Focus on national policies | Sunday Observer

Focus on national policies

10 September, 2023

There is a flurry of diplomatic activity around the world this month. The African Climate Summit (ACS) focused on a topic that Africa had neglected for so long.

The G20 Summit in New Delhi, being held hot on the heels of the BRICS Summit in South Africa, will bring together a host of world leaders to discuss contemporary global issues. Also in our region, Sri Lanka will soon become the Chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).

This will be a major impetus for Sri Lanka to champion a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is also the aim of many other nations.

Sri Lanka occupies a prime spot geographically as well as geopolitically. Be it trade, geopolitics, or security, Sri Lanka is right in the midst of various developments. It is therefore, imperative for Sri Lanka to maintain, a foreign policy that does not pander to the interests of various players in the region.

This is harder than it seems, given the developments ranging from AUKUS (Australia UK US military alliance) to Quad (Japan, Australia, US, India alliance) to GDI (Global Development Initiative led by China).

It is no secret that both China and India are vying for a greater presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), others including the US. It is natural that as a small nation, we could be sandwiched between these sometimes diametrically opposite forces.

Hence there is a clear need for a foreign policy that defines our place in the IOR and indeed, the wider world. It was reported on Friday that President Ranil Wickremesinghe has assigned this task to Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, PC.

Minister Sabry is tasked with drafting a paper on the country’s foreign policy by year-end. This we hope will lay a clear path for any succeeding Government to follow in terms of foreign policy.

In a similar manner, President Wickremesinghe has submitted the “Defence Review 2030” to the Cabinet for approval. Traditional concepts and ideas on defence and national security are now passé.

Today, these cover a wide range of subjects encompassing food security, transnational organised crime and terrorism, geopolitics, energy security, human smuggling, cybercrime and financial crime, drone warfare and intelligence gathering and natural disaster preparedness.

Nevertheless, many in our defence apparatus still cling on to outdated norms of national security and defence. Hence, the President’s proposal for a new defence review is a timely one.

We should also have a new education policy that will stand the test of time while still being able to incorporate the latest developments and technological advancements.

During the Yahapalana period, when then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe suggested giving Internet-connected tabs to senior students, many politicians and even intellectuals laughed at him, saying that it would not be feasible in a Third World country.

Yet, when Covid-19 hit us in 2020, the school system was thrown into disarray. Even though online classes were recommended, not many students and teachers had the equipment to access the lessons. Had the students been provided with tabs earlier, the impact on the children would have been much less.

The Government should also take a firm stand on setting up private universities through a new education policy, regardless of any obstacles in its way. The country loses millions of dollars per year as thousands of students leave for studies abroad.

At least 50 percent of these funds could be saved if we had reputed private universities here. This aspect must be seriously considered when making plans to turn Sri Lanka into an education hub in South Asia, as envisaged by President Wickremesinghe. Development has been eluding Sri Lanka for the last 75 years simply because of the lack of national policies for any given subject from agriculture to health.

When one Government initiates a beneficial project, the next Government scraps it and tries to do another project. The Light Rail Transit (LRT) project is a prime example.

In a monumental blunder, the previous Government annulled the project that would have afforded commuters a chance to travel from Malabe to Fort in just 35 minutes. Instead, an equally costly highway project was proposed. Now both of these projects are in limbo, with commuters still suffering a 90-minute bus ride.

On the other hand, national policies cannot be changed willy-nilly by Governments, based on political or other considerations.

This is indeed so in neighbouring India and many other countries. This does not however, mean that the policies are cast in stone.

There are always provisions, for augmenting the national policies to accommodate any changes. For example, if we draw up a national transport policy now, 10 years down the road it might have to be modified to allow driverless cars and robo-taxis.

In any case, the next 25 years will be crucial for Sri Lanka as it sets a new course for 2048. National policies will help us to consolidate the gains made so far and allow room for new developments.