Is Sri Lanka Still a Country to Stay?
By Tharindu Dananjaya Weerasinghe
Looking at various sources such as the mass media and social media, it can be seen that a matter of great concern among the present generation of Sri Lankans, especially among the youth is whether to develop in Sri Lanka or leave the country and develop abroad. Some young people enjoy living in this country while others point out the economic, political, social, cultural and religious problems and say that in order to develop, one has to leave Sri Lanka and go to a foreign country. In the modernised, globalised world, where information and communication technology is at an advanced stage, free labour is expected.
Therefore, it is necessary to determine the objectives of such free labour movements and how they can be properly managed for the economic progress of the country. Going abroad for education or employment has been a very popular option among the youth of Sri Lanka for a long time. According to the statistics provided by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka for the year 2019, the highest number of people going abroad for employment as skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers is in the age group of 25-29 years.
Moreover, the second highest number of people going abroad for professional level jobs is in the same age group. According to UNESCO statistics, the number of Sri Lankan students that went abroad for education in the year 2020 alone is 24,118. It is also reported that by the second quarter of 2021, more than 600,000 young professionals in Sri Lanka had applied for visas to travel abroad. Economic hardship, political instability, religious extremism, human rights violations, civil strife, unemployment and the higher cost of living in a country cause its citizens to move to other countries.
Corrupt politics, bureaucracy and extremist ideologies, inefficient institutions, degenerate people in terms of discipline and attitudes weakeing the socio-economic progress of a country. In today's world, it is inevitable that young people and talented professionals will leave such countries and move to other countries where democracy, human rights and the rule of law are established, where they can live and develop. The corrupt politics and inefficient economic management that have existed in Sri Lanka for a long time can be identified as two of the main reasons that lead to the despair of the country's young community and talented professionals leaving the country.
Politicians in Sri Lanka engage in past-oriented politics. Many do not have a future-oriented political vision and policies. Every government prioritises finding fault with the previous Government. They have not been able to envision the future for at least ten to twenty years, and manage the country's current economy. Individualised political policies are also inherited and activated due to the ingrained 'personal worship'. Economic goals change when government changes; plans and policies also change. All those factors pressure the professionals, intellectuals and young people to leave the country.
Currently, Sri Lanka is stuck in a debt trap. The country is in danger of going bankrupt if it fails to repay foreign loans. Some of the foreign loans obtained by Sri Lanka in the recent past were also used for various worthless projects. If they had invested in lucrative projects, the foreign debt servicing crisis would not have been so severe. Today, Sri Lanka has become a debt-dependent country. Production has collapsed, becoming a country dependent on imports and re-exports. It is facing difficulties in establishing itself as a business-friendly country and attracting foreign investors which weakens job creation for local professionals and workers.
The aftermath of the corona epidemic also intensified the desire, among professionals and young people, to leave the country. It is not just human that have died and are dying because of the corona. Some parts of the local economy are also dying due to corona. Many businesses and industries shrank. Market conditions changed. Many professionals lost their jobs. It was also a cause of economic unrest and frustration among young people and professionals. Meanwhile, migrant workers were also brought to Sri Lanka. It further increased local unemployment.
The decline in remittances to Sri Lanka also had a detrimental effect on the country's foreign exchange reserves. According to the Labour Force Survey statistics, for the fourth quarter of 2020, the youth unemployment rate in Sri Lanka between the ages of 15 and 25 is 25.7%. The main sources of employment for the highly educated workers in the Sri Lankan workforce are also in the informal economy. However, surveys show that unemployment among young people in the above age group is also strongly influenced by their skills issues and mismatches with labour market requirements.
For example, the 2019 survey data estimated a shortage of 12,140 ICT professionals in the Sri Lankan labour market. Also, a workforce study conducted by the World Bank shows that the low level of proficiency in the English language is also a strong factor affecting youth unemployment in the country. The collapse of the rule of law also causes the citizens of a country to migrate to other countries. The people of a country seek final relief in any matter from the law of the land. Citizens are helpless in a society where the rule of law has collapsed and arbitrary personal power or the power of a particular group of people is in force. Justice is not established in such a society; human rights are not protected either. Citizens of such a country are often drawn to other countries on the basis of their ability and human relations.
This is what we as Sri Lankans are experiencing today. Another key factor to consider is the inadequacy of ideal leaders and role models for Sri Lankan youth. Today, Sri Lankan youth are playing on a field where the hero is dead. Some fell victim to the war on terror. Another sacrificed the life in the midst of civil strife. Accordingly, the ideal role models that can be followed by the present Sri Lankan youth are rare.
That is why a leadership vacuum can be seen in the present generation representing the youth in various fields such as politics, economy, sports, arts and education. It is true that the problems described above affect young people and professionals alike in their desire to leave the country. But is leaving the country the only solution we have? The answer is ‘No’. If we leave the country because of the problems in this country, can we name the countries that have no problems? There are no such countries in the world. Every country has different problems. We have only seen and experienced the problems in our country.
Some countries are plagued by terrorism. In some countries the cost of living is very high. In some countries religious freedom is restricted. There is no country in the world without problems. Hence, strategies need to be devised to retain young people and professionals, in Sri Lanka, who are aspiring to go abroad, and to make their significant contribution to economic and social progress. At the same time, we need to shift the savings mindset to the investment mindset. Further, modern youth and professionals need to be brought from dependency mentality to entrepreneurial mentality. The job creation revolution has to be started instead of the job seeking struggle.
Also, the country could promote parallel entrepreneurship. Young people must be equipped with the technological and practical skills required by the modern world. Its responsibility lies with education and vocational training. At the same time, it is important to create a labour market and legal framework where the right person can be found, futuristic and gentlemanly politics and a society that upholds the rule of law, democracy and human rights. Many of the problems that are said to exist can be successfully solved if the unique contribution of many professionals and young people who have left and are leaving the country is made available.
The government can guide young people and professionals who want to go abroad for education or employment. We have also seen people going abroad without a focused goal, with the intention of going somewhere and finding something. The right direction by the government and other responsible authorities can benefit them and the country. Their direct remittances will also improve the country's foreign exchange situation favourably in the future. Russian President Vladimir Putin has told Africans that Africa is a graveyard for them.
When an African man becomes rich, all his money and bank accounts are in Switzerland; go to France to get medicine; invests in Germany; consumes Chinese products; go to Rome for spiritual healing; most of the commodities are ordered from Dubai; children study in Europe; go to America or Canada for vacation with the family. When he dies, he chooses his native Africa to bury his body. In fact, Africa is a graveyard for Africans. Putin asked Africans how to develop a cemetery. Sri Lanka is a country that still seems to stay. Leaving the country is not a good solution. What Vladimir Putin said about Africans applies to us as well. We all should remember that the grass is not greener elsewhere, but the grass is green where we water it. We all must have the desire and the ability to make our country a prosperous and developed nation without leaving it to be a graveyard.
Tharindu Dananjaya Weerasinghe
(Senior Lecturer, Department of Human Resource Management, University of Kelaniya)