A Less Recognized Cause of Our Underdevelopment | Print edition

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Two days ago, the country celebrated 74 years since independence. For most of the country’s 22 million people, it was not a day of celebration. They experience serious economic difficulties, are deprived of the essentials to live and are not sure of their means of subsistence.

Third World countries

Popular singer and satirist Sunil Perera, who died last year, said his country was a third world country when he went to school and now that he was about to die it is still a third World countries. If he had lived a little longer, he would have said his country was worse off than at any other time in his life.

Many reasons

Many reasons have been advanced for the island’s below-potential economic growth and why other countries that were less developed at the time of our independence in 1948 passed us by.


The intention of today’s column is not to discuss the multiplicity of causes that have prevented the country from realizing its potential. It is about focusing on a less discussed cause of the weakening of our capacity for economic growth that continues to vitiate our economic development.


As the country’s first Prime Minister, DS Senanayake would have said in his inimitable way, “Actually, actually,” it is not correct to say that the country has not developed. He has.


The economy has grown by about four percent in the seven decades since independence. The per capita income reached the middle income level a few years ago and the social indicators are impressive.

Social indicators

Life expectancy has risen from around 55 in Independence to over 70 today, infant and maternal mortality are low, and adult literacy is high.

Economic development

Despite these achievements, the country’s economic development was far below that of other Southeast Asian countries that were less developed and had less capacity for economic development, such as Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia.


A much-discussed question is why Sri Lanka, which had good potential for economic development at independence, was overtaken by other countries. Even though most countries in South and Southeast Asia were less developed and had weaker infrastructure than ours, they surpassed Sri Lanka’s economic achievements.

The reasons

Among the reasons that have been cited are unfavorable terms of trade, regular changes in economic policy, the adoption of restrictive inward-looking policies, rapid population growth and inappropriate economic policies. Ethnic violence and civil war have also been important reasons for the country’s underdevelopment. While these and other factors have been important, a much less discussed factor is the weakening of the country’s economic capacity by several waves of population exodus.


Currently, we are seeing another wave of educated and skilled young people leaving the country for a wide range of countries. Instead, they are the engines of the country’s economy. They are eager to live and work in other countries that offer better opportunities.

Historical perspective

For many centuries, Sri Lanka has been the repository of people from all parts of the world. Migration from India, the Middle East, China, Malaysia and African countries is well known. Apart from these, the country has been enriched with people from European nations such as Germany. The Jews of Europe played an important role. They have contributed greatly to the talents, entrepreneurial skills, professional abilities and education of the country.

Indian communities

Several Indian communities with entrepreneurial skills and capital have come to Sri Lanka. These included Gujaratis, Sindhis, Borahs, Parsees and Chettiars. Many large and successful business enterprises in the country have been developed and developed by these communities. Most of the country’s major exporters of apparel, the largest manufactured export item, are entrepreneurs in these communities. They are internationally successful businessmen. The success of these enterprises has also contributed to the transfer of business, technical and managerial skills to Aboriginal businesses.


Dutch and European intellectuals have made a significant contribution to the education and legal development of the country. Burghers of Dutch and Portuguese descent have made significant contributions to a number of professional fields such as medicine, law and education of importance to the development of the country. This is only a brief and insufficient reference to the contribution of foreigners to the economy of the country.

development phenomenon

Economists and economic historians have pointed out that migrant populations play an important role in the economic development of many countries. Huguenots from Holland, Jews from Europe, Chinese migrants and Indians played a key role in the development of many nations, including the United States, Australia and Canada. Chinese migrants have played a key role in the development of Southeast countries. The contribution of migrants to economic development has been a significant international economic experience.


The story of Sri Lanka’s development since independence is one of an exodus of capable people that has reduced the country’s economic capacity. On the other hand, Sri Lankans have contributed to the development of other nations. The post-independence period is a story of people leaving the country to build the development capacities of other countries.


The initial exodus of Sinhalese and Tamil bourgeois and intellectuals was the result of the Sinhala-only policy of 1956. In fact, many intellectuals, not only from the minority communities but also from the Sinhalese community, left the country over the time.

Contribution abroad

Scientists who left the country contributed significantly to the development of other countries. Tea industries in Kenya and other African countries were developed by Sri Lankan scientists and planters. Sri Lankans have also contributed significantly to the development of rubber research in Malaysia and Vietnam. The significant contribution of Sri Lankan medical specialists in countries like Britain, America, Australia and Canada is well known. Their gain was our loss.

Second wave

The second wave of exodus came with the race riots of 1958. Large numbers of Tamils, both professional and educated, left for North America and Europe. This was a turning point in the history of the weakening of the country’s economic capacity.

Other waves

There were smaller waves of migration since then until the big push came with the riots of July 1983. Many engineers, doctors and other skilled professionals left for other countries. It was apart from the economic consequences of terrorism and civil war for 27 years.

Continuous exodus

Apart from these waves of migration, there has been a constant exodus which has certainly weakened the country’s capacity for economic development. The conditions today are such that people from all communities, especially the Sinhalese too, are of the opinion that this is not a country to live in, but a country to leave. The negative consequences of this situation will be felt in the years to come.


The exodus of educated and skilled labor from the country makes the island a repository of the less capable. The country’s technical capacity, as well as its intellectual caliber, will be seriously compromised. As much as the country’s post-independence development has been seriously hampered by the exodus of populations, the future capacity for development is threatened by this brain drain.

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