Was at the first half of a talk by Godfrey Gunatilleke on A Vision for Sri Lanka – 2025& 2035 – pre-requisites of Very High Human Development, organized by the Marga Institute and the Gamani Corea Foundation a couple of weeks ago. These events are amazing for bringing together all the old guard who played such a strong role in Sri Lanka’s development: Chandi Chanmugam, Lloyd Fernando, Nimal Sanderatne and many others. Unfortunately, representation of the future generations of Sri Lankans, and of women of all age groups (there were not more than 10 women in the audience, and of course none on the panel) was woefully inadequate. Which really is a pity. There should be a space where the young can learn at the feet of the gurus and maybe even challenge them!
The agenda began with Godfrey Gunatilleke presenting his paper, followed by Saman Kelegama, Indrajit Coomaraswamy and Nishan de Mel responding. I was only there for the presentation and did not hear what the discussants had to say or hear comments from the audience. There are many things about Godfrey Gunatilleke (GG) that I admire. (Incidentally, he was the head of the Marga Institute when I joined it straight out of University without even my results and at a monthly salary of less than 500 rupees!) I had always admired his command of the English language and the clarity of his speech, and now, well passed the Biblical span of three score years and ten, I am in awe of his command of technology (worked his own powerpoint presentation that many other octogenarian speakers would have not done!) and the fact that he has retained a strong analytical ability, which one needs to acknowledge even if one does not agree with what he says.
The paper took as its starting point the Human Development Report and the Human Development Index, which, as Saman Kelegama pointed out (just before I left) was a novel departure for economists – who would invariably use per capita income as a comparator! It used the idea of Very High Human Development (VHHD) as a state to aspire to, and looked at how the different countries in that group have achieved their position. Godfrey Gunatilleke’s overarching conclusion: there is no single path! Having said that, he tries to map a trajectory for Sri Lanka to achieve VHHD category by 2025 and consolidate this position by 2035. His aim is to develop a framework for “realistically ‘imagining’ the Sri Lanka which the children and grandchildren of the present generation will inherit.
I do not think it is too much to have expected GG to ‘re-imagine’ rather than ‘imagine’, erudite scholar that he is. So I was disappointed that the path he outlined was too much of the same – based on sustaining a growth rate of 6.5% till 2035, when Sri Lanka would achieve a per capita income that of South Korea or the developed countries. Nimal Sanderatne has done a summary of the talk in his newspaper column this Sunday and will discuss the feasibility of a 6.5% growth next week. Godfrey talked about other factors that would lead Sri Lanka into the VHHD category such as: a strong role for the state; distribution of income and wealth and society-wide distribution of capability; the development of human capital, educational attainment of people and the creation of a knowledge-based society; the structure of the work force, participation rates of men and women, international mobility and global competitiveness; the population dynamics, patterns of urban migration and ageing; growth, consumption, savings and lifestyles and a desirable state of equilibrium producing stability and contentment. It seemed immensely plausible, yet at the same time too glib.
I would have liked him to have tackled more realistically the challenges of this trajectory. The patriarchal values that prevent women and men to participate equally in the work force, the creation of precarious work as a necessary factor of global production that in turn contributes to the increasing income inequalities within countries, the inequalities in global wealth creation as pointed out by Picketty and others, the hardening attitudes to migration that constrain international mobility, the environmental cost of growing consumption and 21st century lifestyles and other such. I do not see these challenges disappearing very easily and not to address them diminishes the argument and scholarship of a talk like Godfrey’s. The almost religious faith in economic growth as the panacea to our future wellbeing that broaches no contradictions is worrying. Even that other, erudite economist Professor Razeen Sally, soon to be the Chairman of IPS, admitted off stage at a recent LBR LBO Forum, that he does not really buy into the environmental challenges that the UNISDR, for instance, presents in the Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction 2015, and which the UNISDR warns could lead to extensive risks that could wipe out the gains of economic development. This easy dismissal of an opposing view stultifies our ability to re-imagine a different way of achieving a state of happiness and contentment. Is contentment only about achieving more? The Old Men of years gone by had a different perspective: I wish ours did too!
Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize that there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you. Lao Tzu
He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have. Socrates
We are not rich by what we possess but by what we can do without. Immanuel Kant
I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.John Stuart Mill