overall costs and benefits on our behalf to determine if ‘social welfare’ might be increased by the right choices. The question is do Sri Lankan politicians have the motive; or even the capacity, to do so?

When political decisions are made how do we determine what is ‘best’ for ‘the people’? Society is complex, made up of different groups with different interests. The young may be interested in education and jobs, but pensioners may be more concerned with old age security and health care. An ageing population may vote for increased pensions, but if this is achieved at the cost of lower spending on education the young may lose. Different decisions involve different stakeholders with varied interests, making it difficult to identify a single ‘public interest’.

When collective decisions are taken a choice will be made between many competing sets of interests: but only one set of interests can win. Politicians face conflicting pressures from lobbyists, businesses, family and friends. Those with the greatest leverage will win. This is not the same as saying that policies that bring the greatest social benefit will win.

Small, homogeneous groups (trade unions like the GMOA or businesses) find it relatively easy to organise and have a great deal to gain or lose when collective decisions go for or against them. The opposite is true with large groups, such as consumers or taxpayers.

With large groups the impact of collective decisions on a single member is small so they have little incentive to lobby. Being so diverse, they are also difficult to organise.

The result is that concentrated interest groups have a powerful incentive to organise and campaign for policies that will specifically benefit them. By contrast, the general public, with very diverse interests, have little motivation to put effort into public debate.

The protective tax (roughly Rs.10) on a loaf of bread may not amount to much to a consumer but to the flour millers this represents a gain of around Rs.20 billion a year.

When particular groups manipulate policy to win preferential tax or legal privileges this results in a substantial transfer of wealth from the public to privileged groups. In Sri Lanka the practice is widespread; witness the plethora of special tax concessions (about 200 according to the Finance Minister) exclusive import licenses, permits and protective tariffs.

Campaign finance creates incentives for corruption and poor governance

Limits on campaign spending and the need to disclose sources were removed in the 1978 constitution, opening the floodgates. This excludes the majority of citizens, including the educated, from politics.

There are no accurate estimates of the cost of an election campaign but a former Secretary General of Parliament recently stated that this was in the region of Rs. 60-70 million. Conversations with other commentators produced estimates between Rs. 50-100 million, rising to Rs 150 million for those fighting for preferential votes.

The proportional representation system has increased constituency size (campaign costs are proportional to constituency size) while the preferential voting system intensifies political competition (not only must candidates battle other parties, they must also fight within the party). The combination has sparked an arms race in campaign spending.

While costs are lower outstation they are still substantial and far beyond the lawful earnings of an MP who earns a monthly salary of Rs. 54,285/- plus other allowances of around Rs160,000/-.

Politicians turn to wealthy backers, some connected to the underworld, to fund campaigns and provide labour-in return for political protection or rewards. The result is that a group selected on the basis of access to cash and a workforce – not intellect or ability – enters Parliament. Moreover, the need to recover campaign spending means they come into office under obligation to their sponsors, carrying an inbuilt incentive to corruption.

This has undermined the technical capacity of the state; how can proper policy be formulated if the politicians and bureaucrats are ill-qualified to perform the necessary analysis? The bureaucracy has an important role in policymaking, providing objective assessment of policy options, drawing on experience and practical considerations. Unfortunately, decades of nepotism have sapped its capacity. The concept of independent policy analysis does not exist in Sri Lanka, leaving a vacuum vulnerable to capture by special interest groups.

Weak Parliament and committees

Political actors will pursue their own interests, but functional governance systems can check the worst of these impulses. The most important is parliament, which works through questioning government ministers, debating and the investigative work of committees, principally the Committee on Public Expenditure (COPE) and Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) which scrutinise expenditure.

Unfortunately, serious deficiencies exist. Engineering crossovers in return for political office reduces Parliament to a rubber stamp. Thus there is little incentive for MPs to take Parliament seriously. Many don’t even attend.

An analysis showed that less than half the MPs attended at least 75% of the sessions. Even those who attend remain in the house only for the first hour. Attending funerals or weddings is the priority; they recently voted themselves a new monthly allowance of Rs.100,000 for gifts at functions. Once elected, the goal is Cabinet appointment, as this presents opportunities for gain or furthering political careers. Once ensconced, the incentive is to enjoy office, not to risk the privileges by questioning authority. The multiplication of the Cabinet is driven more by the need to lure opposition MPs to maintain a rubber-stamp majority than strictly functional requirements.

The committee system is also weak. Until recently they were ‘Consultative Committees’ chaired by a Minister and structured to aid the executive than hold it to account. With the major overhaul of the system [1] by the Yahapalanaya government – a significant if little known reform in the last three years – these are now known as ‘Oversight Committees’ and their function is now much better geared to scrutiny and accountability-but much more needs to be done.

COPA/COPE are under-resourced; their reports complain of a lack staff (particularly audit) and proper IT systems. Further, the government is not required to act on the recommendations of these committees (although ministers must now respond to findings) within any stipulated period of time, leaving the accountability loop open.

Despite many limitations, these committees have uncovered multiple grave malpractices that point to fundamental control weaknesses. The fact that only a minority of institutions seem able to furnish an unqualified audit report suggests much more lurks undetected.

Citizens as shareholders

If politicians do not hold SOEs to account can citizens, the ultimate “owners” exert any meaningful oversight? Unfortunately not because:

  • They have no legal standing as owners;

  • The fragmented nature of the “ownership” creates a collective action problem: no one citizen, even ones who are seriously interested, has an incentive to bear the costs required to monitor the managers.

Oversight is costly, and time and effort must be spent on monitoring performance if malpractice is to be detected. This task is made more difficult as citizens lack ready access to information. As no direct rewards accrue to a diligent citizen from such action there is little incentive to expend the effort to do so; citizens depend on politicians to do this. As discussed previously, the politician has no clear incentive, especially since they are not held accountable for poor performance.

The main mechanisms to address these two layers of agency costs are corporate laws and political and legal institutions. The weaknesses of the political institutions have been discussed above and corporate law are rarely enforced on SOEs.

To take a few simple examples; of the 55 large SOEs only ten had published an annual report for 2016, as per the 2017 report of the department of Public Enterprises. (The law requires publication within six months of the year’s end. Timely disclosure is essential in a robust corporate governance framework as it provide the basis for scrutiny for stakeholders.) Thirty were two or more years in arrears.

Sri Lankan Airlines has suffered a Serious Loss of Capital [2], but the legal procedures that must follow have been ignored. Even the labour laws are not enforced-the JEDB has unpaid EPF liabilities of Rs.323m but earns no sanction.

Therefore, the performance of SOEs suffers from both political costs (i.e. the costs associated with control of firms by politicians who have political goals that differ from economic efficiency) and agency costs (i.e. the costs resulting from managerial pursuit of private benefits at the expense of the firm), leading to chronic inefficiency and underperformance.

Conclusion: a dysfunctional state that serves political interests

The political process incentivises corruption. A weak governance regime means little accountability and few checks on government spending. In addition, limited technical capacity means policy is open to “capture” by special interests. The combination is deeply dysfunctional: a parasitic system that transfers wealth to the politically connected through corruption and rent-seeking.

The weaknesses in the political system are discussed here in order to place the context within which the agency and political costs of SOEs are experienced. Poor oversight magnifies these costs. In combination with the perverse incentives of politicians it gives rise to the blatant breaches of fiduciary responsibility that occur, repeatedly in the COPE reports.

All political systems need to mediate the relationship between private wealth and public power. Those that fail have dysfunctional governments, captured by wealthy interests.

The ramifications of this are far-reaching. Although a full discussion is out of place here, structural weaknesses could explain why a massive expansion in state activity has yielded minimal visible benefits to citizens. Between 2005-15 total government spending quadrupled (from Rs.584 billion to Rs.2,290 billion) with little noticeable improvement in essential services; transport, health, education or waste disposal.

The money is swallowed up in a massive administrative machine. There is endless duplication in the 32 cabinet ministries, 3 non-cabinet ministries, 107 departments, and 24 spending units, 452 SOEs just at the centre. Most developed countries make do with about 20 ministries.

The problem with endemic corruption is that public officials, both bureaucrats and politicians, may redesign programmes and propose projects with few public benefits and many opportunities for private profit.

In Sri Lanka, patronage wins elections which may be why we have 166,588 peons and 25,645 drivers in public service (but only 19,612 medical officers and 32,399 nurses). The public sector workforce ballooned from 850,267 to 1.35m between 2005 and 2016.Salaries and pensions consume almost half of all tax revenue. Much other government expenditure has been funded by debt: but it is only now; when debt is repaid-and taxes rise, that the true cost becomes apparent to the public.

Structural problems require structural solutions; changing the identities of the people who hold public office will not suffice.

A concerted effort to improving oversight is needed, to overcome the resistance from within (as it is not in their interest). The National Audit Bill to strengthen the Auditor General’s role to increase accountability was only passed in July 2018, after being held up since 2003. Requests to open the COPE/COPA hearings to the public by the Committees’ themselves have gone unheeded.

Improving accountability and governance within State Owned Enterprises is important because of the large leakages that take place, but this will address only the subset of a larger problem.

Sri Lankan intellectuals have long placed great faith in government but given the quality of governance the role that the state should play in public life should be reassessed. The governance mechanisms are what ensure that state activity delivers benefits to citizens. A state that exhibits high levels of governance may be trusted to play a larger role, whereas one with weaker governance should only play a smaller role.

Keynes stated the function of government: it should do only what the people could not do at all, not what it could do better than the people. Our objective should be a state that performs a limited and well-defined number of tasks to which it is suited and has the requisite capacity.


[1]. Ministers are now required to submit responses to committee findings (previously they could be ignored), COPE follows the convention of being chaired by an opposition MP and non-COPE members of Parliament may now observe its proceedings

[2]. As per Section 220, if it appears to a Director of a Company, that the ‘net assets’ of the Company are less than 50% its ‘Stated Capital’, then the Board, within 20 working days of such fact becoming known to the Director, shall call an Extra-ordinary General Meeting of the Shareholders to be held, not later than 40 working days from the date of calling of such Meeting. Sri Lankan Airlines has lost the entirety of its capital and now has a negative capital.


Sri Lanka has a total of 527 State Owned Enterprises out of which regular information is available for only 55. The inefficiencies and mismanagement which riddle our SOEs are explored in the Advocata Institute's new report  “State of State Enterprises in Sri Lanka- 2019"

To read more on SOEs and download full report visit www.advocata.org