The Coordination Problem

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.