Ability of Parliamentary Committees questionable – Advocata

Republic Next mentioned Advocata in a recent article on misgovernance of SOEs in Sri Lanka.

The Advocata Institute, a Colombo-based think tank, is questioning the ability of various oversight committees set up by Parliament to look into governance issues in Sri Lanka.

The report, which looks at the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), is highly critical of these institutions that are draining the Treasury of billions of rupees each year.

Advocata says the way Members of Parliament are elected is an issue. MPs align with wealthy election backers who provide campaign support in return for political protection or rewards. Thus, those elected are politicians with “access to cash and manpower – not intellect or ability.”

Although politicians will pursue their own interests, an effective governance system should apply the brakes on the worst of those impulses. Parliament, through the aforementioned committees, should be doing this, but is seriously underperforming, the report says.

Although Parliamentary Committees such as the Committee on Public Enterprise (COPE) and the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) conducted investigations that shed light on important issues – including the much talked about Bonds Scam – Advocata says these committees could do more to scrutinise public funds. These committees do not appear to have sufficient expertise to make concrete recommendations to right the wrongs in Government.

The report notes that “serious deficiencies exist.” With the current political uncertainty, it says that “engineering crossovers in return for political office reduces parliament to a rubber stamp and the committee system is weak.” The report commends the current government for the major overhaul of the committee structure, which it says makes them “much better geared to scrutiny and accountability.”

Structures aside, the report says that the performance of these committees depends on the calibre of the MPs.

Advocata recommends that experts who are not MPs be added to these committees so that they could function better. “Unfortunately, it does not seem as if we have the necessary quality of MPs in sufficient numbers to make the reformed system perform. Aside from capacity, there is little incentive for MPs to take committee work or parliament seriously. Many don’t even attend,” it says. Publicly available information shows that less than half the MPs attended at least 75% of the sessions. Even those who attended remained in the house only for the first hour.

Advocata also found that “COPA/COPE are under-resourced; their reports complain of a lack staff (particularly audit) and proper IT systems. Further, the government is not required to respond to the recommendations of these committees within any stipulated period of time, leaving the accountability loop open.” Advocata also adds its voice to the clamour to make the COPA and COPE hearings open to the media.

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

Download full report: https://www.advocata.org/state-enterprise-srilanka

Media mention on Reuters of Advocata on taxes on sanitary napkins

Thomson-Reuters Foundation mentioned Advocata in a recent article on period poverty and sanitary napkin affordability, published on April 04, 2019.

An excerpt from the article:

“Should a country tax women on something they have no control over? As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, in Sri Lanka women’s health as well as education is in jeopardy due to high taxes on women’s sanitary products, say activists.

“Period poverty has hit global headlines in recent years, with statistics showing that even in a wealthy Western country like Britain, one in 10 girls have been unable to afford sanitary products. …In Sri Lanka, the problem is particularly acute because sanitary products are so heavily taxed - until last September, the levy on imported pads was more than 100 percent. It has since been reduced to about 63 percent and Sri Lanka’s finance minister, Mangala Samaraweera, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation he was looking into how taxes on sanitary products could be reduced further.

But Anuki Premachandra, head of research communication at The Advocata Institute, an independent policy think tank, said the issue still wasn’t being given the importance it deserved. “People are enraged about the cost of carrots, but when it comes to taxes on sanitary napkins, they dismiss it as a women’s issue,” she said.”

Corruption and patronage culture rampant

Republic Next mentioned Advocata in a recent article on misgovernance of SOEs in Sri Lanka.

State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), which have cost the state mammoth amounts of state funds over the past few decades, are victims of a patronage culture fostered by corrupt politicians, says a new report on the state of these organisations released by Colombo-based think tank Advocata.

The report quotes Finance Ministry Secretary Dr R.H.S. Samaratunga as saying that successive Sri Lankan governments have pumped a colossal Rs.1, 150 billion into the upkeep of these SOEs up to 2017.

This is money that could have been spent on developing schools and hospitals as well as maintaining much-needed infrastructure.

The report says that lifting limits on political campaign spending and abolishing transparency of those money trails in 1978 opened the floodgates of corruption.

The report points out that “wealthy backers, some connected to the underworld, provide labour and fund campaigns in return for political protection or rewards.” Because of this culture, the people who end up getting elected to office are those with “access to cash and manpower – not intellect or ability.”

Naturally, this means that the state’s technical capacity to formulate policy and implement them are insufficient. The report notes that “the concept of independent policy analysis does not exist, leaving a vacuum vulnerable to capture by special interest groups.”

After the Member is elected, they try to recover their “investment” in the political venture or start building up a war chest to be re-elected. He or she also has to provide jobs and wherewithal to their supporters and for this, SOEs provide opportunities for the politicians to stuff these enterprises with staff that exceed requirements. In one egregious incident, the State Engineering Corporation recruited a mind-blowing 451 persons to fill 41 vacancies in December 2015. That is more than ten times the required number of persons, according to inquiries conducted by Parliament’s Committee on Public Enterprise (COPE).

The reason why the SOEs are a soft target for the corrupt is weak governance practices, the Advocata report says.

The report suggests that adopting “comprehensive corporate governance practices is a route that many countries have taken to strengthen the accountability of SOEs. These governance practices strengthen the governing bodies that oversee and control (shareholders or owner meetings, board and management, internal monitoring structures), define clear rules of engagement between the different actors, and increase transparency and accountability towards the stakeholders.”

Download full report: https://www.advocata.org/state-enterprise-srilanka

Media mention of Advocata on taxes on sanitary napkins for IWD 2019

Sunday Observer mentioned Advocata in a recent article on sanitary napkin taxation for International Women’s Day, 2019.

An excerpt from the article:

“Should a country tax women on something they have no control over? As the world celebrates International Women’s Day, in Sri Lanka women’s health as well as education is in jeopardy due to high taxes on women’s sanitary products, say activists.

“In a country with 4.2 million menstruating women and a population that is 52 per cent women, you’ would think wewould know better than to tax a woman on something that is beyond her control; but we do not’’ said Anuki Premachandra of the Advocata Institute. Anuki who serves as the Manager-Research Communication at Advocata had been canvassing on the sanitary pad problem during the past couple of months.

“Import taxes on sanitary napkins in Sri Lanka are as high as 62 per cent and what our policy makers fail to realise is that this is a tax on a woman’s biological process that she has no control over. Are we still a society that fails to provide a woman access to a basic necessity? Is it not time we said times up Sri Lanka?” said Anuki.”

Ignorance and corruption bedevils state enterprises

Republic Next mentioned Advocata in a recent article on misgovernance of SOEs in Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan state does not know how many enterprises it runs, reveals a report on State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) released by the Colombo-based think tank Advocata.

Titled “Sri Lanka’s state-owned enterprises Systemic Misgovernance: A discussion”, the report delves into the state of these organisations and proposes policy reforms to improve governance.

In the foreword, the researchers point out that a “major roadblock identified in the report is the lack of an official, all-encompassing list of SOEs, their subsidiaries and sub-subsidiaries. The Advocata Institute has found references to over 400 SOEs, but this cannot be verified against any government source.” The Department of Public Enterprise has the most comprehensive list, consisting only 127 SOEs. Some 50 of these SOEs are considered “strategic” and are closely monitored by the Treasury.

The report also found that enumerating SOEs was problematic and says “this problem is compounded by the fact that the government has a very loose definition of SOEs. To address the problem, this report provides a working definition of what an SOE is, for the sake of clarity.”

The report goes on to explore the structural issues at the core of Sri Lankan SOEs. Elaborating on these issues, the report illustrates how structural issues lead to poor governance, which allows SOEs to continue to function as loss-making entities.

The report points out that unlike private enterprises, SOEs are run with taxpayer money and when they incur losses, the Government – or in effect the taxpayer – has to pay for it. Because of this, SOEs are a drain on the Treasury.

Mismanagement and outright looting bedevils these enterprises as they are crammed with workers who are supporters of politicians and not staffed with professionals who could make them efficient and profitable, the report finds.

“SOEs are ultimately owned by citizens but run by managers who are controlled by politicians. Politicians determine or otherwise influence the appointment of key management and must hold the managers accountable”, the report adds.

The report compares SOEs to private sector companies, where shareholders have invested their own money in a venture. “Unlike shareholders, the politicians have not invested their money in the business. As they have no stake, there is no particular interest in ensuring it is well run. However, politicians do have incentives to direct SOEs to achieve economically inefficient objectives for political purposes, giving rise to political costs. These may be benign if policies enhance social welfare at the cost of shareholder value. However, more often than not, they are malign and favour political allies at the expense of public welfare”, it points out.

Download full report: https://www.advocata.org/state-enterprise-srilanka

Media coverage on Asia Liberty Forum 2019

The Advocata Institute co-hosted Atlas Network’s Asia Liberty Forum earlier this month from the 28th of February - 01st of March at the Hilton Colombo. The event was graced by 250+ academics, intellectual and leading economic and policy thinkers from over 30 countries. The Freedom Dinner on the 28th of February saw the presence of leading political dignitaries as well. The forum focused on economic challenges facing the Asian region and way forward.

Sunday Observer - Advocata Institute to host Asia Liberty Forum

“Over 200 leading academics, policymakers and intellectuals from over 30 countries will participate in the Asia Liberty Forum 2019 in Colombo to discuss challenges facing the Asian region and to learn from each other on how to advance free-market reforms. The Asia Liberty Forum is an annual event by the United States based Atlas Network, co-hosted in partnership with the Advocata Institute.”

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Lanka Business Online - Advocata Institute to host Asia Liberty Forum 2019 in Sri Lanka

“Over 200 participants, comprising leading academics, policy makers and intellectuals from over 30 countries will come together in Colombo, Sri Lanka for the 2019 Asia Liberty Forum to discuss challenges facing the Asian region and to learn from each other on how to most effectively advance free-market reforms.”

Read full article

Daily News - Asia Liberty Forum co-hosted by Advocata Institute, Atlas Network today

“The Asia Liberty Forum brings together over 50 speakers, over 275 thought leaders and intellectuals from 40 different countries to discuss challenges facing the region and to learn from one another how to effectively advance market-oriented reforms. The annual Asia Liberty Forum is hosted by the Atlas Network and co-hosted by Advocata Institute in Sri Lanka this year.”

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Daily FT - Public events at Asia Liberty Forum announced

“The annual Asia Liberty Forum is hosted by the Atlas Network and co-hosted by Advocata Institute in Sri Lanka this year. With the objective of making this year’s forum affordable and accessible to all, Advocata Institute is opening up two sessions to the public, with free admission.”

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Business World - Capitalism and freedom in Asia

“The annual Asia Liberty Forum (ALF) 2019 conference is held this week February 28 to March 1 in this South Asian country. To discuss and promote capitalism and free market policies may look ironic in a country that is officially named “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.” Yet this country has more pro-market policies than many supposedly capitalist Asian economies.”

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Sunday Observer - Expert advocates economic reforms for five years

“Sri Lanka needs to implement much needed economic reforms at least for the next five years, particularly to address the debt burden. It is the responsibility of governments to place the economy on a sound footing to revive growth and to accrue benefits to the people, Executive Director, Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Dr. Ganeshan Wignaraja told the first ever Asia Liberty Forum in Colombo last week.”

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Daily FT - Recipe for SOE reform

“Speaking at the launch of the ‘State of State Owned Enterprises 2019’ report compiled by local think-tank Advocata, Resident Fellow Ravi Ratnasabapathy recapped the significant role played by SOEs in the Sri Lankan economy. He pointed out they were vulnerable to mismanagement and corruption because of potential conflicts between the ownership and policy-making functions of the Government and undue political influence on their policies, appointments, and business practices.”

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What is the state of Sri Lanka's state enterprises?

Sri Lanka has a total of 527 State Owned Enterprises out of which regular information is only available for 55. These SOE's accumulate billions of losses annually due to sheer mismanagement. The precedence of corruption in the highly bureaucratic systems that govern SOEs are also a case for alarm. What is the state of our state owned enterprises?

At this year's Asia Liberty Forum, 2019, we are explored this topic in a discussion and public talk by Ravi Ratnasabapathy, Suresh Shah, Thilan Wijesinghe and Dr. Malathy Knight; moderated by Dr. Nishan de Mel.

Report out now: https://goo.gl/XogBvY

How can Asia embrace its urban future?

Many Asian countries vastly underestimate the levels of urbanization in their countries. Yet Cities are the engines of growth and prosperity. How can we embrace our urban future? What are the issues and challenges? 

A panel discussion by Pritika Hingorani, Hon. Dr. Harsha de Silva and Iromi Perera; moderated by Anushka Wijesinha at the Asia Liberty Forum, 2019.

What are the consequences of a depreciating currency?

The past few months have witnessed rapid currency depreciation across Asia, causing a significant amount of concern across economic sectors. What are the reasons behind these changes, what is their real impact on Asian economies and its people? A panel discussion by Dr. Ross McCleod, Dr. Cris Lingle and Dr. Ajay Shah; moderated by Murtaza Jafferjee at the Asia Liberty Forum, 2019.

Is Sri Lanka afraid of opening up to trade?

Sri Lanka was one of the first countries in South Asia to open up it’s economy in 1978. Four decades later however, it’s one of the least open economies in the region. At this year's Asia Liberty Forum, 2019, we are explored the question "Are we afraid of opening up?" in a public talk and panel discussion by Prof. Rohan Samarajiva, Lakshman Athukorala, Dr. Charitha Herath and Chandi Dharmaratne; moderated by Nisthar Cassim.

Perverse incentives and a lack of accountability lead to rampant corruption in State

A new report by The Advocata Institute, titled “The State of State Enterprises in Sri Lanka: Systemic Misgovernance” identifies the systemic issues that plague state-owned enterprises (SOEs) leading to substantial losses. This flagship publication builds on the analysis and data from the first ‘State of State-Owned Enterprises’ report which was released in 2016.

The essays in the report attempt to analyse the causes for the structural weaknesses and propose simple recommendations to establish basic central government control over SOEs and improve accountability.

Figure 1

Figure 1

The report identifies the lack of an official government definition of state-owned enterprises as a point from which many systemic issues arise. The lack of a definition means that the government does not have an authoritative list of all SOEs. To fill this information gap, the Advocata Institute has compiled a list of all known state enterprises, their subsidiaries and their subsidiaries.

Figure 1 provides a quick overview of the data, emphasizing the excessive number of state enterprises.

The structural problems of state-owned enterprises emerge from the problem of multiple actors (bureaucrats, politicians and citizens) with conflicting interests. This makes state owned enterprises vulnerable to mismanagement and corruption because of potential conflicts between the ownership and policy-making functions of the government, and undue political influence on their policies, appointments, and business practices.

The report finds that internal control, monitoring and governance frameworks appear inadequate to deal with these problems – of the 527 entities regular information is only available for 55. Even obtaining a complete list of entities proved to be a challenge. Financials are routinely late and only a minority obtain ‘clean’ audit reports. In 2017, the total losses incurred amounted to LKR 87.78Bn. To put this value in context, the government budget allocated LKR 44Bn for Samurdhi payments in the same year.

Extracts from reports of COPE and the Auditor General which are included in Advocata’s report highlight repeated instances of fraud, mismanagement, corruption and negligence. The issues no longer appear to be isolated incidents of opportunistic behavior by individuals or occasional lapses in control but point to deeper, structural weaknesses. While internal control and accountability mechanisms are important in checking abuses, they are insufficient in themselves.

The report elaborates on how a trend for SOEs to be incorporated as limited liability companies allows politicians to bypass treasury or budget restrictions and evade parliamentary accountability. Complex corporate structures provide a convenient shroud for abuse. A review of the reports of the Auditor General and the Committee on Public Enterprises paints a dismal picture of systemic failures of governance leading to gross misappropriation of public funds.

The reports concludes with three main recommendations:

  1. Compiling a comprehensive list of all SOEs and setting basic reporting procedures

  2. Strengthening COPE and COPA

  3. Implementing the OECD Principles of Corporate Governance

“A lack of accountability is leading to flagrant abuse within SOE's. The Finance Ministry must act urgently to prevent it spiraling out of control” says Ravi Ratnasabapathy, Resident Fellow of Advocata and co-author of the “State of State Enterprises in Sri Lanka” report.

The immediate antidote to corruption is increasing and improving transparency and accountability. The ideal reform of the recommended three to address the problems that plague are SOEs is to introduce and enforce the OECD Guidelines on Corporate Governance.


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

Advocata Institute to host Asia Liberty Forum 2019

Over 200 participants, comprising leading academics, policy makers and intellectuals from over 30 countries will come together in Colombo, Sri Lanka for the 2019 Asia Liberty Forum to discuss challenges facing the Asian region and to learn from each other on how to most effectively advance free-market reforms.

Asia Liberty forum is an annual event by the United States based Atlas Network, co-hosted in partnership with Advocata Institute.

The Asia Liberty Forum will be held from the 28th of February - 01st of March at the Hilton Colombo and is the largest gathering of pro-market think tanks, business leaders, professionals, high net worth individuals and policy leaders in Asia. It’s a platform to discuss and present policy solutions for economic concerns in Asia and Sri Lanka.

The 2019 Asia Liberty Forum (ALF) will be held at the Hilton Colombo, from 28th February to 01st March 2019.  Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Vice Chancellor of the Ashoka University, India, will deliver the keynote address on ‘Freedom at Risk’ at the Freedom Dinner on the 28th of March, while other dignitaries, business leaders and academics will grace the event.

Themes explored this year includes the State of Capitalism and freedom in Asia, privacy issues in the digital age,  fast-tracking courts, currency depreciation and urbanization.

Distinguished speakers at the forum include, Prof. Razeen Sally (National University of Singapore); Prof. Rohan Samarajiva (Chair - LirneAsia); Dr. Ajay Shah (National Institute for Public Finance and Policy, India); Nighat Dad (Digital Rights Foundation, Pakistan) Dr Tom Palmer (Atlas network, USA) , Dr Christer Ljunwall (ENC Global, China) and Dr. Ross McCleod (Australian National University) amongst others.

The Asia Liberty Forum is a rare opportunity to meet, network and interact with some incredible minds in the field of economics and policy. For more information on the forum, speakers, schedule and tickets visit www.alf19.com.


Media mention of Advocata regarding taxes on sanitary napkins

The Morning mentioned Advocata in a recent article on sanitary napkin taxation.

An excerpt from the article:

“The Advocata Institute, which originally published the article, is an independent policy think tank based in Colombo. We spoke with the institute’s Manager Research Communications Anuki Premachandra with regards to the data revealed by them.

A comprehensive understanding of the nature of our current situation can be obtained if you look at the following price comparisons: The average price of a packet of 10 pads in Sri Lanka is Rs. 130. Imported pads are priced between Rs. 200-260, and locally-produced pads are also around Rs. 100-130. A cost of a single pad in Sri Lanka is 24% more than in US and 26% more than the retail price of a sanitary napkin in India.

Protectionist taxes ensure security for local producers while also allowing a greater selection of options for the consumer; this has inadvertently resulted in local producers enjoying the comfort of a large profit margin per packet as prices in the market are high in itself, owing to taxes.”

Ailing rupee and Price Controls may lead to a shortage of Milk Powder

A cup of tea is every Sri Lankan’s morning mantra. This might not be the case much longer as Sri Lanka may face a shortage of milk powder as several leading milk powder importers are reported to have taken a collective decision to suspend imports. The recent depreciation of the rupee has caused a significant increase in import costs and importers say they are now unable to sell at the controlled price, hence the decision to suspend imports. The same impact will be felt in other industries subject to price controls. The pharmaceutical industry withdrew eleven drugs from the market citing similar reasons.  

The currency has depreciated by 10% in the past two months and over 20% in the past year, which will raise landed costs of  import products significantly. Importers of goods subject to price controls will continue to be squeezed as their price margins reduce and this will eventually lead to a halt in imports, like in the evident case of milk powder.

Imported milk powder is taxed at a total of 45% in Sri Lanka, with the objective of protecting local farmers and achieving self-sufficiency in milk products. Despite this self-sufficiency goal, local production meets below 40% of the total domestic milk requirement, considerably below 80% levels in the 1970s. Therefore, majority of the demand in milk products is met through imports, mostly from New Zealand and Australia. Over the last decade, in 7 out of 10 years, imports of milk powder has grown at a higher pace than the growth in local production.

Milk Powder Taxes.PNG

Additionally, in May 2018, changes to existing Price Controls on Milk Prices have raised the controlled price for milk powder to Rs. 345/400g pack and Rs. 860/1kg pack. This price control was enforced by the Consumer Affairs Authority, despite a rise in the global prices of milk. Global milk powder prices fell in 2015 and 2016 and climbed in 2017 and 2018 and now the cost of one metric ton of milk powder in the world market is US$ 3250-3350.

Furthermore, the depreciating rupee, now valued at Rs. 184 to a dollar has only continued to worsen the situation, making it more expensive to import milk powder.  “Importers of milk powder are squeezed between the tax (which raises costs), the controlled price which sets a ceiling at which the product retails, and now the depreciating rupee which further raises import costs” says Ravi Ratnasabapathy, Resident Fellow of the Advocata Institute.

The floor price encourages production which the market is sometimes unable to absorb, leading to gluts which cannot be converted to powder (the only long term storage form of milk) due to the controlled price.

A recent report by the Advocata Institute, Price Controls in Sri Lanka, emphasizes the contradictory trajectory of policies in the dairy industry. This tangle of taxes and controls comes at a cost to consumers. Our costs are increasingly becoming apparent by visible shortages of milk powder in the market.

Key Recommendations

  1. High import taxes lead to massive costs for milk powder importers. Changing this would not only mean cheaper milk for consumers, but also cheaper raw materials for downstream processors such as the biscuit or confectionery industry.

  2. The removal of the Maximum Retail Price would allow for a higher level of healthy competition among both importers and local dairy manufacturers, allowing market forces to decide prices.

  3. It is necessary that the government recognises that given the several supply constraints, the objective of self sufficiency is not realistically attainable in the Sri Lankan context. Thus, authorities should recognise the importance if imports in meeting demands of consumers and implement well-thought out measures to level the playing field between importers and domestic producers.

Foreign investors bail out from local stocks and bonds as debt servicing goes up

Originally appeared on News First

The COO of the Advocata Institute, Dhananath Fernando states that the foreign debt servicing schedule in Sri Lanka is mounting up for the next four years.

He explained that in 2019 Sri Lanka has to pay USD 4.2 billion, in 2020 USD 3.6 billion, in 2021 USD 3.3 billion and in 2022 USD  3.7 billion. So overall Sri Lanka will have to pay USD 15 billion over the next 4 years.

Even though the Sri Lankan rupee ended firmer yesterday (Dec 07) due to inward dollar remittances, foreign investors continued to bail out from local stocks and bonds.

Foreign investors sold a net Rs. 17 billion rupees worth of government securities in the week which ended on the 5th November, the highest weekly net outflows since the third week of February 2017. The stock market had net foreign outflows of Rs. 929.1 million this week.

While there are massive amounts to be paid as debt repayments, foreign investors continue to exit from stocks and bonds as well.