By Pasan Jayasinghe. May 7, 2022
“Whose expertise counts?” is the question that underruns current discourse on addressing Sri Lanka’s ever spiralling economic crisis. For much of the country’s intellectual establishment—its academics, policymakers, think tanks, civil society organisations and so on—the resounding answer to this question is that it is the experts. Qualified and well-credentialed economic experts, so this answer goes, are best placed to resolve the crisis, and correct the disastrous economic policies of the Rajapaksa Government.
This article is an attempt to unearth the contradictions in this valorisation of experts and show why it is especially dangerous and counter-productive in this moment of historic crisis. The article does not seek to provide a resolution to the crisis but is instead a defence of the right to question, and expand, what we accept as ‘expertise’ and from whom.
The state of debate
The establishment’s insistence on expertise is borne from the belief that technocratic, scientific and ‘objective’ knowledge is to be prized above all. Such an insistence on expertise seems justified against the backdrop of the vast scale of the current economic crisis. The crisis, so such thinking goes, can only be resolved by an anointed few who possess the proper knowledge and are untainted by politicians’ corruption, public servants’ incompetence and citizens’ ignorance.
Here already emerges a contradiction, in that the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself was predicated on extolling expertise and technocracy in this way. The Viyathmaga exercise in particular was meant to mark the elevation of technical experts within governance, over and above anyone else. In procedural terms, there is in fact little to differentiate the thrust behind Viyathmaga from what empowers the current glorification of expertise.
The establishment response to this would be that the Rajapaksas’ disastrous economic policies and the current crisis stemmed from the Government listening to the wrong kinds of experts, who were not qualified and ‘objective’ enough. Like all appeals to objectivity, however, this insistence on expertise is not value neutral or non-ideological. Instead, the ‘right’ experts are those who espouse a particular economic outlook, namely one with a strong deference to markets and a minimal role for the state in managing a country’s economy, an approach that in other words may be classed as neoliberal.
While the term’s ubiquity within the social sciences has made it prone to certain definitional instabilities, it can still refer to a largely coherent set of policies centred on deregulation, privatisation, marginal welfare provisions and minimal state intervention in the economy. Moreover, regardless of how such policies are categorised, they will form the gamut of what the IMF will insist on in any agreement with Sri Lanka. It is this approach that is heavily favoured by established-endorsed economic experts. And so, distinctions about the correctness of expertise also creates a false binary between Rajapaksanomics and the IMF method. It insidiously characterises all critiques of and opposition to the IMF’s policy prescriptions as being the same in essence as, and endorsing, Rajapaksanomics.
The assertion of expertise and its framing as non-ideological and merely technical is an especially notable social dynamic of neoliberalism. This is compelled by the historical tendency towards bipartisan, uncontested acceptance of market economics in countries that liberalised their economies from the 1980s onwards. This can be observed not just in industrialised Western nations but in global south contexts like Sri Lanka itself. The embrace of the UNP-initiated open economy by the SLFP under Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994 indeed made it bipartisan consensus in the country. The Rajapaksas’ overtures towards state capitalism, forcefully during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure and chaotically under Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s, do not negate the fundamentals of Sri Lanka’s liberalised economy, dominated by foreign direct investment, select commodity exports, tourism and remittances. These fundamentals have been duly encouraged by the IMF and the World Bank, through a continuous series of conditional funding programmes undertaken by governments of all stripes for decades.
The discursive arena this consensus creates is one where political debate is limited to overtly ‘political’ issues, such as political institutions, governance and human rights, while economic issues take a backseat. Whatever economic debate that exists is about tinkering with the margins of an established system which is left largely intact, as formulated and undertaken by ‘experts’. Indeed, this describes the dominant political discourse of Sri Lankan elections for decades, which has largely been consumed with the permissible parameters of the state, ethnonationalism, rule of law violations, corruption, and so on, whilst precluding any fundamental, existential debate about its economy.
This dynamic can be observed even now. Compared to the restrictive discourse on economic reforms, that on political reforms is far more robust and inclusive. Debate about the political and constitutional manoeuvres and arrangements that will facilitate the ouster of the Rajapaksas is subject to far fewer restrictions on ‘expertise’ as designed by the establishment. The net effect of this is that whilst all Sri Lankans enthusiastically engage in such political debate, the equally if not more important task of an economic resolution to the crisis (given the origins of current nationwide protest in deep economic insecurity) is left to the experts. And since the experts on the newly-appointed government negotiating team have the right credentials and pedigrees, the process can take place behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny and with any associated discourse heavily policed by the establishment.
The limits of discourse
On a deep level, the exclusive valorisation of expertise represents a serious poverty in imaginings of what public discourse should or could be. It renders economic policymaking and governance a competition between academic credentials and experience in financial institutions and think tanks, instead of also considering the experiences and views of ‘non-experts’, that is to say, everyone affected by the economy. In the context of the present crisis it especially excludes, however unintentionally, Sri Lanka’s working people, who do the most to sustain the country’s economy and are most affected by the crises that rupture it.
Such thinking reflects a deeply elitist worldview. It says that the expert with an Ivy League economics degree is uniquely suited to understanding the country’s economic problems than, say, the Free Trade Zone garment factory worker or the rural farmer or the plantation worker. But if the latter had been actually listened to, by the government, the establishment and their experts, the country’s deep structural problems like how export companies are hoarding foreign exchange earnings overseas or how microfinance lenders are leaving people in deep debt would have been apparent, and the current crisis could have been foretold, much earlier.
If their views were more central to the debate, there would also be more pause, for example, before enthusiastic endorsements of removing fuel subsidies. A deeper reckoning with the tragedy in Rambukkana beyond just the Rajapaksas’ instinctual infliction of state violence on the poor would account for the fuel price hike the Government imposed, ostensibly to signal to the IMF its willingness to undertake future reforms.
There would also be less hand wringing over the administrative difficulties in implementing taxes on wealth, and inversely, more serious consideration of similar administrative difficulties in implementing cash transfers to the poor, and the exact relative relief of such transfers against losing access to subsidies, and likely cutdowns in welfare spending. A crisis that is decimating the working class and poor peoples’ lives being resolved through policies that will make those lives even more difficult is a burning contradiction. These policies are neatly classified as ‘bitter pills’ to swallow, yet their bitterness will only be felt by some.
The demand of the moment
The present moment is one that calls not only for eradicating personalities like the Rajapaksas and institutions like the executive presidency, but the elitist and autocratic ethos they embody. Their replacement cannot simply be a set of positions and institutions with more devolved powers, no matter how finely balanced, supported by experts, no matter how well-qualified. This does not guarantee the abolition of the fundamentally anti-citizen worldview from which stems the indifferent violence, corruption and destitution of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and all presidents before him.
Instead, the present opportunity must be seized to democratise the State far more comprehensively, where governance, policymaking and administration account for citizens’ demands by being transparent and participatory, far more than now and far more than is envisioned by the establishment. It means, at the very least, that discourse on the political economy cannot be the sole domain of ‘experts’, and that the expertise of ‘non-experts’ is deeply valid and must also be actively sought and asserted. The aspirations of Sri Lankan citizens on the streets right now demand no less.