Dateline Colombo

Sri Lanka: Brain Drain, 'Connection Culture' and National Development

09 Jun, 2015    ·   4887

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera writes about Sri Lankan brain drain and the leadership's worrying attitude towards the same

“Always vote for principle, though you may vote alone, and you may cherish the sweetest reflection that your vote is never lost.”
John Quincy Adams

Realising the extent of inequality in the present world is an aspect many sidestep. Poverty, prosperity and patterns of growth are among the top factors for this inequality.

The world we live in has not changed much. Comparisons of the 30 richest countries and the 30 poorest nations have remained same for the past 20 or in some cases, 50 years. Some nations grow rapidly and experience rapid collapse. Of the 30 poorest nations in sub-Saharan Africa, South America, South Asia and East Asia, some nations still struggle at per capita income below $2500; meanwhile the richest nations’ per capita income has been $20,000-$50,000.

Analysis is required as to why barring a few nations, many have failed or are struggling to achieve purchasing power parity similar to that of the US and Western Europe.

Populations from poorer countries choose migration as the most preferable option as their political and economic institutions consistently fail to deliver a better standard of living and/or employment. Last week, 734 Rohingya migrants rescued from a boat off the coast of Myanmar are now in refugee camps crammed into warehouses by the Myanmar Police. This situation is same for many other nationalities including Sri Lankans in labour camps in many countries.

During the author’s recent visit to Slovenia, it was established that the biggest issue for the country was unemployment and brain drain. Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia are nations with high levels of migrant workers without jobs who seek employment in other states in Europe. Slovenia loses the best of their labour force’s talent to migration.

Similarly, Sri Lanka is also losing many of its youth who leave the country, both legally and illegally, for better economic prospects. A recent conversation with a politician in Sri Lanka produced a shocking response regarding the brain drain issue. He explained, “brain drain is good[.] When they go it’s good for us [because] we don't need to look after them [and] those countries will do our job.”

The only way a nation can reverse this situation is by strengthening the internal political and economic institutions that are currently weak. If politicians create hope for the youth, chances that they would remain in their own nation and contribute to economic development are higher.

Better institutions such as in the rich nations may not satisfy the environment of the poor nations as the existing institutions are better off as they are controlled, sometimes by the powerful in the society who will disagree as to which ones should remain and which ones must change. Existing institutions in a poor nation probably support a political culture where everyone has to have political support to climb the ladder of prosperity. It could well be the reason why individuals such as Thomas Edison with over 1000 patents or Steve Jobs who started Apple at 21 or Bill Gates who started Microsoft at 22 never emerged. Individual growth supports achievements without political connection.  Innovation and financial support was readily available for these individuals’ prosperity.  

An intellectual of a global repute whom this author met made a comment about the political environment that exists in Sri Lanka. When he inquired from another Sri Lankan as to how he could contribute to the country, the answer was, “Don't worry, anything can be done because I know the top and lot of politicians.”

This culture of connections needs to change. Individuals without any political connection should be able to achieve in life. One should not need a letter from a politician to get an employer to extend an employment term.  

This sort of debacle should stop for rapid development in nations. Qualifications and achievements should be the sole criteria to earn a position. A key factor that helped countries such as Singapore transform from poor countries to well-performing nations was that they ensured education and qualifications were primary criteria to be politicians or to represent people in the parliament and many other government positions. The highest-paid salaries in the world ensured they didn’t steal from every tender or project. The crux of the issue is changing the political culture – a difficult task due to the level of entrenchment of this problem.

People’s power still exists to bring about this change. An example is the 2015 presidential election. The upcoming general election will be a crucial moment to make our society a better place. Electing the best to our nation’s parliament will ensure boat people are not generated, and the country’s youth don’t have to leave our nation just for want of a better life.