Economic Recovery

Growth, productivity and competition: Time to shift gears

Originally appeared on Echelon

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

The Sri Lankan economy has been running, metaphorically speaking, in second gear. It’s time to shift up if we want standards of living to improve.

What determines the ‘standard of living’? Economists measure it in terms of the value of goods and services; when this grows, living standards improve.

Resources – land, labour and capital – and the extent to which they can be harnessed for productive purposes through entrepreneurship are the building blocks of the economy: what people use to produce goods and services. Having a large resource endowment, like oil, is an advantage. Sri Lanka has restarted efforts in oil exploration. In any case, it is better not to pin all our hopes of development on a chance oil strike.

So far, our development has been conventional. Like other poor countries, Sri Lanka has brought previously idle factors of production – land, labour and capital – into productive use.

Post-war, the integration of the North and the East expanded its limited pool of resources. This stage of growth is termed input-led, and is determined by the amount of input that a country can muster.

Once a country reaches middle-income status, especially upper-middle income levels, marginal returns to resources diminish and growth slows. The country also runs out of resources to bring into production: available land gets used, labour is fully employed, the population ages and incremental returns of capital slow down. The growth model is exhausted, so the economy stagnates. The production possibility frontier is reached. Sri Lanka is approaching this stage, as there is not a lot more stuff that can be thrown into our economic ‘pie’.

Sri Lankans today are, on average, much better off than their grandparents were. Some have become very wealthy, but there are still too many people who are relatively poor. The rich will be content, but less so the poor. If the population grows, living standards will fall, unless growth of the economy exceeds that of the population. Now, we face a conundrum. The total value of goods and services must increase, but such idle ‘factors’ are no longer available. The limits of its input have been reached.

From this point, the way to grow is through ‘productivity’. In economic terms, productivity depends on both the value of a nation’s products and services, measured by the prices they can command in open markets, and the efficiency with which they can be produced. It is the overall increase in value that makes high wages possible.

Once a country reaches middle-income status, especially upper-middle income levels, marginal returns to resources diminish and growth slows

Productivity matters at all stages of growth, but its importance increases as the production possibility frontier is reached. The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman said, “Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run, it is almost everything. A country’s ability to improve its standard of living over time depends almost entirely on its ability to raise its output per worker.”

The challenge for a middle-income country such as Sri Lanka is how to create the conditions for rapid and sustained productivity growth. Rich economies produce, consume and invest in entirely different goods and services than poor economies. Economies typically move from primary products such as agriculture into manufacturing and services. This structural transformation—the movement of labour from low-productivity to high-productivity sectors—depends on the demand for labour in high-productivity sectors, and the supply of labour from low-productivity sectors. A multitude of factors affect this, but it is broadly driven by investment in more productive sectors and a regulatory regime that facilitates the movement of labour and other resources.

While new investment is important, export-oriented investment is especially important in smaller countries. According to an IMF working paper titled ‘Economic Benefits of Export Diversification in Small States’ (McIntyre et al, April 2018), “Openness to trade provides small states the chance to overcome the limitations of size through access to larger markets and opportunities to achieve economies of scale in production. Moreover, openness to foreign investment generally promotes long run growth through knowledge and technology transfers from foreign to domestic firms.”

However, the productivity of the domestic market cannot be neglected and the spur to this is competition. In ‘Building the Microeconomic Foundations of Prosperity: Findings from the Business Competitiveness Index’, Porter says, “Purely local industries also matter for competitiveness because their productivity has a major influence on the cost of living and the cost of doing business, not to mention their level of wages. The productivity of the entire economy matters for the standard of living, not just the traded goods sector.”

Open and vigorous competition in the local market will see the least efficient firms exiting the market, while market shares are reallocated from less efficient to more efficient firms, which causes overall productivity to rise. Porter also states, “Productivity is the goal, not whether firms operating in the country are domestic or foreign owned. What matters most is not ownership, but the nature and productivity of the companies’ activities in a particular country.”

The government has a two-fold role to play in this structural transformation; it must facilitate the increase in productivity and help manage the costs. Many elements are involved. Investment is needed, especially in new areas, so prudent fiscal and monetary policy is a precondition.

Investors seek low transaction costs and high certainty, and these characteristics are best secured by institutions (judiciary, public administration, the financial system, regulatory agencies). High-quality laws, courts and bureaucracy increase efficiency. Stable, accessible and clear laws; limited discretion (bureaucratic/ministerial); low corruption; and consistent/ impartial court rulings increase predictability. All these influence investments in physical and human capital, technology, and the organisation of production.

The importance of exports has already been stressed, but we cannot rely on garments and tourism; diversification is needed for much faster growth. In 2000, export revenue of both Vietnam and Sri Lanka was around $2 billion. In 2017, Sri Lanka’s exports reached $11.4 billion, but Vietnam achieved $162 billion. Over the period 2000-14, Vietnam added 48 new products to its export basket with a per capita value of $545, while Sri Lanka added seven, with a per capita value of $5. Moving to higher-value sectors will support higher wages in exports.

In the domestic market, the weakest sector is agriculture, which absorbs about 28% of the workforce but contributes only 8% to GDP. Policy to speed up the modernisation of agriculture – helping producers acquire scale, invest in food processing, encourage crop diversification and improve productivity (mechanisation, drip irrigation, greenhouses, quality seeds etc) – is needed. Land policy needs review, and support for R&D must replace subsidies and price guarantees. Reforms to provide tenants and smallholders proper ownership or tenure could inject dynamism to agriculture. It requires careful study and needs to be geared to local circumstances, but the experience of Korea and Taiwan are worthy of study: “Land reforms in the Republic of Korea and Taipei, China, also led to rapid structural transformation in three ways. First, the land reforms led to increased incomes among poor farmers in the two countries, who could then invest some of the income in the schooling of their children. [The increase in agricultural productivity in Taipei, China, was particularly striking, with yields of traditional crops such as rice and sugar increasing by half, and that of fruits and vegetables doubling (Studwell 2013).] This led to the availability of a skilled workforce in the Republic of Korea and Taipei, China, necessary for rapid export-oriented industrialization. Second, increased incomes in rural areas led to an expansion of the domestic market in the manufacturing sector, fostering rapid industrialization. Third, the more egalitarian land distribution provided a stable political environment, which allowed the political leaders of the two countries to concentrate their attention on rapid industrialization.” (Ban, Mun, and Perkins 1980; Putzel 2000; Studwell 2013).

Trade liberalisation is needed to promote competition and improve efficiency in the domestic market. Tariffs or subsidies may be replaced by supporting the adoption of new technology and R&D, and enhancing worker skills.

Improving the quality of the factors will improve productivity: infrastructure to improve physical capital, and education to improve human capital.

The richer sections of society may not see a need for reforms, but if broad-based growth is not maintained, the destructive ethnic tensions of the past could resurface

The process of reallocation is disruptive, it involves changes in the size and make-up of an economy, and the distribution of activity and resources among firms and industries. Some sectors will
shrink, or even disappear, and new ones will appear. Firms will close or downsize, while others set up or expand. Some workers may find it difficult to transition, so there is a need for income support for displaced workers and to foster reintegration through training and job search assistance. The focus should be on protecting the worker, not the job.

Sri Lanka’s economy has undergone some structural changes since 1960. According to ‘The Sri Lankan Economy.


Charting A New Course (ADB 2017), “The share of agriculturehas shrunk quite rapidly, from about 30% of GDP to a little over 10%. Industry has expanded from about 20% of GDP in 1960 to over 30% by 2015.” Post-war reconstruction helped boost growth, but this has petered out.

The richer sections of society may not see a need for reforms, but if broad-based growth is not maintained, the destructive ethnic tensions of the past could resurface. Improving living standards is the surest way to avoid a return to our troubled past.

Economic Recovery in the North: Moving From Aid to Entrepreneurship

By Anushka Wijesinha

This article originally appeared in the Daily Mirror on 27 May 2015.

Last week, Sri Lanka marked the six-year anniversary since the end of the armed conflict in May 2009. In the aftermath of the war, there was an impressive reconstruction and public infrastructure effort, with around 10% of all budget expenditures during 2009-2013 being spent directly on reconstruction in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Two large ‘Marshall Plan’-type programmes – Uthuru Vasanthaya in the North and Neganahira Navodaya in the East – aimed to kick-start growth through an infrastructure and public works drive. The major connective infrastructure in these provinces – roads, bridges, fishery harbours, etc. – are now of a standard rivaling many other parts of the country. However, the shift from reconstruction, to true economic recovery through industrialization, job creation, and entrepreneurship, has been much slower – particularly in the North. While this article does not take a comprehensive look at all the reasons for this, it points to some key issues that need attention by donors, public officials and the private sector.

Post-war Economic Dynamics

It is clear that the post-war growth spurt is having a tangible effect on the Northern economy, particularly in key cities like Jaffna and Vavuniya. Consumption has picked up sharply, and a lot of the big brands from the South – in consumer electronics and agricultural equipment – are now operating here. There is even a branch of the Colombo-based men’s hair salon, La Passion!. Meanwhile, years of donor interventions have also distorted economic incentives. A local civil society leader I met with on a recent visit remarked that, “A hand-out mentality has been rooted in, and there is a need to promote entrepreneurial effort”. The steady inflow of foreign remittances is also having an economic effect in Jaffna, skewing the incentives to work. Young people who would otherwise be joining the labour force seeking employment are opting to stay out and live off remittance income instead. Locals complain of sharp rises in alcoholism and drug abuse among youth. But the picture is not the same across the peninsula. In Point Pedro, for instance, young people are keen to look for jobs and eager to see new industrial activities start up.

Supporting Industrialization

Atchuvely Industrial Zone is one such activity. This estate, which had been derelict and shut down during war, has now been revamped by UNOPS with funding from the Indian government. Twenty-five acres are now ready for occupation, but the inflow of investment has been rather slow. When I visited here earlier this year, I met with the owners of the few factories that have commenced operations, including a manufacturer of hardware items and a recycled paper producer. Several factories have received American donor support for their equipment and machinery, but are having difficulty finding the local skilled labour required to install and operate these machines. I also noticed that while several other projects had been given approval, the slots allocated to them were empty. Many local entrepreneurs are having difficulties with obtaining project finance to set up. This must be tackled, and local bank branches must play a better role in financing enterprise growth here. There is plenty of opportunity for, and interest among, indigenous entrepreneurs to expand into Atchuvely, professionalize their operations, expand and employ more people.

Beyond Donor Aid to Accessing Better Markets

In the immediate post-war period, there has been a high dependence on day labour for income – manual labour on farms and civil works projects. But the availability of work is often uncertain, leaving people vulnerable to fluctuations in income. Donor projects have identified this and attempted to support income diversification. These projects have funded training centers for job training and livelihood development and gifted people and households machinery and equipment. But during recent visits to the North, I witnessed in several instances where these facilities lay abandoned. I observed how successive rounds of donor projects have “gifted” assets to people, but paid little attention to help them make productive use of these assets. While these have been built and gifted with all the right intentions, there has been less focus on ensuring that these can sustainably support entrepreneurship. Little attention has been paid to helping them access markets. One local government official in the North remarked to me, “Many NGOs are providing training for people to produce various things in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, but the peoples marketing knowledge is weak and so they cannot sell what they make.”

From ‘Cow-Dropping’ to ‘Dairy Entrepreneurship’

Diary projects have similar problems. A colleague I was travelling with jokingly called this the “cow-dropping syndrome”. So many donors have “dropped” free cows on families and hoped that this would improve livelihoods and incomes. Yet, little attention had been paid to help them become ‘dairy entrepreneurs’ instead; helping them maintain healthy animals, improve milk quality, and link up to stable markets and lucrative value chains. In some cases, women of female-headed households who received free cows had simply sold them off, either because they did not have a way of plugging in to a profitable milk supply chain, or even because it became too expensive to maintain owning them (feed, veterinary costs, etc), in the absence of sustainable revenue generation. Amidst this, however, a project by Cargills and Tetra Laval, was different. Supported by GIZ, they built up a group of dairy entrepreneurs who now regularly supplying large volumes of milk at better prices, to the national supply chain. With advice from Tetra Laval’s global ‘Food for Development’ programme, Cargills has been able to learn best practices in dairy farming and milk production. This in turn has boosted Northern dairy farmer’s knowledge in maintaining better milk production. Similar efforts by ILO’s LEED project have also adopted an integrated approach, where local producer groups are closely linked to national value chains.

Next Phase

More of these approaches are needed to boost entrepreneurship to support the growth of indigenous enterprises here, not just support an influx of brands from Colombo. Helping micro-producers link up with supply chains can certainly boost incomes in the North. It is already six years on, and once the dust settles on donor support it is entrepreneurship of the people that will boost the Northern economy more sustainably. The next phase of economic recovery must shift from ‘aid’ to ‘entrepreneurship’.


Anushka Wijesinha is a development economist and a consultant to a host of governmental and non-governmental organizations in Sri Lanka.  He has previously worked at Institute for Policy Studies, The World Bank and the presidential commision on taxation.  His writings on economics are found on his blog -- The curionomist.  You can follow him on Twitter @anushwij