THE FORUM

The Smart Future Forum features insights and thought leadership from our network of policy professionals and development practitioners on topics relating to CSF’s thematic areas. Here you will find articles, reports, essays, op-eds, interviews, and more.

Debt or Disconnection: Prioritising Energy Justice in Economic Recovery

In Part One of this article, we considered the proposed electricity tariff revision from the perspective of the urban poor in Colombo, arguing that the revisions failed to account for ground realities faced by domestic consumers, both in terms of understanding the financial pressures of the economic crisis as well as how electricity usage has changed in response. In light of the approved tariff increase that averages at 75% in all categories, we take a closer look at low-consumer tariffs, and offer recommendations that uphold principles of energy justice.

Changing how we think about economic growth and nature

Earlier this year, Sri Lanka’s census and statistics department released a new version of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) calculation. The existing National Accounts had been ‘rebased’ from the year 2010 to the year 2015. In explaining the re-basing, the department noted that “a number of improvements” to GDP compilation was done, the first item on the list was ‘Inclusion of generated value addition from the reclaimed land of Colombo Port city project’. It further went on to note that, “The GDP levels increased significantly over the period of 2015-2018 as a result of the[…] reclaimed land of Colombo port city project”, and “by the year 2019, the land reclamation had been completed and as a result […] the GDP growth rate was lower when compared to 2018”. The fact that the creation of an 269 hectare artificial land parcel attached to the capital, with sand extracted from nature, materially changed the country’s GDP base was startling. It triggered within us, again, a growing discontent we have felt for a while on how we think about economic growth and an unease with how we assess progress. For some years now, stemming from a love for the natural world, interest in biodiversity, and enthusiasm for photography, we had begun to think about critical issues with our current approach to economic growth. To be sure, neither of us are environmental scientists, ecologists, or experts on nature. But we realised that in our own professional worlds of economics and finance in Sri Lanka, there was little mainstream understanding of the threats faced by the natural world and their knock-on effects for our prosperity, health, and well-being. Particularly, there was little appreciation for the value of nature - for instance the emerging agenda of the valuation of natural capital.

Sri Lanka: Anatomy of a Crisis and the Path Ahead

Even though much of the recent foreign media coverage of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis and external commentary or analysis of it has focussed rather narrowly on the policy missteps in the last two years, the country’s economic problems have been at least a decade in the making. The debilitating economic collapse Sri Lanka is experiencing today is in no small part due to the flawed economic model followed in the years after the end of the civil war in 2009. This article serves to provide an international reader with a more useful reference point for the recent origins, evolution, and dimensions of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis, and selected perspectives on the policy issues and path ahead. It is written largely from an economics lens, and would need to be read alongside work by others that focuses more closely on human rights, the environment, and social justice issues.

Debt or Disconnection: CEB’s Tariff Hikes and the Urban Poor

The Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) in July sought an increase in tariffs from the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), proposing a regressive scheme of tariffs that will see the lowest consumers burdened with the highest increases in rates. The rationale for this revision is that the CEB (excluding LECO costs) requires an 82.4% increase in revenue to meet their forecasted costs for 2022. The proposed raise is likely to increase energy poverty among a population that is already burdened by inflation with a Consumer Price Index (CPI) that is nearly at 60%. Domestic consumers who use fewer than 30 units of electricity per month will have their bills increase by 835% to Rs. 507.65 from the current Rs. 54.27. Overall, it has been identified that 50% of domestic electricity consumers in Sri Lanka – 3.14 million households who use fewer than 60 units a month – will face the greatest increase in electricity bills due to the proposed increase in tariffs.  Women who already perform the majority of housework will bear the brunt of the planned price increase. The gendered impacts of energy poverty will constrain a generation of women and girls, stripping them of time and inhibiting their access to education and the workforce. In a deteriorating economy that places a massive and disproportionate burden on the urban poor, these tariff hikes represent an additional cost that will increase energy poverty and even threaten access to the grid. The tariff hikes are insensitive to the changing consumption patterns of electricity among residents in urban areas, as well as to the significant debt that many households have already fallen into. Beyond the tariff hikes, any policy recommendations regarding support to families during this crisis period must be mindful of these diverse consumption patterns.

Impact of Sri Lanka’s Economic Crisis on the Exports Sector

While steady growth in exports was recorded in the year 2021, Sri Lanka’s deepening economic crisis runs the serious risk of impacting the export recovery achieved to date. In March 2022, merchandise exports, consisting largely of industrial and agricultural exports, recorded a decline of 3.4% in earnings, compared to the previous year, due to a reduction in both volume and prices of exports. In addition to this, industry representatives predict a decline of about 20% - 30% in total exports as a result of the current crisis, with tea exports being among the lowest it has been in 23 years, and the apparel sector expecting a 20% - 25% drop in output by August 2022. Latest figures for June indicate that apparel sector has exceeded expectations and pre-Covid export numbers. In the context of the economic crisis, escalating now to a de facto lockdown across the country, understanding the challenges posed to the country’s external sector performance, one of Sri Lanka’s main sources of foreign exchange, is crucial. At present, exports of goods and services, which account for 17.7% of GDP as of 2021, have been adversely affected by several factors including most significantly, the worsening fuel and energy crisis.

Should Civil Service Reform and Public Finance Reform Go Together?

Sri Lanka has let public financial management slip dramatically over the last couple of decades, resulting in weak government finances and the lack of fiscal space to support the economy during times of economic downturns and distress. As the ongoing public protests have also shown, people have lost confidence in the ability of successive governments to effectively manage people's money collected via taxes. As an IMF programme agreement draws closer, tax increases and spending cuts have already been implemented, and ad hoc changes to public sector work (like cutting down the working week by 1 day, with no change in pay) are tried out, more sustained and urgent reforms to public finance remain unfinished. In this discussion, an international public financial management (PFM) expert - who has worked in Sri Lanka and in over 14 other countries around the world - shares some insights on the challenge of PFM reform, the imperatives in doing it, and the need to couple it with meaningful civil service reform.

Austerity and Vulnerability: Better Solutions to Support the Poor During Economic Crises

As Sri Lanka's economic crisis worsens and tax increases, utility price hikes and budget cuts begin, the need for a meaningful social safety net for the poor has become a key public policy focus. Yet, Sri Lanka has a bad track record of properly identifying, and providing support to, vulnerable population groups. Current approaches to welfare design risk replicating existing problems. In this in-depth interview, featuring key data points, Dr. Anila Dias Bandaranaike (a former senior Central Banker, and poverty data expert), speaks about the problems with our current approaches and ideas for better solutions. It is essentially viewing for anyone interested in this topic - whether you are a researcher, public policy professional, or civil society organization leader.

Tags:

From Bad to Worse: Understanding and Supporting Colombo’s Urban Poor Families in Crisis

Low-income settlements in Colombo experienced greater food insecurity even before the pandemic, with 72% of households being food insecure. Conditions are going from bad to worse due to the current economic crisis. In this article, researchers from the Colombo Urban Lab detail the food insecurity and precarity of urban poor households through COVID-19 lockdowns and the current economic crisis and presents research driven, evidence based recommendations for immediate term support that the State must provide in order to ensure some relief for households. They argue that the proposed measures should be universal to every household below a particular income or need threshold, and not targeted as that would only exacerbate existing divisions in communities.

Sri Lanka’s Economic Crisis is Hurting Education and Students’ Future Prospects

Sri Lanka is in the throes of its worst economic crisis in post-independence history. While some reform areas have gained more traction than others (for instance, the debt restructuring), the critical state that the education sector is in has received relatively less attention; and this risks Sri Lanka’s future growth prospects. The government must strive to formulate a comprehensive action plan that is student-centric, in order to revive Sri Lanka’s education system and help students and teachers manage the current crisis. If the government does not address the concerns of its students, and provide immediate solutions to their needs, the country will not only see an entire generation of young people affected by lower educational attainment in crucial development years, but also experience a severe brain drain in the years ahead. While the country tackles macroeconomic stabilisation measures, it is vital to tackle the education crisis as well.

Sri Lanka needs a ‘sensible’ fiscal adjustment plan – CSF Co-Founder

CSF Co-Founder Anushka Wijesinha was interviewed by Andrea Sanke of the leading Turkish global news channel TRT World, on their show 'Newsmakers' to talk about the ongoing economic crisis in Sri Lanka, along with history researcher Shamara Wettimuny, and activist Ruki Fernando. During the panel, he recalled one of the turning points for the economy - the irresponsible tax cuts that led to the ratings downgrades and locking out of international capital markets - and the cascading policy errors and the false bravado that followed. He argued that while the structural problems with the economy will take longer to resolve, the immediate macroeconomic stabilisation needs to take centre stage and the IMF programme will be the first baby steps towards that, and avoid a sovereign debt default.