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SRI LANKA SHOULD CLOSE DOWN MOST OF OUR OVERSEAS MISSIONS AS A STEP TOWARDS REDUCING PUBLIC EXPENDITURE

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

A couple of recent news items that got my attention were:

(1)”The Government has decided to strictly restrict state expenses owing to the grave financial crisis the government was facing. Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa has informed the Cabinet that state revenue has decreased drastically as the economy faces a severe crisis due to the Covid pandemic. It was not sufficient even for recurrent expenditure. The government has also decided to suspend all recruitment for state service.”

(2)”High Commissioner-designate of Sri Lanka to India Milinda Moragoda assumes duties in New Delhi, at a simple ceremony held at the High Commission of Sri Lanka in New Delhi on 30 August 2021.”

Given the perilous state of the economy, the need to restrict and reduce state expenditure is mandatory. That it should have been done several decades ago by successive governments is to state the obvious. The salary cost of government employees and pensions is estimated to account for 80 per cent of government revenue. This expenditure at present is a fixed cost unless the government takes a bold step to enforce a pay cut on government servants. Although it might sound outrageous, many establishments struggling to survive have done it in the private sector. No doubt such a measure will be unpopular, particularly when the cost of living is increasing. But, let alone a pay cut, the Principals and Teachers, have stuck work demanding salary increments. For the GOSL, it is undoubtedly “The Hobson’s choice.”

The need to manage costs prudently has always been a priority in the private sector. As a former Chief Financial Officer of a chain of hotels between 1995 and 2005, I experienced this challenge firsthand as tourism bore the brunt of the consequences of the war waged by terrorists. Every time a bomb explosion took place, there was a sharp decline in hotel occupancy and revenue. Mere survival was difficult. We, of course, did not have the luxury of printing money as the GOSL has done to manage the deficit. Even obtaining a bank overdraft was difficult as Banks’ were wary of lending money to the hotel sector. The hotel industry was deemed not creditworthy, just as presently the GOSL is considered by overseas lenders.

In such circumstances, we had to examine every expense item and determine whether it belonged to the category of “Absolutely Necessary.” Any expenditure outside that definition was eliminated. It was not a pleasant task, but it had to be done. It is in that context that I wish to propose that the GOSL carry out a serious and dispassionate review as to how many of our embassies and high commissions in overseas countries are “Absolutely necessary.”

The cost of maintaining our overseas resident missions according to the Sri Lanka Budget Estimates for 2021 is Rs. 11 billion, which at an exchange rate of Rs 190 for 1 US Dollar is US Dollars 58 million. What needs to be understood is that all expenditure of our foreign missions needs to be remitted in US Dollars. Staff salaries, rent, and other establishment costs are incurred in foreign currency. I understand many local companies are presently struggling to obtain even US $ 20,000 from banks to import urgently needed spare parts for their factory machinery.

It is possible that the shortage of foreign exchange may be temporary. However, Sri Lanka has for many decades run a significant budget deficit where recurrent expenditure is well over revenue. In such circumstances, a pertinent question is whether the bulk of the US $ 58 million spent in maintaining overseas resident missions should be eliminated and what would be the ramifications for the country.

In determining how many of our overseas resident missions are superfluous and should be closed down, we need to understand the role and function of an Embassy / High Commission in a foreign country.

The Vienna Convention of 1963 has outlined the role and functions as follows (summarized) :

“The functions of a diplomatic mission consist, inter alia, in representing the sending State in the receiving State; protecting in the receiving State the interests of the sending State and its nationals, within limits permitted by international law; promoting friendly relations between the sending State and the receiving State, and developing their economic, cultural and scientific relations; negotiating with the Government of the receiving State; ascertaining by all lawful means conditions and developments in the receiving State, and reporting thereon to the Government of the sending State.”

Although I am no expert on international relations, I feel the section stating “promoting friendly relations and developing economic, cultural and scientific relations” should be the critical criteria in determining the need for a resident mission in an overseas country. I am well aware that consular services extended to Sri Lankans living in overseas countries are also essential. However, I contend that we do not need an ambassador and a plethora of diplomatic officers to carry out this necessary but mundane function.

In terms of promoting friendly relations between Sri Lanka and the nation to where they have been posted, I contend that our ambassadors and diplomats currently have a minimal role to play. At present international relations are based on policy set out by the GOSL. The best of personal efforts by our ambassadors and diplomats will bear no result if the GOSL pursues policies deemed by the other country to be unacceptable to them. For example, I can only assume that our ambassadors and diplomats based in the Middle East and other Muslim countries were pulling their hair and struggled to maintain “friendly relations” when GOSL followed a policy of not allowing Muslims to bury those who passed away to COVID. Similarly, our close relations with China have impacted our relations with many others. To a large extent, the concept of “Non-Aligned” as practiced in the 1960s and 1970s has been replaced with “You are either with us or against us.” In the last three decades, China has been the “bogeyman” for the USA and their allies, whilst before that, it was the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

A couple of two separate but distinct incidents that my father, a career diplomat, encountered when serving abroad more or less explains the fallacy that having an overseas resident mission facilitates friendly relations.

In either 1973 or 1974, when serving in Pakistan, the embassy received an urgent telex from Colombo requesting that a message from Mrs Sirima Banadaranaike be handed to Mr Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the Prime Minister (PM) of Pakistan. The request was for Pakistan to send an urgent shipload of rice to Colombo due to an impending shortage. My father, acting for the Ambassador, met Mr Bhutto within 12 hours of requesting the Pakistani foreign ministry to meet with the PM. Mr Bhutto met him around midnight at his official residence dressed in his pyjamas and dressing gown and greeted my father. “Mr Jayaweera, what is that I can do for our good friend Madam Bandaranaike?” The PM immediately took action upon the request for help.

In June 1987, when India violated Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by entering our airspace and dropped “parripu”, my father, who was then the Ambassador to West Germany, was instructed to seek an urgent meeting with the West German Foreign Minister and request that a statement be issued expressing concern over the violation of our airspace. However, despite his best efforts, he was not given an appointment for nearly three weeks. He was then politely told that it was a bilateral issue between Sri Lanka and India, and as such, there was no desire on West Germany’s part to get involved!

The immediate response in Pakistan was solely due to the far-sighted foreign policy pursued under Mrs Bandranaike whilst in West Germany, the realities of realpolitik and trade superseded all other concerns. In neither instance was my father able to influence the decision.

In terms of developing economic relations, I believe our foreign missions do not play any meaningful role. For example, in the hotel industry that I worked for over a decade, tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka were solely due to the efforts of the private companies and their partners in overseas countries. The only time our ambassadors got involved was when invited to light the traditional oil lamp at the Sri Lankan pavilion at an international travel fair! Many would argue that even the Tourist Board and the Ministry of Tourism have hardly contributed.

In a similar vein, I am sure those engaged in exporting garments, tea, spices, and various other products and services would say the same. Their efforts and business contacts have enabled such exports, and that our resident missions have hardly played any role.

In the schedule included in this article, I have listed the countries where we have established resident missions. The number is 54 (information taken from the foreign ministry website). I have also indicated in the same schedule which of those countries have reciprocated by establishing resident missions in Colombo.

REC – RECIPROCAL WHERE THE OTHER COUNTRY HAS AN EMBASSY IN COLOMBO

NUMBER OF SRI LANKA RESIDENT MISSIONS OVERSEAS INCLUDING THE UNITED NATIONS = 54

NUMBER OF COUNTRIES HAVING RESIDENT MISSIONS IN SRI LANKA = 41

LIBYA, NEW ZEALAND, ROMANIA, AND SWITZERLAND HAVE RESIDENT MISSIONS IN COLOMBO DESPITE SRI LANKA NOT HAVING A RESIDENT MISSION IN THOSE COUNTRIES. IN ADDITION, THE EEC AND THE HOLY SEE POPE HAVE RESIDENT MISSIONS IN COLOMBO.

Another critical aspect of this debate is that successive governments have appointed people outside the foreign service as ambassadors and high commissioners since independence. These appointments are invariably granted as “santhosams” to their political supporters and since the 1980’s to a few retired service commanders. Thus, they are correctly referred to as “political appointments.” But, unfortunately, many of them are totally unsuitable and poorly trained in the art of diplomacy. Unfortunately, all governments have conveniently overlooked this lacuna. As a result, the poor taxpayers and career diplomats trained in the art of diplomacy have suffered.

In this regard, even Mrs Bandaranaike, who my father and other foreign service officials at the time considered to be the best Foreign Minister, erred. This is despite her government in 1970 appointing the first batch of career diplomats as Ambassadors.

I remember the background of those appointed as ambassadors to Russia and Pakistan, where my father was posted. One gentleman was a person who had appeared for Mrs Bandaranaike in a court case involving, I believe, a land dispute, whilst the other was a very young businessman who no doubt had supported the party financially. Both the gentlemen, as I remember, were “nice” people and sensible enough to let the career diplomats manage the challenges of running the embassy. However, I would contend that they and many other political appointees have had a pleasurable “holiday” at the expense of the taxpayers of Sri Lanka. There have been, of course, exceptions like Shirley Amerasinghe, Neville Kanakaratne and may be of recent vintage Dayan Jayatillake and S. Skandakumar.

The reason why I highlighted the news item of Milinda Moragoda (MM) assuming duties in New Delhi is only because, since January 2020, our High Commission in India has functioned without a High Commissioner. This is despite the parliamentary committee of high posts in August 2020 approving MM’s appointment. The reasons for the lengthy delay in traveling to New Delhi is not in the public domain.

When carrying out the review, it is necessary to determine how the Sri Lanka High Commission in India functioned without a High Commissioner for well over 18 months. It is acknowledged that India is the single most important overseas mission for Sri Lanka. Therefore, the question to be answered is whether relations between Sri Lanka and India were negatively impacted in the absence of a High Commissioner for 18 months?

I was astonished that Singapore does not have an embassy in Colombo despite the two countries’ close relations. A review of the Singapore foreign ministry website indicates that the Ambassador appointed to Sri Lanka is based in the Foreign Ministry in Singapore. The schedule given in the article shows the number of Embassies and High Commissions that Singapore has worldwide against what Sri Lanka has. It is evident that the visionary leaders of Singapore have once again made a dispassionate decision about establishing overseas missions based on commonsense, prudence and need.

*includes consulates in Oman and Bangladesh

There is precedence for countries closing down overseas resident missions due to financial constraints. For example, the Sri Lanka foreign ministry progress report for 2018 states that Nigeria closed down its embassy in Colombo in 2017 due to financial hardship. Need we say more?

Taking all I have highlighted and applying the expenditure criteria of “Absolutely Necessary”, I believe that GOSL can quickly close down many (over 50 per cent) of our overseas missions without any negative impact on our relations with those countries.



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Features

Why Small Farms will be the backbone of food security

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The ecological axiom that: ‘Energy flow through a system tends to organise and simplify that system’, is abundantly clear in agriculture. As farms moved from small interdependent units, bounded by fences and hedgerows, to large cropping fields to accommodate machine management, we lose the biodiversity that once existed on that landscape and the biomass that provided the Ecosystem Services. This sacrifice was rationalised through the invocation of economic profit. The economic ‘profit’ gained by subsidies on fossil fuel and uncontrolled extraction from the Global Commons. The ‘development’ of agriculture has become a race to control the commodity market. The farmer ceased to be a feature of the farm. In a telling statement, the farmers of Sri Lanka sent the following statement to the CGIAR in 1998 :

‘We, the farmers of Sri Lanka would like to further thank the CGIAR, for taking an interest in us. We believe that we speak for all of our brothers and sisters the world over when we identify ourselves as a community who are integrally tied to the success of ensuring global food security. In fact it is our community who have contributed to the possibility of food security in every country since mankind evolved from a hunter-gather existence. We have watched for many years, as the progression of experts, scientists and development agents passed through our communities with some or another facet of the modern scientific world. We confess that at the start we were unsophisticated in matters of the outside world and welcomed this input. We followed advice and we planted as we were instructed. The result was a loss of the varieties of seeds that we carried with us through history, often spanning three or more millennia. The result was the complete dependence of high input crops that robbed us of crop independence. In addition, we farmers producers of food, respected for our ability to feed populations, were turned into the poisoners of land and living things, including fellow human beings. The result in Sri Lanka is that we suffer from social and cultural dislocation and suffer the highest pesticide- related death toll on the planet. Was this the legacy that you the agricultural scientists wanted to bring to us ? We think not. We think that you had good motives and intentions, but left things in the hands of narrowly educated, insensitive people.’

The diverse farm had to yield to production monoculture, which was made possible through the burning of fossil fuels. Ironically the burning of fossil fuels is the major reason for the current destabilised climate and threat to agriculture. One consequence of climate change is the predicted rise in global temperatures. If ambient temperatures exceed 40 degrees , which has become the reality in many places even today, food production will be compromised. All the food we eat originates with plants and plants produce using photosynthesis. Photosynthesis, or the capture of solar energy by plants, is done with chlorophyll, the thing that makes plants green and chlorophyll begins to break down after 40 degrees. Landscapes whose summer temperatures go beyond this limit will have smaller and smaller crops as the temperatures increase. The only solution to this oncoming crisis, is to begin introducing trees at strategic points on the landscape.

Trees and all other forms of vegetation cool the environment around them through the transpiration process, which takes place in the leaves. The water absorbed by the roots is sent up to the leaves which release it as vapor, cooling the air around it. Measurements on trees done by research institutions worldwide, indicate that an average large tree produces the cooling equivalent of eight room sized air conditioners running for 10 hours, a cooling yield 0f 1,250,000 Bthu per day. Plantations of trees have been recoded to have daytime temperatures at least 3 degrees below the ambient. This is an important aspect of Ecosystem Services that needs to be considered for adaptive agriculture.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realise the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer facing the headlights.

But placing trees in and around cropping areas becomes a problem in large cropping fields designed to accommodate machine management. The management of such trees and hedgerows requires needs that cannot be provided without human management. Agricultural landscapes will need management that will be adaptive to the changing climate. An example would be; small interdependent units bounded by fences and that increase biodiversity and the biomass while providing Ecosystem Services.

Investment in food security, should take climate change seriously. All new agricultural projects should address the heat thresholds of the planned crops. The Sri Lankan country statement at COP 21 stated that :

“We are aware that the optimum operating temperature of chlorophyll is at 37 deg C. In a warming world where temperatures will soar well above that, food production will be severely impacted.”

And that :

“We are aware that the critical Ecosystem services such as; production of Oxygen, sequestering of Carbon, water cycling and ambient cooling is carried out by the photosynthetic component of biomass. This is being lost at an exponential rate, due to the fact that these Ecosystem Services have not been valued, nor economically recognised.”

These statements cry out for the recognition of the role that small farms will have to play in the future. In a temperature compromised future, small farms with high standing biomass, through their cooler temperatures will continue to produce food in heat stressed periods. If such Ecosystem Services can be given a value, it will strengthen the economy of small farms and ensure local, sustainable food production into the future.

Small farms which produce food with low external energy and maintain high biomass and biodiversity, are the models of food production that can face the climate compromised future before us. Capital, resource and energy expensive agricultural systems could fail in a high temperature future and threaten global food security, we need options. One would be to encourage a consumption and distribution system that facilitates small farmers to enter the market. Another would be to realize the value of the ecosystem services of a farm and develop systems to measure and reward. We are all aware of the future before us. Now is not the time to stand blinking like a deer in sheadlights.

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Encouraging signs, indeed!

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Derek and Manilal

Local entertainers can now breathe a sigh of relief…as the showbiz scene is showing signs of improving

Yes, it’s good to see Manilal Perera, the legendary singer, and Derek Wikramanayake, teaming up, as a duo, to oblige music lovers…during this pandemic era.

They will be seen in action, every Friday, at the Irish Pub, and on Sundays at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby.

The Irish Pub scene will be from 7.00 pm onwards, while at the Cinnamon Grand Lobby, action will also be from 7.00 pm onwards.

On November 1st, they are scheduled to do the roof top (25th floor) of the Movenpik hotel, in Colpetty, and, thereafter, at the same venue, every Saturday evening.

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Constructive dialogue beyond international community

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by Jehan Perera

Even as the country appears to be getting embroiled in more and more conflict, internally, where dialogue has broken down or not taken place at all, there has been the appearance of success, internationally. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be leading a delegation this week to Scotland to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Both the President, at the UN General Assembly in New York, and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris, at the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva seem to have made positive impacts on their audiences and, especially amongst the diplomatic community, with speeches that gave importance to national reconciliation, based on dialogue and international norms.

In a recent interview to the media Prof Peiris affirmed the value of dialogue in rebuilding international relations that have soured. He said, “The core message is that we believe in engagement at all times. There may be areas of disagreement from time to time. That is natural in bilateral relations, but our effort should always be to ascertain the areas of consensus and agreement. There are always areas where we could collaborate to the mutual advantage of both countries. And even if there are reservations with regard to particular methods, there are still abundant opportunities that are available for the enhancement of trade relations for investment opportunities, tourism, all of this. And I think this is succeeding because we are establishing a rapport and there is reciprocity. Countries are reaching out to us.”

Prof Peiris also said that upon his return from London, the President would engage in talks locally with opposition parties, the TNA and NGOs. He spoke positively about this dialogue, saying “The NGOs can certainly make a contribution. We like to benefit from their ideas. We will speak to opposition political parties. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is going to meet the Tamil National Alliance on his return from COP26, which we will attend at the invitation of the British Prime Minister. So be it the NGO community or the foreign diaspora or the parliamentary opposition in Sri Lanka. We want to engage with all of them and that is very much the way forward”

INTERNAL FRAGMENTATION

The concept of a whole-of-government approach is indicative of a more cohesive approach to governance by government ministries, the public administration and state apparatus in general to deal with problems. It suggests that the government should not be acting in one way with the international community and another way with the national community when it seeks to resolve problems. It is consistency that builds trust and the international community will trust the government to the extent that the national community trusts it. Dialogue may slow down decision making at a time when the country is facing major problems and is in a hurry to overcome them. However, the failure to engage in dialogue can cause further delays due to misunderstanding and a refusal to cooperate by those who are being sidelined.

There are signs of fragmentation within the government as a result of failure to dialogue within it. A senior minister, Susil Premajayantha, has been openly critical of the ongoing constitutional reform process. He has compared it to the past process undertaken by the previous government in which there was consultations at multiple levels. There is a need to change the present constitutional framework which is overly centralised and unsuitable to a multi ethnic, multi religious and plural society. More than four decades have passed since the present constitution was enacted. But the two major attempts that were made in the period 1997-2000 and again in 2016-2019 failed.

President Rajapaksa, who has confidence in his ability to stick to his goals despite all obstacles, has announced that a new constitution will be in place next year. The President is well situated to obtain success in his endeavours but he needs to be take the rest of his government along with him. Apart from being determined to achieve his goals, the President has won the trust of most people, and continues to have it, though it is getting eroded by the multiple problems that are facing the country and not seeing a resolution. The teachers’ strike, which is affecting hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren, is now in its fourth month, with no sign of resolution. The crisis over the halting of the import of chemical fertiliser is undermining the position of farmers and consumers at the present time.

EARLY WARNING

An immediate cause for the complaints against the government is the lack of dialogue and consultation on all the burning issues that confront the country. This problem is accentuated by the appointment of persons with military experience to decision-making positions. The ethos of the military is to take decisions fast and to issue orders which have to be carried out by subordinates. The President’s early assertion that his spoken words should be taken as written circulars reflects this ethos. However, democratic governance is about getting the views of the people who are not subordinates but equals. When Minister Premajayantha lamented that he did not know about the direction of constitutional change, he was not alone as neither does the general public or academicians which is evidenced by the complete absence of discussion on the subject in the mass media.

The past two attempts at constitutional reform focused on the resolution of the ethnic conflict and assuaging the discontent of the ethnic and religious minorities. The constitutional change of 1997-2000 was for the purpose of providing a political solution that could end the war. The constitutional change of 2016-19 was to ensure that a war should not happen again. Constitutional reform is important to people as they believe that it will impact on how they are governed, their place within society and their equality as citizens. The ethnic and religious minorities will tend to prefer decentralised government as it will give them more power in those parts of the country in which they are predominant. On the other hand, that very fact can cause apprehension in the minds of the ethnic and religious majority that their place in the country will be undermined.

Unless the general public is brought aboard on the issue of constitutional change, it is unlikely they will support it. We all need to know what the main purpose of the proposed constitutional reform is. If the confidence of the different ethnic and religious communities is not obtained, the political support for constitutional change will also not be forthcoming as politicians tend to stand for causes that win them votes. Minister Premajayantha has usefully lit an early warning light when he said that politicians are not like lamp posts to agree to anything that the government puts before them. Even though the government has a 2/3 majority, this cannot be taken for granted. There needs to be buy in for constitutional reform from elected politicians and the general public, both from the majority community and minorities, if President Rajapaksa is to succeed where previous leaders failed.

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