The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic precipitated a world economic crisis. Many commentators suggest that the pandemic caused the crisis. In actual fact, several economists, such as Sri Lanka-born Howard Nicholas, have predicted this economic downturn for several years.
The roots of the crisis go much deeper than the Coronavirus. The economies of the world are mired in debt. Because of the hegemony of the financial elite, companies in the advanced industrial nations have not, for years, invested in new plants and machinery but have, instead, used government subsidies to buy back their shares from shareholders. Investors have used this mechanism to increase the apparent value of their assets, enabling them to borrow more from banks.
This is because investors expect to make money, not from the dividends enabled by company profits, but by speculating in company shares. Many of the so-called “unicorn” companies (new, fast growing companies valued at over US$ 1 billion) make no profit, but grow because investors believe they will grow in value.
For the same reason, many big companies, such as Apple, Facebook and Google, instead of increasing their own value by investing in production, or research and development, buy other companies. Profitability is increased by reducing staff numbers, or hiring temporary staff at much lower remuneration, often on a “gig” (for-the-job employment) basis. This in turn has an effect on workers’ purchasing power, which affects the growth of markets negatively.
This kind of economic stagnation occurs from time to time. It used to be solved by more “inefficient” companies (that is, companies that do not make a profit, even if they happen to be more efficient by other criteria) going bankrupt, and more profitable companies expanding into the space they create. This has changed now. For example, the old hiring-car-based company Hertz, which made a profit of US$ 168 million in the last quarter of 2019, went bankrupt, while Uber, which made a loss of US$ 1.1 billion in the quarter, is doing famously. Companies able to attract capital prosper, while those seen as not expanding, fail.
The economy recovers from such crises by investing heavily in new technological methods to increase productivity. In the last two decades, however, companies in the West, especially in the USA, have invested in technologies that enable them to extract the greatest profit from “gig” labour, and essentially in sales, delivery and other services, rather than production.
On the other hand, East Asian countries have invested heavily in high-tech manufacturing industries. China, Japan and South Korea, together, account for two thirds of all new industrial robot installations, while Europe and North America only account for 30%. In the context of the current crisis, such countries will probably lead the recovery, with brand new technologies. Other up-and-coming industrial powers, notably Vietnam, Iran and India, will also accelerate their technological capabilities.
The continued economic stagnation, in the USA, has several corollaries. In the first place, as the world’s biggest consumer of imports, the exports of export-based economies will suffer. In the second place, investors are fleeing the US Dollar for gold, the price of which has risen from US$ 48,000 per kg in March to over US$ 65,000 per kg today. The consequent fall in the value of the US dollar (from € 0.94 in March to € 0.85 today) means that exporters will be even more disadvantaged.
The USA is also the world’s biggest consumer of petroleum – using more than the combined consumption of the next two countries, China and India. The price of crude petroleum in Dubai fell from US$ 64 in January to US$ 23 in April. Although the price rose again, to US$ 43 in July, the lower value of the US Dollar means that the real increase is less than this. This means the income of the Middle East and Russia will be affected severely.
How have other countries coped with the economic downturn? The USA, China and Germany represent three different approaches to the problem.
Apparent economic growth, in the USA, before the pandemic, was based on short-term, low wage jobs. Once Covid-19 hit, the country experienced its fastest unemployment growth in history. In reaction, President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), which budgeted US$ 2 trillion (10% of GDP) to boost the economy. More than half of this went to companies, while less than a quarter went as compensation to poor people losing their jobs or otherwise affected by the crisis.
This stimulus package helped cushion the collapse of the US economy. However, the payments made to the affected poor people often went to pay immediate food and rent needs. Most of the consumer spending due to payments to individuals went to online delivery companies, such as Amazon and Uber, which employ workers on “gig” terms. They did not spend it in shops and supermarkets which employ permanent staff, so unemployment rates remain high.
Unfortunately, even this funding ended at the beginning of August. The government and the opposition (which controls the legislature) argued about a new stimulus package. President Trump wanted to spend only US$ 1 trillion, reducing payments to unemployed people. The opposition Democratic Party wants to spend US$ 3 trillion, mostly on benefits to the affected people and on government programmes, including schools. The two sides could not agree.
“The Democratic Party continues to insist on radical left-wing policies that have nothing to do with the China [sic] virus,” Trump said. On 9 August he signed four “executive actions” regarding payment of reduced unemployment benefit, a moratorium on income tax for poor people, relaxing rules on evicting tenants and action on student loans. Critics say the executive actions may not be workable.
China, the world’s biggest manufacturing nation, the first to suffer from the Covid-19 pandemic, has seen its economy recover. According to “The Economist” magazine’s Intelligence Unit in Beijing, local government investment, in public medical facilities, city infrastructure, old community renovations, transport, power grids and telecommunications, drove construction growth. This, in turn, stimulated production of construction-related machinery and goods, driving up manufacturing output.
The Chinese government has revealed a “six guarantees” recovery plan, based on creating jobs, giving financial support to ensure livelihoods, protecting small and medium enterprises, food and energy security, stability of the industrial supply chain, and facilitating the path from lockdown to a vital social life.
The Standard Chartered Bank says that China’s government is prioritising social goals ahead of GDP growth by creating employment and indicating that fiscal policy will be its preferred way to stimulate the economy. Officials have suggested that they are willing to almost double the budget deficit to support gross domestic product growth, while allowing money supply and credit growth to reach higher levels. There also appears to be a clear shift in China’s strategy; moving from an export focus to paying greater attention to domestic demand, to releasing consumers’ potential, and investing in new and traditional infrastructure projects. It projects a growth rate of 2-3% this year, a surprisingly high outcome for an economy which shrank rapidly in the first quarter of this year.
Meanwhile, Germany, the biggest European economy, has put in place a radical “green” recovery plan. The € 130 billion plan consists of fifty measures designed to boost consumption and speed-up economic recovery. The Government of Germany’s actions will be structured on this recovery plan. It is based on three pillars: € 78 billion on short-term economic recovery (about), about €5,000 billion on investment in future-proof and green technologies, and, € 3 billion on European and international solidarity (in addition to the efforts of the European Commission’s recovery plan).
Reducing VAT by 3 percentage points (12 percentage points for the catering and restaurant sector) – to stimulate consumption and revive employment in businesses, particularly in the hard-hit food and beverage sector – will cost the government € 20 billion.
The short-term recovery plan includes a huge green effort: subsidies on consumption of renewable energies, together with a carbon tax, will move use to electricity from other modes. In the transport sector, subsidies for buying electric vehicles are doubled, and support is given to battery and charging infrastructure, modernising commercial vehicles, ships and aircraft, and to public transport and railways. The construction sector has € 2 billion allocated for energy efficient retrofitting to existing buildings.
A key point in the plan is the new green hydrogen (produced by electrolysis from renewable electricity) sector, for which the government is allocating € 3 billion to develop 10 GW of electrolysis units by 2040. Together with the budget for European and international solidarity, this will put Germany firmly in the lead in this technological area.
In the second quarter of this year, the USA’s gross domestic product declined by 35%, and the government recorded 23 million people as unemployed, the highest rate in 80 years. In the European Union the GDP declined by 7%, and unemployment increased to 14 million. In Britain, GDP has declined by 9%, driving unemployment up to 2.5 million. In Russia, GDP dropped 8%, and unemployment rose to 1.7 million. Middle Eastern economies will slow by 5%, affecting migrant labour employment.
These are Sri Lanka’s biggest markets. This shrinkage will adversely affect Sri Lanka’s economy. Both exports, and foreign labour opportunities, will decline. With a collapsed tourism sector, this will allow the country little foreign exchange to buy the things it needs.
In this situation, what can countries like Sri Lanka do? There are a few simple answers to this question. First, reduce imports to match the reduction in foreign exchange sources. Second, find new foreign markets to replace the declining economies. Third, find new products to replace the ones currently being exported. Fourth, develop the domestic market for domestic products, to advance the economy.
Of course, walking the talk will be less simple. How can it be done? The path taken by the USA is the road to ruin, while Sri Lanka does not have the financial resources to emulate China or Germany – although it can emulate many of the measures they have put in place, on a far smaller scale. It remains for the state to create the policy parameters to drive recovery on new paths, using our existing resources, and developing indigenous knowledge. New technology will be a large part of this, but we must use it wisely. We have an educated population which can adapt itself rapidly to new skills. That is our biggest resource in this economic battle.
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Take Human Rights seriously, not so much the council or office
By Dr Laksiri Fernando
The 46th Session of the UN Human Rights Council started on 22 February morning with obvious hiccups. The Office, to mean the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, finally decided to hold all sessions virtually online, only the President of the Council and the assistants in the high table sitting at the UN Assembly Hall in Geneva. The President, Ms. Nazhat Shammen Khan, Ambassador from Fiji in Geneva, wearing a saree, was graceful in the chair with empty seats surrounding.
In the opening session, the UN General Assembly President, UN General Secretary, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Head of Foreign Affairs, Switzerland (as the host country), addressed remotely the session. In fact, there was no need for Switzerland to have a special place, as the UN is independent from any host country. Switzerland is fairly ok, however, if this tradition is followed, the UN General Assembly may have to give a special place to the US in New York.
UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres’ address could have been quite exemplary if he gave a proper balance to the developed and developing countries. He talked about racism and fight against racism but did not mention where racism is overwhelmingly rampant (US and Europe) and what to do about it. Outlining the human rights implications of Covid-19 pandemic, he made quite a good analysis. It was nice for him to say, ‘human rights are our blood line (equality), our lifeline (for peace) and our frontline (to fight against violations).’ However, in the fight against violations, he apparently forgot about the ‘blood line’ or the ‘lifeline’ quite necessary not to aggravate situations through partiality and bias. He never talked about the importance of human rights education or promoting human rights awareness in all countries.
His final assault was on Myanmar. Although he did not call ‘genocide,’ he denounced the treatment of Rohingyas as ethnic cleansing without mentioning any terrorist group/s within. His call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders undoubtedly should be a common call of all. However, he did not leave any opening for a dialogue with the military leaders or bring back a dialogue between Aung San and Min Aung, the military leader. With a proper mediation, it is not impossible. Calling for a complete overhaul as the young demonstrators idealistically claim might not be realistic.
High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s address was brief and uncontroversial this time without mentioning any country or region. It is clear by now perhaps she is not the real author of the Report against Sri Lanka, but someone probably hired by the so-called core-group led by Britain. Her major points were related to the coronavirus pandemic trying to highlight some of the socio-economic disparities and imbalances of policy making that have emerged as a result. The neglect of women, minorities, and the marginalized sections of society were emphasized. But the poor was not mentioned. As a former medical doctor, she also opted to highlight some of the medical issues underpinning the crisis.
Then came the statements from different countries in the first meeting in the following order: Uzbekistan, Colombia, Lithuania, Afghanistan, Poland, Venezuela, Finland, Fiji, Moldova, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Equatorial Guinea, Vietnam, Belgium, and Morocco. The obvious purposes of these statements were different. Some countries were apparently canvassing for getting into the Human Rights Council at the next turn perhaps for the purpose of prestige. Some others were playing regional politics against their perceived enemies. This was very clear when Lithuania and Poland started attacking Russia.
But there were very sincere human rights presentations as well. One was the statement by the President of Afghanistan, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. He outlined the devastating effects that Afghanistan had to undergo during the last 40 years, because of foreign interferences. The initial support to Taliban by big powers was hinted. His kind appeal was to the UN was to go ‘beyond discourse to practice’ giving equal chance to the poor and the developing countries to involve without discrimination.
China’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Wang Yi, made his presentation almost at the end of the first day. This is apparently the first time that China had directly addressed the Human Rights Council. Beginning with outlining the devastating repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic he stressed that the world should face the challenges through ‘solidarity and cooperation.’ He broadened the concept to human rights solidarity and cooperation. His expressed views were quite different to the others, particularly to the Western ones.
He frankly said that what he expresses are the views of China on human rights without claiming those are absolute truths or forcing others to believe or implement them. There were four main concepts that he put forward before the member countries. First, he said, “We should embrace a human rights philosophy that centres on the people. The people’s interests are where the human rights cause starts and ends.” Second, he said, “we should uphold both universality and particularity of human rights. Peace, development, equity, justice, democracy, and freedom are common values shared by all humanity and recognized by all countries.” “On the other hand,” he said, “countries must promote and protect human rights in light of their national realities and the needs of their people.”
“Third,” he said, “we should systemically advance all aspects of human rights. Human rights are an all-encompassing concept. They include civil and political rights as well as economic, social, and cultural rights.” He then emphasized, “Among them, the rights to subsistence and development are the basic human rights of paramount importance.” Fourth, “we should continue to promote international dialogue and cooperation on human rights. Global human rights governance should be advanced through consultation among all countries.”
It was on the same first day before China, that the United Kingdom launched its barrage against several countries not sparing Sri Lanka. The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, delivered the statement from top to bottom attacking alleged violating countries on human rights. But there was no mentioning of Israel for the repression of Palestinians or the systemic racism rampaging in the United States, including the 6 January attacks on the Capitol by extremist/terrorist groups.
His first sermon was on Myanmar without acknowledging the British atrocities or mismanagement of this poor and diverse country during the colonial period. He was quite jubilant over implementing sanctions and other restrictions over the country. Many sanctions, in my opinion, are extortions. Undoubtedly, Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders should be released, and democracy restored. This is a task of the whole council and when one or two countries try to grab the credit, there can be obvious reservations of others.
His further scathing attacks were against Belarus, Russia, and China. Some appeared factually correct but not necessarily the approach or the motives genuine. The following is the way he came around Sri Lanka. He said,
“Finally, we will continue to lead action in this Council: on Syria, as we do at each session; on South Sudan; and on Sri Lanka, where we will present a new resolution to maintain the focus on reconciliation and on accountability.”
‘Action’ to him basically means repeatedly passing resolutions, of course imposing economic and other sanctions. He said, “as we do at each session”; like bullying poor or weak countries at each session. Can there be a resolution against Russia or China? I doubt it.
What would be the purpose of presenting a resolution against Sri Lanka? As he said, “to maintain the focus on reconciliation and on accountability.” This will satisfy neither the Tamil militants nor the Sinhalese masses. But it might satisfy the crafty Opposition (proxy of the defeated last government). This is not going to be based on any of the actual measures that Sri Lanka has taken or not taken on reconciliation or accountability. But based on the ‘Authoritarian and Hypocritical Report’ that some anti-Sri Lankans have drafted within the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. This what I have discussed in my last article.
In this context, successful or not, the statement made by the Sri Lanka’s Minister of External Affairs, Dinesh Gunawardena, in rejecting any resolution based on the foxy Report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in my concerned opinion, is absolutely correct.
President’s energy directives ignored by the Power Ministry: Another Point of View
Dr Tilak Siyambalapitiya
Dr Janaka Rathnasiri laments (The Island 19 Feb 2021) that the Power Ministry has ignored the President’s directive to draw 70% of energy from renewable sources by 2030. I saw the approved costs of electricity production for 2019, published by the Public Utilities Commission (PUCSL).
PUCSL has also approved the prices to sell electricity to customers. Although various customers pay at various “approved” prices, the average income from such “approved” prices in 2019 was Rs 17.02 per unit. It is not only the Ministry, according to Dr Rathnasiri, ignoring the President; PUCSL is also breaking the law, which says prices and approved costs should be equal.
So there is already an illegal gap of Rs 21.59 minus 17.02 = Rs 4.57 per unit of electricity sold. If electricity prices are not to be increased, as stated by many in the government and PUCSL, let us say the following: Distribution costs should decrease by 0.57 Rs per unit. Generation costs should decrease by Rs 4.00 per unit.
PUCSL also published the approved cost of purchasing or producing electricity from various sources for 2019. The actual energy values were different to what was approved, but let us stick to PUCSL approved figures:
I suggest Dr Rathnasiri fills-up the following table, to show how much electricity will cost in 2030 to produce and deliver, if the President’s 70% target is to be achieved and for PUCSL to abide by the law. Let us assume that electricity requirement in 2030 will be double that of 2019.
Since PUCSL has to save Rs 4 from 13.92, the average selling price for energy should be Rs 13.92 minus 4.00 = Rs 9.92. With a target network loss of 7% (in 2019 it was 8.4%), the average cost of production has to be Rs 9.27 per unit. Eight cages have to be filled-up by Dr Rathnasiri.
In 2012, PUCSL approved the energy cost of electricity produced from coal power to be 6.33 Rs per kWh. In 2019, PUCSL approved 9.89 (56% increase). For renewable energy, it was 13.69 in 2012, and 19.24 in 2019 (a 40% increase, but double the price of electricity from coal fired generation). In 2012, rooftop solar was not paid for: only give and take, but now paid Rs 22, against Rs 9.89 from coal. There seems to be something wrong. The price reductions of renewable energy being promised, being insulated from rupee depreciation, are not happening? Either Sri Lanka must be paying too little for coal, or it may be renewable energy is severely over-priced?
On coal we hear only of some corruption every now and then; so Sri Lanka cannot be paying less than it costs, for coal.
Enough money even to donate
Another reason for the Ministry of Power to ignore the President’s directive may be the Ministry’s previous experience with similar Presidential directives. In 2015, the President at that time cancelled the Sampur coal-fired power plant, and the Ministry faithfully obliged. That President and that Prime Minister then played ball games with more power plants until they were thrown out of power, leaving a two-billion-dollar deficit (still increasing) in the power sector. Not a single power plant of any description was built.
Where is this deficit? You do not have to look far. In the second table, replace 24.43 with 9.89, to reflect what would have happened if Sampur was allowed to be built. The value 12.79 will go down to 8.55, well below the target of Rs 9.27 per unit to produce. Not only would CEB and LECO report profits, but the government too could have asked for an overdraft from CEB to tide over any cash shortfalls in the treasury. All this with no increase in customer prices. Producers of electricity from renewable energy could enjoy the price of 19.24 Rs per unit. And that blooming thing on your rooftop can continue to enjoy Rs 22 per unit. The Minister of Power, whom Dr Rathnasiri wants to replace with an army officer, would have been the happiest.
In the absence of Sampur (PUCSL’s letter signed by Chairman Saliya Mathew confirmed cancellation and asked CEB not to build it), PUCSL approved electricity to be produced at Rs 21.59 and sold at Rs 17.02 per unit. The annual loss would be Rs (21.59 – 17.02) x 15,093 = Rs 69 billion per year of approved financial loss. Sri Lanka has a Telecom regulator, an Insurance regulator, a Banking regulator, who never approve prices below costs. Sometime ago the telecom regulator asked the operators to raise the prices, when operators were proposing to reduce prices amidst a price war. But the electricity industry regulator is different: he approves costs amounting to 27% more than the price, not just once but, but continuously for ten long years !
That is 370 million dollars per year as of 2019, the economy is spending, and for years to come, to burn oil (and say we have saved the environment). Did the Minister of Health say we are short of 160 million dollars to buy 40 million doses of the vaccine? Well, being a former Minister of Power, she now knows which Presidential “order” of 2015 is bleeding the economy of 370 million dollars per year, adequate to buy all vaccines and donate an equal amount to a needy country.
Prices are the production costs approved by PUCSL for 2019. The selling price approved by the same PUCSL was Rs 9.27 per unit.
Confusion on NGOs and NSOs in Sri Lanka
If you listen to politicians and journalists here, you will hear of that curious creature rajya novana sanvidane, a Non-State Organization (NSO). Where do you get them? In the uninstructed and dead minds of those who use those terms. In the real world, where politicians and journalists have developed minds, there are Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO). The United Nations is an organization set up by state parties, not by governments. It is true that agents of states, governments, make the United Nations work or fail. Governments may change but not the states, except rarely. When Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia, a new state was formed and was so recognised by the United Nations. However, the LTTE that tried to set up another state was crushed by the established state that it tried to break away from, and the UN had nothing to do with them.
This entirely unnecessary confusion, created out of ignorance, is so destructive that organizations completely loyal to the existing state, are made to be traitorous outfits, for they are ‘non-state organizations’ within the state. There are citizens of each state, but no citizens of any government. Government is but an instrument of the state. In most states there are organizations, neither of the state nor of government: religious organizations including churches. But none of them is beyond the pale of the state.
Those that speak of rajya novana sanvidane give that name partly because they have no idea of the origin of non-governmental organizations. NGOs came into the limelight, as donor agencies, noticed that some governments, in East Africa, in particular, did not have the capacity and the integrity to use the resources that they provided. They construed, about 1970, that NGOs would be a solution to the problem. Little did they realize that some NGOs themselves would become dens of thieves and brigands. I have not seen any evaluation of the performance of NGOs in any country. There was an incomplete essay written by Dr. Susantha Gunatilleka. NGOs are alternatives to the government, not to the state.
Our Constitution emphatically draws a distinction between the government and state, and lays down that the President is both Head of Government and Head of State (Read Article 2 and Article 30 of the Constitution.) It is as head of state that, he/she is the Commander of the Armed Forces, appoints and receives ambassadors and addresses Parliament annually, when a prorogued Parliament, reconvenes. He/she presides over the Cabinet as head of government. The distinction is most clear, in practice, in Britain where Queen Elizabeth is the head of state and Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister and head of government. However, in principle, Johnson is the Queen’s First Minister appointed by the sovereign, and resigns by advising her of his decision to do so.
In the US and in India the term ‘state’ has special significance. In India there is a ‘rajya sabha’ (the Council of States) whose members represent constituent States and Union Territories. Pretty much the same is true of the United States. In the US, executive power is vested in the President and heads the administration, government in our parlance. The Head of State does not come into the Constitution but those functions that one associates with a head of state are in the US performed by the President of the Republic. The US President does not speak of my state (mage rajaya) but of my administration, (mage anduva). Annually, he addresses Congress on the State of the Union. Our present President must be entirely familiar with all this, having lived there as a citizen of the US for over a decade. It is baffling when someone speaks of a past state as a traitor to that same state. It is probable that a government was a traitor to the state. ‘Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their (States’) enemies, giving them aid and comfort’. That a state was a traitor to the same state is gobbledygook.
Apart from probable confusion that we spoke of in the previous paragraph, it is probable that a president and other members of a government, including members of the governing party here, find it grandiloquent to speak of his/her/their state (mage/ape rajaya), rather than my government (mage anduva) or Sirisena anduva’ and not Sirisena state; it was common to talk of ‘ape anduva’ in 1956; politicians in 1956 were far more literate then than they are now.
When translating from another language, make sure that you understand a bit of the history of the concept that you translate. A public school in the US is not the same as a public school in the UK.