The Coordination Problem

Are Japan and India taking over the Colombo Port?

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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 Nishtha Chadha

Negotiations on the Colombo Port’s East Container Terminal (ECT) have certainly racked up their fair share of controversy over the last year. Infamous for the onslaught of last year’s political crisis, the ECT presents one of Sri Lanka’s greatest economic and geopolitical opportunities due to its prime position and immense untapped capacity. The recent ECT Memorandum of Cooperation (MoC) signed between Sri Lanka, Japan, and India is no exception. The agreement reignited hardline nationalistic debates from trade unions and recurring spates of “Indo-phobia”. JVP Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayaka even equated the move to selling off national resources as ransoms, which threaten the national security and economic sovereignty of the country. But such hardline opposition to the agreement begs the question: What exactly is being given up?

What’s in the Memorandum of Cooperation?

According to the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), the MoC states that the SLPA retains 100% ownership of the East Container Terminal. The Terminal Operations Company (TOC), which will be responsible for all operations within the terminal, will be jointly owned by Sri Lanka, Japan, and India. Sri Lanka will maintain a 51% stake in the company, while Japan and India will hold minority stakes of 34% and 15%, respectively. Development of the ECT will be financed by Japan through a 40-year soft loan of between $ 500-800 million. The loan will be at a 0.1% interest rate with a grace period of 10 years. The SLPA boasted the terms as one of the best agreements it has ever negotiated.

So, why is the ECT so important?

Estimates suggest that within the next three decades, over 45% of global GDP and trade will emanate from the Asia-Pacific region. At the heart of the Indian Ocean, the Colombo Port is in prime position to enjoy the lion’s share of this predicted growth. Ranked 11th in connectivity and 22nd amongst global ports, demand for the port is increasing steadily, and so is its competition. As the Colombo Port’s three current operational terminals, the Jaya Container Terminal (JCT), South Asia Gateway Terminal (SAGT), and Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT) struggle to meet capacity demands, the development of the ECT has certainly become a matter of urgency.

India’s new Sagarmala port development initiative also escalated anxiety amongst policymakers about potential loss in business, as over 70% of transhipment that passes through the Colombo Port is linked to India. Construction of the Enayam Port in nearby Tamil Nadu and the Kerala port, which is soon to be world’s deepest multipurpose port, suggest an explicit and pressing need for Sri Lanka to diversify its partners in the shipping business to keep the Colombo Port competitive. The best way to do this is to implement incentives for new investment, upgrade ancillary services for current and prospective consumers, increase efficiency to facilitate quicker turnovers, and expand berthing capacity to meet growing demand.

Why can’t the SLPA just develop the terminal?

Indeed, the largest opposition to the agreement has been the argument that if the SLPA is fit to develop the ECT itself, why is the Government getting other partners involved? However, the capacity of the SLPA to complete these development activities is more than dubious.

Though the SLPA has been one of the few state-owned enterprises able to recover any semblance of profit in recent years, it is also suffering from serious decline. According to the Ministry of Finance’s 2018 Annual Report, the SLPA saw its profit after tax reduce by 88%, from Rs. 12 billion in 2017 to Rs. 1.4 billion in 2018. This is in addition to total expenditure of the authority increasing by 5.5%, from Rs. 28.5 billion in 2017 to Rs. 30 billion in 2018. Moreover, if one interrogates the sources of this profit, it becomes painstakingly clear that the only reason the SLPA is even able to recover “net profit” in the first place is because of the high performance of its privately run terminals, the SAGT and CICT, which markedly outperform the SLPA-run JCT. The authority is bloated, unproductive, and cannot specialise in service provisions the same way that private operators are be able to.

The Government itself has even admitted that the SLPA does not have the funds or capacity to undertake the required development activities within the time period or at the scale required. The recent Easter attacks, combined with the last 12 months of political turbulence, have tightened budgetary constraints and fiscal burdens on the national economy. As such, the optimal solution to Sri Lanka’s rising economic maladies is to capitalise on national assets by trying to attract external investment capital and improve efficiency. The liberalisation of port practices and the introduction of competition to the industry is an avenue worth pursuing. Given the importance of the port to Sri Lanka’s participation in international trade, the objective of the management system should be to achieve efficiency gains and generate new traffic in the ECT. This can only be done by improving service offerings and removing bureaucratic impediments, not coddling trade unions and stifling economic potential.

The fact that the SLPA retains a 51% stake in the TOC is a cause for concern in itself. The SLPA should not be playing the role of both a service provider and a regulator. This severe conflict of interest not only undermines competitive neutrality, but also consumer confidence. Instead, as the sole owner of the port, the authority should be transitioning its role into one of a landlord, responsible only for monitoring port performance and the enforcement of regulatory standards.

A step in the right direction

While the agreement on the ECT is not perfect, it is a step in the right direction. The dream of becoming Asia’s next maritime hub is not far-fetched for Sri Lanka, but it will only be possible with the right reforms in place and an honest openness to foreign participation. Time and again, we have seen global supply chains expand domestic markets, and there is no reason for Sri Lanka to miss out.

The performance of the SAGT and CICT have proven Colombo’s maritime potential, and it is time the Government made a concerted effort to achieve this. Sri Lanka has approximately 750 local shipping, freight forwarding, and clearing agents, but this is minuscule in comparison to Singapore’s 5,000. In order to make the most of the ECT’s capability, Sri Lanka needs to implement supplementary reforms that will attract leading shipping companies to bring their business to Sri Lanka and set up regional hubs for operations. This includes creating a stringent and transparent regulatory environment, as well as significantly reducing the bureaucratic and financial barriers that currently deter prospective stakeholders.

It is important to understand that maintaining economic sovereignty does not come from shutting out foreign capital and deep-diving into protectionist policies that accelerate economic decline; but rather, from capitalising on strategic opportunities that promote increased employment and growth, which thereby translate into economic agency. The Colombo Port is ripe for growth potential, and the Government should be proactive in implementing key reforms that will transform Sri Lanka into the maritime hub it seeks to be.

Limited government – Ideal State

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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


Limited Government; Ideal State – Part IV

By Dhananath Fernando

This article completes Advocata’s four-piece series on “limited government”. Over the past three weeks, we have presented three arguments in favour of a limited government. We began the series by delving into the mounting costs associated with a government of this size. The article questioned the rationale behind expenditure on this scale, given that the services provided by the Government are characteristically inefficient. Erratic power cuts and railway strikes seen in the recent past are testament to this. From here, the series explored the question of how a government can best serve its citizens.

The main argument presented was that when the powers and responsibilities of the State are decentralised, voters are given a stronger voice and are better able to hold elected officials accountable. The result is that public finances are better managed and service delivery improves. The last topic tackled in this series was that of corruption, expanding on how the window of opportunity for corruption widens when a government grows in scope as well as physical size, without the necessary governance and accountability measures in place. All three articles concluded on the same point – the size and role of the Government needs to be re-visited.

At a fundamental level, a government exists to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens. This is the first and foremost responsibility of a government and it is vital that this is given priority. The danger of governments expanding into other sectors is that these foundational responsibilities are pushed to the sidelines. When a government provides subsidies, creates price ceilings, and gives ad hoc handouts, it loses incentive to focus on its priorities. Giving a subsidy has an immediate impact on its voters and a cycle of instant gratification begins. Parallel to election cycles, governments now have an easier, quicker method to win over voters. Ensuring the rule of law and enshrining the negative freedoms of a population does not have the shiny appeal of a handout – the positive, virtuous cycles these freedoms and protections create are strong, they can permeate institutions and change cultures of work. However, they can take years to come into effect and are difficult concepts to convey through the flashy advertisements of an election campaign.

Of course, this means that governments respond to the attractive incentive of a quick win and an extended term in office, and prioritises the handout over the fundamentals of freedom. As much as these freedoms can create virtuous cycles of growth and development, the neglect and deterioration of these freedoms can create dangerous cycles of corruption, misuse, and violence.

The best way to illustrate these dangerous cycles is through the justice system. Unfortunately, we witnessed first-hand the aftermath of the Easter attacks where virulent rhetoric against the Muslim community resulted in riots, with 500 Muslim-owned shops being attacked and set on fire. In the face of this outbreak of violence, the rule of law was flagrantly abused, and peace was not upheld.

Eammon Butler, in his book “Foundations of a Free Society”, expounds on this in some detail. According to him, the rules of justice are a cornerstone of any free society. While rules of justice would mean there are penalties for harming other people, in a free society, emphasis is also given to ensuring the role and power of a government is strictly limited. This will mean that the monopoly over violence a government has will not be used arbitrarily or in the self-interest of those who wield it. To quote: “The main problem of political organisation is not how to choose our leaders – that is easy – but how to restrain them.”

This seems reasonable and rational. No one wants an army-running rampant – you want to ensure the people with the guns and ammunition have clear rules on when and why they can use it. Most governments recognise this and have mechanisms such as constitutions and the separation of the executive, legislature, and judiciary to restrain those in positions of power. But the foundation of this is to ensure that citizens are all treated equally under the law – that all laws apply equally to all citizens and there is equal treatment and due process of justice. For freedom to have meaning, it has to apply equally to the whole population. When this does not take place and there is essentially a break down in the rule of law, the immediate impacts might seem inconsequential. It might mean that someone gets out on bail when maybe they shouldn’t. It might mean that tariffs are raised to protect politically important local business interests. Taken alone, these are singular events, which, while problematic, don’t cause much consternation. However, this is a slippery slope which often ends in widespread corruption in the best case, and a complete breakdown of law and order in other instances.

Once again, recent events illustrate that all citizens are not treated equally under the law, and that instances where law and order break down are increasing in frequency. The Wennappuwa Pradeshiya Sabha (PS) Chairman issuing a letter prohibiting Muslim traders from conducting business at the Dankotuwa Market is a case in point. It is of utmost importance that steps are taken to ensure the rule of law is maintained, and the Government prioritises its core functions putting the safety and freedom of all its citizens at the forefront.

Less spending, less corruption

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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 III

By Aneetha Warusavitarana

The World Bank quite simply defines corruption as the “abuse of public office for private gain”. Accordingly, public office can be abused when private agents actively offer or accept bribes, institute practices of patronage and nepotism, and engage in the theft of state assets or misuse public funds. In Sri Lanka, corruption has become institutionalised and can range from the traffic policeman who accepts a bribe to a high-ranking bureaucrat siphoning public money for personal expenses.

In 2018, Sri Lanka ranked 89th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. As a country, we score 38 out of 100, with 100 representing a clean, corruption-free country. The magnitude of this problem is clear.

What’s the big deal about corruption?

Bribery

Is corruption really bad? You can’t deny that when your garbage is piling up, it’s easier to bribe the garbage collectors to take your garbage than visit your municipal council and file a complaint. Sometimes, it can just be easier to pay a bribe to the traffic police than go to court and settle a traffic violation, or to pay a little extra and get your driving license renewed faster. These are all very mundane, commonplace occurrences that have become normalised to the point one does not think of it as “corruption”. It’s just a small payment to make your life a little easier – a small payment to ensure an application is processed smoothly. So, if corruption can make things simpler, what’s the issue?

While corruption on this scale can appear to be insignificant, in reality, it is one component of a much larger, systemic problem which has far-reaching consequences. Corruption in government is institutional, and given the outsized role the Sri Lankan Government plays in markets and business, the impact is far-reaching. The difficulty in holding government officials accountable and the considerable discretion they can wield creates an environment in which corruption can flourish.

The far-reaching impacts of corruption

Large corruption scandals often focus on the amount of money that has been misused, placing emphasis on face value loss that is created by corruption. However, the impact of one act of bribery or corruption goes far beyond the initial monetary loss. Corruption raises the transaction costs of conducting business and creates uncertainty in the market. In an environment where corruption flourishes, a business will not win a contract based on merit and skill alone. Procurement-related issues (read: corruption) associated with the Kerawalapitiya Power Plant meant that it took three years to award the tender. This lowers profitability within firms and creates an overall environment of uncertainty which discourages foreign investment. The result is that the positive spillover effects from investments, like increased competition and technology transfers, will not take place. Corruption also reduces the attractiveness of entrepreneurship, resulting in higher prices and lower quality. The problem does not end there. The culture of corruption is one of impunity and complete disregard for the rule of law. When this culture permeates the government, it affects the independence and credibility of the legislature and the judiciary – the very institutions which should be ensuring that the rule of law is upheld.

State-Owned Enterprises and corruption

Sri Lanka’s state-owned enterprises are a prime example of institutionalised corruption. In Advocata’s flagship report, the State of State Enterprises in Sri Lanka – 2019, the problem of corruption is a key issue tackled. In this report, corruption is explained through the perverse incentives that exist in the Sri Lankan bureaucracy. In the case of state-owned enterprises, as the money invested in state-owned enterprises is not of the politicians, there are no incentives for politicians to work towards making these enterprises efficient or productive. However, given the deep-rooted culture of patronage that exists in Sri Lanka, there is a strong incentive for politicians to use state-owned enterprises for their own gain. The lack of oversight or accountability means politicians can hire almost indiscriminately, giving out jobs for political gain. The reports from the Committee on Public Enterprise (COPE) make this abundantly clear, highlighting the numerous instances where recruitment had taken place without the appropriate approval from the Department of Management Services.

This problem is exacerbated by weak systems of accountability and governance. While the COPE and the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) do play a role in the governance of state-owned enterprises, they have access to limited resources and equipment and are in need of specialised skills such as legal aid.

What is the solution?

If corruption is the abuse of public office for private gain, then in order to stop corruption, we should focus our attention on how and where this abuse happens. When the government moves outside its core mandate to protect life, liberty, and property, it grows in size and in scope, making the government difficult to monitor and hold accountable. Additionally, as a government grows in size, so does its spending. Changing a culture of corruption will take a great deal of political will and leadership, as well as buy-in from the bureaucracy. While accountability and transparency play an important role in countering corruption, the effects of this are seen in the long term. In the short term, focus should be on limiting the scope of the government and thereby drastically reducing government spending. A 10% cut of Rs. 3 million is significantly lower than a 10% cut of Rs. 300 million; reducing government spending is the fastest way to reduce corruption in quantitative terms. A reduction in government spending will also make transparency within the government easier to enforce, helping create a culture of accountability.

If we are to seriously tackle the problem of corruption in government, the role and scope of the government needs to be revisited and limited.

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.

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 was then operated under Emirates – a renowned carrier of United Arab of Emirates, enjoyed a profit of Rs. 4.4 billion for the year 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 billion. 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 losses of 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 government to implement restructuring procedures? What would be at stake by then? This is indefinitely an answer Sri Lankans would not like to find out.

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.

An income for all – Yay or Nay?

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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

“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.

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.


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.