Creating Sustainable Wealth

Sri Lanka has a long unfulfilled dream to achieve the status of a ‘developed country’. Every election campaign and political platform has never missed this slogan. But what does it mean to be developed? The Singapore dream, as it is often catch-phased, epitomizes achieving high GDP growth, based on high trade. Is that the way for developing countries in the 21st century?

The Singapore Dream

Sri Lanka’s Singapore dream is twofold. First, it claims that Lee Kuan Yew, on a 1975s visit to the-Ceylon said he wanted to make his country like Ceylon one day. This is a blatant exaggeration. Historical record has that he actually said, 1956, that he wanted to emulate the housing model of Ceylon. Even as early as then, the city state of Singapore enjoyed as three times as high a per capita GDP than Ceylon. The first side of this story is the lost-opportunity and ensuing victimization narrative of the present-day Sri Lankans, that we have got derailed.

As a matter of fact, Singapore has gone on to increase this gap by over 15 times by now. The second side to the story is this real fact, that Singapore has done so well, while Sri Lanka lagged behind. According to the biographical notes of Lee Kaun Yew, Sri Lanka paid dearly for not managing the national question with an inclusive solution. Today, it is estimated, if Sri Lanka grows at the present rate, it will reach the present GDP levels of Singapore in another 50 years. Could there be other ways around?

The Problem of GDP based Measurement

Today, national economies are measured based on their trade. Therefore, what is not traded does not make it to the national income. This was succinctly captured by Nobel winning economist, Economist Paul Samuelson, who joked that if a man marries his maid, GDP falls. A man pays a salary to a maid, but if they marry, then the maid becomes his wife, and no salary is paid.  It is not an old-fashioned gender stereotyping, but a harsh criticism of the nature of GDP. It does not see the real value of anything, but only those goods and services that people pay a price to obtain.

Another serious downside of GDP is that is doesn’t understand the broad utility value of things. In a recent online discussion of wealth creation, Prof. Sumanasiri Liyanage pointed out how the use value of things have decreased due to the increased exchange value. An example is the reduced quality of the water in the country, as water is becoming a traded good, increasingly. Another example is how the intensive use of fertilizer has compromised the natural quality of soils, while making some of it poisonous. The amount of harm caused to eco-systems is not captured in the GDP data.

In the same discussion, a similar observation was made by the former Minister of Energy, Patali Champika Ranawaka, when he showed that the carbon emissions and their recovery costs are not reflected in a liter of gasoline or a unit of electricity one purchases today at the market or subsidized prices.

Mistaking GDP to development, good life or social well-being is a blatant error in the 21st century. First of all, therefore, proper targets must be identified. Instated of mere racing behind GDP targets, meaningful models of democracy should be identified.

The BIGG Path

Sri Lanka’s Sustainable Development vision for 2030, that re-framed the UN Sustainable Development Goals, proposed a new path. Headed by Prof. Mohan Munasinghe, former Vice-Chair of Inter-Governmental Panel of Climate Change, articulated Balanced Inclusive Green Growth (BIGG) as the way forward for Sri Lanka. Currently, Sustainable Development Council, established under the Sustainable Development Act, and headed by the Secretary to the President, has this report as its base document. The BIGG path requires that social inclusiveness and ecological balance are the foundations of growth for Sri Lanka.

Figure 1: Sustainable Vision of Sri Lanka 2030

The figure illustrates how Sri Lanka can choose a less-resource intensive development model that does not contribute to a world that consumes beyond safe limits. This is what the report identifies as the ‘Green Growth’ tunnel. The new technological inventions and the Fourth Industrial Revolution should help Sri Lanka choose its course.

The conventional development model has let countries in the west to consume so much of resources than the planet can bare and resulted in a situation, where those countries now want to reduce their use of resources. Now, should the middle-income counties go in the same path un unsustainability? No, if there’s anything positive in the current status of technological development, that is that it has produced enough knowledge and technology to avoid the mistake that the conventional model of development followed.

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