Budget: hard economics, safety nets, gender friendly | Sunday Observer

Budget: hard economics, safety nets, gender friendly

At last, the country has a full Budget for the current year but introduced months behind schedule thanks to the political machinations and ensuing constitutional crisis at end 2018. Of course, in a democracy, there can be many reasons for delays in legislating a national budget – as events in the USA, UK and other democracies, rich and poor, go to show.

For the citizenry, however, the challenges involve both delay in the introduction of the annual Budget as well as delays or failures in actual implementation. And this potential for slow implementation or complete non-implementation is serious enough for business community leaderships, such as the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce to anticipate it.

In its usual Budget review, the CCC, the country’s private sector elite, has welcomed the several business-friendly initiatives in the Budget. The Chamber also notes Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s pragmatic moderate estimate of economic growth trends, a realism appreciated by those directly contributing to the economy. At the same time, the CCC and other business leaders cautiously ‘hope’ that the constructive proposals in the Budget “will not be confined to the speech but that timely action will be taken to implement them in consultation with the private sector”.

This is the perennial lament of the business community and many planners in any country that is a working democracy in which governments and economy managers must be accountable to the voting citizens and heed their interests and concerns. Even the international aid and fiscal support agencies have learnt to appreciate that, in a democracy, the voter is ultimately decisive and elected governments must, therefore, heed voter concerns.

That is why the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank have agreed to allow Sri Lanka some latitude in fiscal discipline in relation to highly socially sensitive aspects of national economic management. This flexibility by the major donors has been noted by investors as well as analysts as a healthy signal that, the Government is being allowed some room to manoeuvre. That, despite destabilising constitutional manipulations, external lenders and fiscal support managers have enough confidence in the Sri Lankan economy to allow such flexibility to the country’s political leadership is seen as a vote of international confidence in the Government.

It is now up to the Government to prove the worth of such trust and confidence. To fail is to invite future strictures but also to slow down the pace of economic stakeholder responsiveness to any economic avenues and opportunities.

Everyone, from ordinary citizens managing households to business executives managing conglomerates to investors watching risks, have noted the many economic and social safety nets provided by the Budget to the nation’s socially vulnerable. The overall theme of Minister Samaraweera’s Budget, namely, ‘Empowering the People and nurturing the Poor’ indicates the natural concern of the regime for its own political credibility and social realism.

But what economists and business people have noted is that the 2019 Budget provides for such safety nets but with a fiscal probity that avoids-the extravagances of self-indulgent, vote-catching politics.

But the Budget is not all dull pragmatism. There is forward-looking creativity in some of Minister Samaraweera’s proposals. The environment and threatening Climate Change has prompted a slew of tough taxes and duties aimed at restricting the gush of polluting carbon fuel-powered vehicles on to our roads. While the effort is to reduce the overall flood of vehicles on to our wholly inadequate road network, ecology friendly electric-powered vehicles are given a priority.

Meanwhile, noting the lack of women’s participation in the national economy, the Minister, for the first time has introduced specifically women-friendly financial incentive programs. And he made it a point to refer to the issue of gender-sensitive budgeting in his speech to the House. History is made in the most mundane aspects of national life.

As the business leaders are pointing out, however, it is the implementation that counts. Thanks to last year’s constitutional crisis, the Government has less than the usually designated twelve months for implementation. Our political and economic managers must now work harder than ever before if we are to accomplish what has been set out in Budget 2019 for the nine months that is left.


Geneva

The United Nations Human Rights Council is currently meeting in Geneva and, the case of Sri Lanka’s commitment to genuinely fulfilling the requirements of democracy and social peace is under consideration.

The President has thought fit to bolster the country’s representation at the UNHRC’s bi-annual sessions by sending his own group of senior politicians to the Geneva sessions. Representation by senior politicians is most welcome although the citizenry who they are supposed to represent will expect their role to contribute to a unified official representation.

Only such a unified country representation will protect the national interests to the maximum rather than cause any confusion over variations in negotiations with the Council.

It is crucial that Sri Lanka is seen to actively engage with the global community in the most constructive ways if we are to avoid creating impressions of ultra-nationalist isolationism and manoeuvring to hide country realities, after decades of damaging internal war. At the same time Sri Lanka does not wish to be seen as being a lapdog of any particular global power broker, but rather as a convivial player in the international arena, who is ready to collaborate in collective endeavours that will benefit all.

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