Monday, August 27, 2012

Work is worship - A response to Hemantha Warnakulasuriya

Azrael has reproduced a letter written by Hemantha Warnakulasuriya, Sri Lanka's former ambassador to Italy.

Although I think he means well there are many things that I find problematic with Mr Warnakulasuriya's analysis.

The majority of migrants to the West, be they from SE Asia, India or Sri Lanka have done very well. There have been failures too but on the whole many have succeeded. It does not matter where they come from, if they have the basic skills and are provided with the right incentives, people will succeed.

I think there is a huge problem in the North and East now-the deterioration of the work ethic and the lack of basic skills.

A friend told me that he had heard from another friend that a company had set up a hotel project in the East. They had hired local staff but they had proved to be impossible to work with. They had very limited attention spans, were unable to follow simple instructions and were very slow to learn. Ultimately they gave up and employed people from the South to man the place.

I know that a top garment manufacturer opened a factory in Punani shortly after the end of the war. The productivity was abysmal. Whenever there was a wedding the whole staff would go off for a couple of weeks. They tried to restructure the factory many times, downsized it, ultimately gave it the most simple T shirts to make but it did not work out. They moved it to Batticaloa where things are a somewhat better, but its still not at top notch. They are keeping the factory going, partly because they feel they should do something to create employment but it is not possible to revive a region purely on the basis of charity.

There is an entire generation there that has been living on handouts, have not had proper jobs or education and have been traumatised by war. God only knows what psychological problems they have.

This is a huge issue that needs to be tackled as part of a proper system of rehabilitation but the GoSL simply ignores it and concentrates on building roads and few public buildings. The physical infrastructure is the easy part, the soft skills are the hard part and not a lot seems to be happening on that front.

Fortunately the people there still seem to be going abroad, many to Australia but of late the GoSL seems to be apprehending them and sending them back.

They need to be either rehabilitated and brought into mainstream society or allowed to leave. Keeping them penned in is to create a tinderbox.

The point of the long ramble is to say that Tamils are not necessarily more hardworking than anyone else. With the right policies and good governance anyone can succeed.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The basic rule for travel in Sri Lanka

I like travelling around the country and have organised many a journey with my friends. When planning a journey of more than two or three hours, there is one golden rule I think should always be followed: leave the city early.

This is something that I learned first from my grandfather's travel arrangements, he would have departed a long time before we woke up and we would wonder where he went in the middle of the night. When we were older and were taken on trips the time of departure was usually about 4.30am or 5am. As children waking up early added an extra element of excitement and mystery to the trip.

As I grew older and started travelling with friends it seemed only natural that the same rule was followed. When driving one realises the benefits of an early departure: avoiding the traffic and the heat of the day. It is good to get a good part of the journey done by about 8am in the morning, before the tropical sun makes the journey uncomfortable.

In the days before air conditioned cars this was very important and now, even with the benefit of air conditioning, extended travel in the afternoon heat can be very tiring. 

All my friends thought on the same lines and I assumed that this was the way in which everyone travelled. Friends from abroad however are quite aghast at the thought of leaving this early in the morning. For them, 6am is early and 5am, a  very reasonable start by our standards quite alarming.

There is something very pleasant about an early morning drive; the cool morning air, the deserted streets. Watching the soft light of dawn brighten the rural countryside, breakfast by some wayside tea shop, these are all the delights of an early morning start. We would stop for breakfast somewhere between 7.30am and 8.30am, depending on the length of the journey and the availability of some desirable breakfast spot. Post breakfast, we would be driving in normal daytime traffic but by that time we would be well into the rural areas where traffic is light and the driving more sane so there is no strain on the car or the nerves of the driver.

There is another option that is sometimes used: night travel, where the journey starts some time in the evening and one drives into the night. I have tried this once or twice but never liked it. Although it is still cool enough it is not as cool as the early morning. There is a lot more traffic and as most of the roads are either unlit or not properly lit, its a lot more of a strain to drive and more dangerous. There is also the added danger of falling asleep at the wheel which can happen on a long drive.

Does everybody like the early morning start or am I a minority here ?


Friday, August 24, 2012

Where do Sri Lankans go on holiday?

This is a question that was posed to me by a Sri Lankan friend who now lives overseas. She was visiting Sri Lanka and was going to travel around the country. She was quite shocked by the prices that hotels and bungalows were quoting. Surely ordinary Sri Lankans could not afford to spend so much?

I have just spent the morning on the web and the telephone trying to track down a reasonable place but with almost no success. At one time a renting a bungalow and taking ones provisions along was a a cheap option. Although it is still affordable it is no longer cheap.

The rate for the Thotalagala bungalow that I stayed in about eleven years ago has jumped from Rs.8000 per night (for the whole bungalow) to Rs.30,000 a night. At that time Thotalagala was the most expensive bungalow by far, now if one can find one for Rs.10,000 a night one has to be very lucky. A cheap bungalow that I stayed in twelve years ago at Rs.2000 for the whole bungalow was being rented at Rs.8000 a couple of years back. It is now withdrawn from public bookings, reserved for the chairman of the JEDB.

The other consideration now is the cost of petrol which can add a good 10,000-15,000 to the total trip, per vehicle.

So where DO Sri Lankan go for on an affordable holiday?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Tourists arrested

According to the Daily Mirror a group of tourists were given a suspended sentence for taking photographs while posing in an unbecoming manner in front of a Buddha statue.

The charges in such instances are apparently brought under the Vagrants Ordinance, which was originally intended to deal with beggars and vagrants who were a nuisance to the public. It is a bit of a stretch, to my mind, to charge people for taking photographs under this law, but hey this is Sri Lanka where things are beginning to look rather surreal. 

Knowing how slow the procedure is I wonder how long it took for them to be produced in court? Were they arrested and held in custody or were they released on bail? Either way the experience must have been fairly traumatic, but more so if they were held in jail.

The other interesting fact is the righteous attitude of the studio manager who reported the tourists. Truly a card carrying member of the ThinkPol.

It was only earlier this week that the Daily Mirror reported the indignation with which the External Affairs Ministry said that it will challenge a recent travel advisory that warned of an upsurge of nationalism, sexual offences and anti-western rhetoric in the country.

This incident only serves to confirm the validity of that advisory.

Great marketing Sri Lanka Tourism.

Note: For anyone interested the full advisory is here. BBC report on the incident here.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Sri Lanka's boat people

There was a report on television yesterday that yet another boatload of illegal migrants to Australia had been caught by the navy. The lawyer appearing for the illegal immigrants said that the people were uneducated fishermen who did not know the dangers of the long voyage to Australia.

I was a bit surprised by this; why, I wondered are fishermen leaving? Has the fishing industry deteriorated so much that fishermen are leaving in droves?

This particular boat had left from Wennappuwa on the Negombo coast, so I rang a friend who lives in the area to ask what he knew of this.

What he had heard was that the migrants were not really fishermen, they were from all walks of life and from all races, Sinhalese and Moors as well as Tamils. Australia has vast coastline and some areas in the North of Australia have a climate similar to Sri Lanka, so people feel at home. Given the large extent of coast, it is relatively easy for a boat to land undetected and its passengers to melt into the landscape.

Life for the migrants is generally good. The friend I spoke to had been introduced so a group of Sri Lankan illegal migrants in New York. One of them had been a waiter in the hotel and had recogised the Sri Lankan name and struck up a conversation. He in turn had introduced him to members of underground Sri Lankan society who had entertained him lavishly. That particular group were some 30 JVP'ers who had fled in 1988/1989 but were enjoying life in New York. They all did menial jobs as waiters, cleaners and the like, although some of them had been to university and one happened to be an engineer. I asked him whether he thought they had shed their Marxist ideology, he thought they had not but they were very happy with their lot and their only aim was to try and and get legal status. Unfortunately my friend was not able to help.

Australia seems to hold a similar attraction. People, even in low paid work, can enjoy a better life than at home and when tales of success trickle back more people line up to leave. According to my friend, he had heard that around 4,000 people from Chilaw alone had landed in Australia.

 This may also explain a dilemma that firms face- difficulties with hiring staff at the low end of the scale. Nobody, not even someone who has only O Levels, wants to take a job that pays less than 15,000-20,000 a month, many want even more. Employers find it difficult to pay more and are mystified by this attitude, putting it down to pride.  The high cost of living is probably nearer the truth and when there is the possibility of going abroad, legally or illegally, why take up a low paid job at home?

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Nigerian scam, now with the IMF and World Bank

I was rather amused when a friend forwarded this:

From: United Nation []
Sent: Friday, August 10, 2012 4:47 AM
Subject: Update

On behalf of the entire Staff of the United Nation and the Federal Government of Nigeria in collaboration with IMF and World Bank. We apologise for the delay of your Contract Payment and all the Inconveniences you encountered while pursuing this payment. However,from the Records of outstanding Contractors due for payment with the Federal Government of Nigeria, your Name and Company was discovered as next on the list of the outstanding Contractors who have not yet received their payments. I wish to inform you now that the square peg is now in square hole and your payment is being processed and will be released to you as soon as you respond to this letter. Also note that from the record in my file, your outstanding Contract Payment is US$5,700,000.00 (Five Million Seven Hundred Thousand United States Dollars). Kindly re-confirm to me the followings: Your Full Name: Your Complete Address (Physical Address with Zip Code not P.O.BOX) : Name of City of Residence: Country: Direct Telephone Number: Mobile Number: Nearest airport: Working Identity Card/Int'l Passport: Occupation: Position: As soon as the above mentioned details are received, your payment will be made to you via diplomatic courier delivery inaccordance to World Bank and IMF recommendations. A diplomat with international travel immunity will be contracted to deliver the funds at your doorstep. YOURS SINCERELY, Smith Murry(BSC) Funds Delievery Unit 

Technically termed an advance fee fraud, it is a very old scam, originating in the 1980's according to Wikipedia. The surprising thing is that will all the exposure the scam has got, people still keep falling for it, the fact that the scammers keep using the same technique is proof enough of this.

It is a combination of greed and gullibility that makes the scam workable, the right combination of these characteristics results in a suspension of that all too rare commodity, common sense.

Speaking of which, the Ponzi scheme listed on the Colombo Stock Exchange should start getting into difficulties within the next, oh five years or so. It may prompt a revisit of the more absurd aspects of IFRS accounting as well, I think. 

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Mandela's approach to reconciliation

As a result of my last post, I started flipping through Meredith's The State of Africa and came across the chapter on South Africa under Mandela. Some may have heard of his support for the Springboks rugby team and most would have heard of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There was more, however. Thought this was worth sharing:

National reconciliation became his personal crusade. From the moment of his inauguration he strove to establish a new racial accord, constantly reassuring the white minority of their well-being under majority rule and stressing the importance of building a 'rainbow nation'. Addressing a huge crowd on the lawns below Union Buildings in Pretoria on inauguration day, he urged a spirit of forgiveness. 'Wat is verby is verby', he said in Afrikaans. 'What is past is past'.

Towards his old political adversaries he remained magnanimous. He welcomed F W de Klerk into his cabinet, praising him for his contribution to establishing democracy and commending him as 'one of the greatest sons of Africa'. He was assiduous in cultivating right-wing Afrikaner politicians, determined to avert the the risk of right-wing resistance. He ensured that statues, monuments and street names commemorating events and heroes from Afrikaner history remained untouched. He regularly spoke in Afrikaans, describing it as a 'language of hope and liberation'. When appealing to civil servants to support government reforms, he addressed them in Afrikaans. In changing the name of his official residence in Cape Town from Westbrook, he chose the Afrikaans word, Genadendal, meaning "Valley of Mercy', the name of the first Christian mission in the Cape.

His gestures of goodwill were manifold. He organised what he called 'a reconciliation lunch', bringing together the wives and widows of foremer apartheid leaders and leading black activists. He made a special trip to visit the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid....Even more remarkable was the lunch he arranged for Percy Yutar, the prosecutor in the Rivonia trial who had argued for Mandela to be given the death sentence and expressed regret when this did not happen.
More than anything it is Madela's attitude that is striking and as a leader his example sends an unambiguous message to his people.

There are plenty of differences between the situation in South Africa and in Sri Lanka, the LTTE were undoubtedly a villainous group of terrorists, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, but reaching out to the community, with sincerity and commitment can surely do no harm.

All this went down very well, but Mandela's proposal for a truth commssion provoked a huge row. He said it was needed:

..not for the purpose of exacting retribution but to provide some form of public accounting and to help purge the injustices of the past. Unless past crimes were addressed, he said, they would 'live with us like a festering sore'. De Klerk, a deputy president in Mandela's government of national unity, denounced the whole idea, arguing that a truth commission would result in a 'witch-hunt', focusing upon past government abuses while ignoring ANC crimes. It was, he said, likely to 'tear off the stitches of wounds that are beginning to heal'.

 Apparently a great debate ensued, some demanded reparations from the whites,  others suggested a general amnesty, the common theme in the Afrikaans press, according to Meredith being 'atrocities were committed by both sides, so let us forgive and forget'.

Some of this starts to sound familiar, but perhaps the tragedy is that there was no real local debate on the subject. Instead we had the LLRC Commission foisted on us, created to forestall a UN commission, itself the result of debate overseas.

It is not always possible to arrive at the truth intuitively. A rigourous process of debate can help shape and modify ideas, which by a process of whittling down, sifting and distilling may sometimes result in the truth.

Sometimes the process of thought is as important as the ideas that result.



Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Kath Noble on Chinese projects

Kath Noble has written a piece on Chinese infrastructure projects. While I have no argument with her basic thesis, she repeats, in passing, the common misconception about the World Bank -

"On the plus side, the Chinese don’t try to tell Sri Lanka what to do. This makes a refreshing change from agencies like the World Bank, which refuses to lend unless the Government undertakes major reforms to key policies. Want to build a power plant? Tough luck, because they will only give money to the private sector, and then only if the Government promises to buy the electricity these companies generate at inflated prices for decades to come."

It is correct that the World Bank does indeed require conditions, but for the most part these conditions are intended to ensure that the project does provide some benefit for the country in which it is carried out, as this report points out.To quote:

"From its earliest days through the 1960s, the Bank took a project-by-project approach to development assistance, focusing on capital-intensive infrastructure projects. By the late 1970s, however, it had become clear that the policy and institutional environment in which projects were implemented was a major determinant of the performance of the Bank’s growing project portfolio. Indeed, in many borrowing countries, policy-induced distortions were so severe that projects could not be expected to succeed no matter how well designed they were."
The link between governance and growth is something I have talked about before, all the bank is trying to do is to ensure proper policies are in place so that the project works. These policies will help the populace but are irksome to the politicians.

The real reason that politicians prefer Chinese projects is that they come with no questions asked and kick backs all around, both on the Chinese side as well as the local side. The Chinese officials approving the loans probably make as much money as the politician's getting the loans. Unfortunately the general population has to cough up, when the loan needs to be repaid.

Apart from the policy changes required by the World Bank, there is also the tiresome process of monitoring that the Bank insists on. The Banks approach to monitoring is, to quote:

1. Clearly articulated statement of objectives, reflected in the design documents and lending agreements

2. Results framework with output and outcome indicators capable of measuring the results chain leading to achievement of the objectives, specified during project design

3. Regular supervision and supervision reports

4. Self-evaluation by the managing units: Implementation Completion and Results Reports (ICR) completed within six months of project closing

5. Independent validation of the ICRs by the Independent Evaluation Group (ICR Reviews) and independent field evaluations of about one in five projects: Project Performance Assessment Reports (PPARs) 
6. Project evaluations also feed into higher level evaluations, including country-level and sector-level evaluations, as well as meta-synthesis evaluations.
All of which mean that it is (a) a lot more difficult to come up with a useless white elephant idea, which no one knows about and then (b) to proceed to steal the money which is part and parcel of the whole idea.

Politicians are thus ever ready to trumpet the benefits of Chinese projects while condemning the World Bank and other lenders. Not that everything that the World Bank has done is a success or that they are right every time, but at least with these projects there is some accountability somewhere. With Chinese projects there is none.

Who decided to build Norochcholai coal plant, minus a pier or some other economical means of getting coal to the station? Not the World Bank, which funded some village hydro projects, apparently with some small success. Nor did they fund the Hambantota habour (minus container terminal) or the Mattala Airport (runway larger than Changi airport, Singapore).

For anyone interested in development, the world has had a good sixty years of experience to learn from since the first new independent states emerged after the second world war. In the 1950's and 1960's there were questions as to what would succeed. By the late 1980's it was clear what needed to be done.

Why is Sri Lanka, in the 21st century, making the same mistakes that many a nation on the African continent made in the 1950's ?

For further reading on this I would recommend Martin Meredith's The State of Africa, there are so many striking parallels, both economic and political with the Sri Lanka of today, it's almost frightening.