Saturday, 4 July 2015

Not retired

Almost four years ago, in a pub in Amsterdam, I had a chat with Udan Fernando and asked him what his plans were for coming back to Sri Lanka.  I had picked him as the next Executive Director of the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), a position I had held for 10 years when I resigned in March 2015.  Time will vindicate both my choice of a successor and the process of ensuring continuity in leadership, but my thoughts in this blog are about the concept of planning succession, and the difficulty that people have in understanding the idea.

I am 62 years old, and please note that I have not retired.  Many of my friends  who are around the same age have, but I have never really had any intention of retiring.  As I told a young man who was trying to sell me a private pension scheme when I was working in London, I intend to drop dead, not drop working.  My decision to resign my position at CEPA was not caused by personal factors – I was not ‘tired of a 9-5 routine’ mostly because it was never nine to five and never routine;  I felt no loss of cognitive capability:  I had always been a scatterbrain so am not much more forgetful in my 60s than I was in my teens, my ability to maintain focus is possibly still greater than that of younger colleagues who grew up with sound bytes, smart phones and a constant need for changing stimulii, and there have not been many complaints about my problem solving capability probably because my management style has been to delegate problem solving down the line; I am also not ‘tired of working for someone’ because from age 30, I have been the de facto boss!  The decision to leave was also not institutional in the sense that CEPA’s Board of Directors had amended the articles of association so that I would have been allowed, at their discretion, to be employed well beyond the originally stipulated retirement age. So what was the motivation for handing over the reins?

The main motivation was a display of good practice.  This really sounds terribly goody-two shoes.  But I have long been a critique of the dynastic nature of Sri Lankan (maybe even South Asian) civil society organizations.  To quote the old Fox, as they used to call President J R Jayewardene “මට ඔටුනු පලදන්න කුමර කුමරියෝ නැත” (I have no heirs!) but even had I had sons and daughters, I would certainly not have encouraged them to take over CEPA’s leadership. And anyway, I would have done this leaving thing even if I was not 62 years old.  Organisations (like countries) need to change their leaders so that they are infused with fresh thinking, a different kind of energy, and a fresh set of partners, supporters and friends.   At the same, I have seen new CEOs arrive and with their new brooms and sweep away everything that the previous executive has taken years to build to start again from scratch, which I do not believe is beneficial to the organization either (We have also experienced a political history of changing ruling parties every five years, which was great for democracy and citizen power, but not so great for the economy or for development!)  Hence the process of recruiting a successor who had two plus years of getting to know the organization and the organization him; entrusting in him the task of developing CEPA’s new strategy and applying for the next tranche of core funding;  and developing in him an understanding for picking and choosing what needed change and what was going well, and the ability to assess the consequences of change from a position of insider knowledge. I am confident that this will pay off for CEPA.

The reactions to my leaving CEPA  are interesting.  I don’t think anyone thinks I have been sacked. My father had he been alive would have been disapproving about ‘leaving one job before securing another’.  I haven’t as yet visibly attached myself to another organization, so basically the natural conclusion given my advanced years is of course, retirement.   But when I refute that, and give the explanation I have given above, there is this sense of discomfiture.  I saw this with some peer Executive Directors of think tanks, who must, I guess start wondering whether they should follow suit.  To leave or not leave – the timing of that decision depends on the Executive Director, on the organization, and the context in which the organization operates.  But developing a succession plan, even long term, should I think be part of any organisation’s strategic planning – after all it’s all too possible to be a victim of a freak accident where the decision to leave or not to leave could be brutally taken out of your hands!

Monday, 25 May 2015

Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams

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!

Lao TzuBe 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

Immanuel Kant
We are not rich by what we possess but by what we can do without. Immanuel Kant

John Stuart Mill 
I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.
John Stuart Mill