OUT OF THE SHADOWS

AFTER 12 YEARS AS THE DEPUTY EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, DUSHNI WEERAKOON WAS HERALDED IN TO LEAD THE INSTITUTE OF POLICY STUDIES IN A TRAGIC CIRCUMSTANCE. BUILDING ON THE LEGACY OF HER PREDECESSOR, SHE’S ON COURSE TO BUILD A VOICE THAT COULD SHAPE SRI LANKA’S ECONOMY

It was supposed to be just another slow-moving Friday afternoon. As customary, Dr. Saman Kelegama, the former executive director of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), flew off to attend a United Nations conference in Bangkok.

HIS STATURE as an economist in the region garnered a slew of university fellowships and consultancy positions, and the frequent globetrotting to grace conferences and present studies came at its expense. After the conference concluded, upon his arrival to Sri Lanka, the institute’s driver was dispatched to pick him up from the airport. He was supposed to arrive at 11 a.m., but even after the clock had struck noon, there was no of sign of his presence. The prolonged absence prompted the driver to inform Kelegama’s secretary of the unusual turn of events. The grim news has already slithered into the grey halls of the institute by the time the officials at IPS scoured contacts to figure out his whereabouts. In fact, Kelegama had not left the hotel in Bangkok at all. In the ensuing hours, the hotel staff broke into his room only to find him dead succumbed to a cardiac arrest.

“This was such an unexpected event,” says Dr. Dushni Weerakoon, the newly appointed executive director of IPS, with an expression combining sobriety and shock. The passing of the mantle to Weerakoon happened in weeks. “If it was a planned retirement, there would have been all the time in the world to work out how to do it.” However, it was an appointment that was a long time coming. Weerakoon’s career in entirety was at IPS, and for 12 years, she held the position of deputy director. In the days of Kelegama’s many overseas visits, she effortlessly shifted roles as the de facto figurehead of the institution. But this time was different. Weerakoon’s ascent happened when the institution has lost its forefather and its most symbolic entity.

AS SHE SITS IN THE seat occupied by her predecessor in the finely varnished, sand brown IPS boardroom, a set of challenges affront her, some old and some new. “I want to be more hands on,” says Weerakoon. The executive directorship of the institute is a position of prestige,  opening up doors for directorships in corporate boards and invitations for speaking engagements. “I want to focus more on IPS rather than taking on multiple roles.”

It would be mistaken to assume Weerakoon’s demeanor as a step towards being closeted. In fact, she wants to do the exact opposite. “Our biggest weakness is the way we engage and communicate our research to policymakers,” she says. “The complaint is that it’s very technical and dry.” This is not newfound thinking. After all, the primary function of a think tank is to fill the gap between academia and policymaking. Their mission is to influence policy. But first, they need to be heard. To achieve that, its primary form of communique should be as rigorous as academic research and as accessible as a piece of good journalism. IPS has been striving to broaden its reach beyond a niche audience of elites to larger engagement with the public. Its trilingual blogs and monthly news and opinion pieces having been a way of staying in the picture. But, she admits, more can be done, and she wants her researchers to be a part of the economic dialogue and influencers in their own right. What stands against this notion is the innate siloed nature of research itself. “Even my own inclination as a researcher is to do the research and get on to the next. That’s really where we need to make an extra effort.”

While she assesses the organisation with cautious restraint, over the last few years, IPS  has evolved to become a voice to be reckoned with in the arena of economic policy. A decade ago, this was not the case. During the war years, the institution was a mere peripheral agency longing to be taken seriously in a volatile economic and political climate. It was post 2009 that IPS truly came into prominence, when the political spotlight was finally set on the economy.

This was a time when the business section of newspapers garnered new life and the economic dialogue started gently shifting up on the hierarchy of news. Its researchers became permanent fixtures as speakers and panelists of business conferences and forums in Colombo. Their quotes and speculations were the barometer to even-keel the exuberant claims of finance ministers and politicians.

The institute became a hotbed for post-doctoral graduates and budding economists. The reputation of the institute spiked its research profiles and gave access to influential circles of bureaucrats and corporate bigwigs. While its research carder expanded, the institution’s endowment fund also grew. In 2010, it achieved complete financial independence, with no more dependence on public funding.

In the same year, IPS moved its head office to a sought-after real estate property fronting the lush green lawns of Independence Square.

The legacy of Dr Saman Kelegama is omnipresent at IPS. He was regarded as one of the nation’s foremost economists during his time. His reputation as an economist was predestined both in his biological and academic pedigrees. Son to a famous economist father, a masters in mathematics from IIT and a doctorate from Oxford made him a rare commodity in the late 80s in the unheard field of economic research. His span as the executive director reigned for an epic 22 years. From a staff of just 12 and no fulltime researchers except for himself, Kelegama built the institution to what it is today. Incidentally, it was Weerakoon who became one of the first fulltime research hires at IPS. Intrigued by a research paper written by Kelegama as a Phd student, she tracked him down to talk to him. Kelegama invited her to meet him at the IPS premises, which was at the sequestered office in the DFCC building. Their second meeting happened after obtaining her doctorate and while she was job hunting, looking for a position as an economist. “He said, why don’t you join us,” she recalls Kelegama asking her. “At that moment, it was just me and him.”

WEERAKOON’S brief stint as a student at the University of Colombo during the JVP resurrection era shaped her thinking about the economy to this day. It was an unsettling time, with deep resentment towards inequality. She calls it a microcosm of all the complexities that run through the economic and political mainstage in the country. “In a lot of sense, when you look at the mix of universities students, you get a real sense of the challenges any government faces.”

Much of the visible signs of economic progress of skyscrapers and hotels have been in the confines of urban areas and catered to its inhabitants. “Don’t forget that 20% of the labor force are dependent on the agricultural sector. If you have repeat crop failures like last year because of weather conditions, then livelihoods are also getting worse,” says Weerakoon. She even points out that things like income inequality could be blindspots in the pursuit of long-term economic millstones. “There is criticism of the kind of economic policies promoting FDI, right at the center of economic policy, that they don’t pay sufficient attention to issues of inequality; that is when social conflict starts.”

Is she satisfied with the government’s management of the economy? Her answer, as expected from an economist, is two-fold. “The thinking is in the right direction. But, they haven’t been quite as successful in getting things off the ground.”

Weerakoon believes the SLFP and UNP coalition has been the Achilles Heel of the government. The copulation of two opposite ideologies has stalled the progressive aims that were originally set in the election manifesto. “You can see from the first three months onwards, everything was getting pushed back. The parliamentary elections got pushed back, then the budget was a bit of a disaster. And then, you keep on waiting,” she says “They have been weak on implementation. The government would be the first to agree.”

In politics, timing is crucial. The first hundred days are not merely symbolic, but a decisive phase to ride the wave of a winner’s exuberance, with little contention from opposite forces. It took almost three years since the election for the government to launch its economic programme: Vision 2025. This was expected to clear the swirling ambiguity of the government’s economic direction. For Weerakoon, this was too little too late. “The vision that was spelt out in the election was very broad and it never got detailed in a medium-term economic framework. So they rushed to fill that gap with Vision 2025. That is also a fairly slim document,” she says. “And now, you are trying to get reforms and other initiatives midway at a time when people are focused on elections.”

Sri Lanka’s most significant economic challenge at hand is how to ease off its debt overhang. The next three years will be the most crucial, with over $5 billion worth of sovereign debt obligations expected to be met. Weerakoon was a bellwether warning against the Rajapaksa regime’s excessive borrowings for its vanity projects. As generally done in election cycles, the government is not in a position to entice people anymore with giveaways. And even more, the consequences of debt will aggravate taxes on the public, further sinking the government into an abyss of unpopularity.

At a time when its political mileage is lowest, any talk of reforms would be opening up a can of worms. The current government’s fate may be a case of paying the Rajapaksa regime’s sins, but would not absolve them from responsibility. Since its election in 2015, inflation has jumped from 2% to 9% during the government’s tenure. The dark cloud of the Central Bank bond scandal looms over, creating an air of doubt in each step the government takes. “It all comes down to leading by example. I think this is not rocket science,” says Weerakoon. “If the highest political leadership also sacrifices their privileges, then the man on the street will be inclined to pay taxes and work towards the betterment of the country. But, if there’s a sense that only the public is asked to make these sacrifices, then there is going to be a degree of dissatisfaction.”

Weerakoon, being a representative of a government think tank, is cautious in showing any political inclination or party affinity. However, one thing that could be inferred is that the Ranil Wickremesinghe government has more in common with IPS than its predecessor. Like IPS, the incumbent government is a proponent of further liberalisation, adherence towards maintaining strong macroeconomic fundamentals and strengthening democratic institutions. To what extent these values resonate with the masses is unclear. While the rhetoric of foreign investment, open economy and public-private partnerships may pander ivory tower pundits and the corporate elite, the ordinary citizen is largely alienated from larger political discourse. “You have to be able to say we are not catering to just one segment, but it’s an economic policy that would provide better employment for you,” says Weerakoon.

It’s not hard to notice a hint of exasperation in Weerakoon when discussing the state of the economy and the eventual fate of the government. “It will be difficult to see how it will work out over the next two years, whether it will improve,” she says. Striving to exemplify a glimmer of optimism, she says again, “There are two years for the government to show its scorecard and say ‘we did this’, and convince voters to stay with them for another five years.”

At the moment, Weerakoon and her mission stay resolute. She takes pride when speaking of how IPS has evolved into a formidable voice in shaping the country’s economy. “I want IPS to be a young, relevant, forward thinking and dynamic organisation,” she says. At a time when populist rhetoric and distrust of democratic institutions is ripe, institutions like IPS act as a filter, nudging policymakers and the public towards pragmatism and reason. In these uncertain times, its existence is felt more than ever before.

 

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30-SECOND BIO – DUSHNI WEERAKOON

Positions
Executive Director of the Institute of Policy Studies
Former Independent Non-Executive Director, Nations Trust Bank (2007-2016)

Education
Bsc in Economics, Queens University, Belfast
MA and Phd in Economics, University of Manchester

Signature Quote
“If political uncertainties persist, investors will wait and watch. That’s why the election cycle and the economy are crucial factors.”