What Can Sri Lanka and Africa Learn from Each Other?

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ImageThe title of this post may seem a bit odd. What can an island of 20 million people and a diverse continent of 47 countries have in common? The answer: Both were thought to have initial advantages that would generate rapid economic growth; instead, they have fallen painfully short of expectations. 

In the African case, the advantage was its rich natural resources such as oil and minerals. But instead of exploiting this potential ticket to poverty reduction, Africa’s natural resource producers have seen their per capita income grow more slowly than that of non-mineral countries. Nigeria is a case in point. Its per capita income in 1970 (before the oil boom) was $913; today it is $454.

Sri Lanka’s asset is its human resources—reflected in the high levels of literacy and low levels of child and maternal mortality that have stood out since the 1960s. Like Africa, Sri Lanka has been an exercise in disappointment. In fact, there is no other country with a lower infant mortality rate and a lower per capita income than Sri Lanka.

The question for Africa and Sri Lanka is therefore how to manage the enormous assets they posses in a way that translates into sustainable wellbeing for their populations?

With both natural resources and human resources, there are no technical solutions to their management. Rather, the challenge is to make sure that there is adequate accountability by citizens of politicians so that the decisions that affect the use of these assets are in the citizens’ interest.

Currently, Sri Lanka and Africa are facing significant opportunities for sustained economic growth and poverty reduction—Sri Lanka because of the end of the conflict, Africa because of its recent growth turnaround.

Both have a history of underachieving relative to their potential, so success is not guaranteed. But a comparison of the two histories reveals what needs to be done—strengthen accountability of politicians by citizens—so that these two places can seize this historic opportunity and embark on a period of rapid economic growth and poverty reduction.

For more information, click here to read the paper.


Shanta Devarajan

Teaching Professor of the Practice Chair, International Development Concentration, Georgetown University

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