Sustainable development of Sri Lanka: The youth to lead the change

Friday, 19 February 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

We produce academics in the universities and other institutions of higher learning. These people helped in educating the young to reach higher and improve our economy. Now that’s sustainable development. Some of them go abroad and earn foreign exchange for the country. Again, sustainable development. We produce doctors, engineers, and economists. Again, sustainable development for the present and the future – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara

Sustainable development, which used to be a buzzword among the professional circles has become a popular slogan among politicians in recent times. This shows that the importance of this concept has been acknowledged today than ever before which is a good sign. 

However, from the utterances and actions of certain politicians and others, I tend to feel that the concept of sustainability is not properly understood by certain sections of our society. Therefore, I wish to explain the concept in simple terms so that readers get some perspective bearings to understand the subject clearly. The concept has been defined in many ways, but the most frequently quoted definition is from ‘Our Common Future’, also known as the Brundtland Commission Report (published in 1987, October by the United Nations) accordingly, sustainable development is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Renewable clean energy is probably the most obvious example of sustainability. Here are three examples. Solar energy: Once the sun’s electromagnetic radiation is captured, it produces electricity and heat. Wind Energy: Wind turbines convert the kinetic energy in the wind into mechanical power. Hydro Energy: Hydro turbines convert the kinetic energy in the water into mechanical power. In simpler terms, Sustainable Development would be meeting our requirements for the present and the future. If it is good for the present, but likely to cause problems for the future, it cannot be called sustainable. 

Continuous release of carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, with the use of coal, a cheap source of energy, is not sustainable, for it causes climate change, which would seriously affect the future. For instance, in Australia, they were going ahead using coal (available in Australia in large quantities and exported) for energy and now there is a greater interest in Renewable Energy, for they know the ill effects of using coal for energy over time. The climatic change experienced, in releasing carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. 

Polar ice caps are melting six times faster now than in 1990 and the rising seas will submerge seven cities as we are told. Renewable energy (hydro, solar, and wind power) will not bring about climatic change. Renewable Energy provides for sustainable development as quite rightly claimed by the Federal Government of Australia. 

The four main pillars of sustainability are human, social, economic, and environmental. It is important to specify which pillar of sustainability one is dealing with as they are all so different and should not be fused, although some overlap to a certain extent. It is most important to understand that sustainable development is a holistic, integrated approach, meaning that to achieve sustainable development, there needs to be a balance between different spheres of life. 

In recent times we often hear about cutting and cleaning forests at the cost of disturbing the environment – nature and the climate for setting up development projects for economic development. We are daily saddened by news items about the elephant-human conflict costing human lives as well as elephants. The reason behind these problems is that we do not manage our environment properly. The decisions for ‘Go’ or ‘No-go’ projects should be taken considering all three aspects of sustainable development (economic, social, and environmental sustainability) without been petty-minded and becoming victims of politicians. 

At the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit in 2015, world leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aimed at ending poverty, fighting inequality and injustice, and tackling climate change by 2030. These 17 goals are the following:


Goals 1-7

End poverty in all its forms everywhere

End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture

Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages

Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all

Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all


Goals 8-12

Promote sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all

Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation, and foster innovation

Reduce inequality within and among countries

Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable

Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns


Goals 13-17

Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts

Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas, and marine resources for sustainable development

Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss

Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels

Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalise the global partnership for sustainable development


Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all

You will realise that the first seven goals are more related to poverty, the next set of five goals are economic-related and the balance five are environment-related, which are the three important aspects of sustainable development. All these are accompanied by specific targets totalling to 169 which are not laid down here.

The Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations are the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. They address the global challenges we face, including poverty, inequality, climate change, environmental degradation, peace, and justice.

I strongly feel that one of the most important prerequisites for achieving sustainable development is to create a United Sri Lanka. From the time of Independence, we have experienced racial discrimination in Sri Lanka. More recently even religious discrimination. All the citizens of Sri Lanka should be provided with equal rights and opportunities irrespective of ethnic and religious differences. These are priorities for sustainable development. Singapore is an excellent example for us. 

Another major challenge to face is the inequality of wealth distribution; according to global reports 50% of the word net worth belongs to the top 1% of the wealthiest people and 85% of the net worth of the world is held by the top 10% of the world meaning that the bottom 90% has only 15% of the world resources. Though I do not have the corresponding statistics for Sri Lanka, I believe that the situation may be much more serious about the skewed distribution of wealth. 

According to the Pareto Principle – where it is stated that 80% of the consequences come from 20% of the causes. We use the 80/20 rule to prioritise any projects we work on. 20% of the holdings in an investment portfolio are responsible for 80% of the portfolio’s growth. On the flip side, 20% of the portfolio’s holdings could be responsible for 80% of the losses. Most industries have the systems in place to deliver the necessary information, but they fail to do so.


Climatic change

Climatic change is one of the serious issues threatening Sri Lanka’s sustainable development. When I was schooling in the 1960s and thereafter it was taught that Sri Lanka was an environmentally safe country, with no fears of earthquakes, tsunami, and such disasters; however, the situation has vastly changed for the worse. The country faced the most unfortunate disaster – tsunami destroying a large number of lives in 2004. The environmental problems generally occur as a result of human activities without giving due consideration to all aspects of development. 

In Sri Lanka, we have had the Mahaweli Development Project to release hydro energy. During the time of late minister Gamini Dissanayake, he was very concerned with providing facilities to the poor farmer. Water was made available for agriculture. Mahaweli project was a good example of sustainable development. Sri Lanka, from the earliest of time, was agriculturally rich. We were exporting tea, rubber, and coconut which provided export earnings. Helped us to earn foreign exchange for local sustainable development. In the long past, we would even export rice. Today the climatic changes taking place adversely affect these industries
We produce academics in the universities and other institutions of higher learning. These people helped in educating the young to reach higher and improve our economy. Now that’s sustainable development. Some of them go abroad and earn foreign exchange for the country. Again, sustainable development. We produce doctors, engineers, and economists. Again, sustainable development for the present and the future. We can bring out many such examples to explain sustainable development. 

We are passing through a unique moment in human history, the microscopic organism has challenged the entire world. It has affected our lives and the ways we could have never imagined. We have been used to live in a world we can do anything and have everything but today we are faced with a new reality. Uncertainty reigns, we are uncertain when this pandemic would end, would we find effective remedies, uncertain how we will be changed, and what the future will hold for us. 

Today we are left with ‘emptiness’; empty schools, empty airports, flights, and even empty theatres. Remember, the strategies we have been deploying in the past would not hold good for today and today’s strategies would not be applicable in the future. Anyway, we are capable of adapting to change. Opportunity follows change, the way we engage in our relationships, the way we travel, application of our financial systems, how we treat our environment are a few things worthy of mentioning. 


Opportunity to change and rebuild society

Hence, we face a huge opportunity to change and rebuild society in a better way. Given the complex environment led by technology, the most appropriate segment of the society to lead and manage change is the youth who are technically savvy than their elders. To do this better, you must go to the drawing board, the beginning comes from the right insights and knowledge. 

The whole world acknowledges those who are with the right capabilities and knowledge to lead society into a bright tomorrow and share these insights to the benefit of mankind. Therefore, youth have to take the challenge. In this respect, what is the role of youth in achieving sustainable development in Sri Lanka? That is the discussion I wish to share with you; therefore, the main objective of this article is to inspire youth and motivate them to take this challenge confidently and facilitate youth to redefine their role in this country by sharing my insights on the subject?

It is not only COVID-19 but many changes that are likely to take place in the future around us to name a few rapid changes in the environment – may it be economic, social, political, climatic, technical, and technological. However, first and foremost, to face the challenge of change is to have the right attitude. If someone analyses the reason for the failure of our nation that is because we do not have the right attitude. Every one of us in this country irrespective of being a male or female, politician or professional, educated or illiterate, kid or adult, rich or poor, we all need to change our attitude if we are to develop ourselves, our country, and the nation.

We need to develop the right attitude towards politics, economy, health, climate, religion, ethnicity, culture, nature, and technology. As we are not satisfied with the current statuesque, we need to change our attitude toward all these. Who should take the lead in this process? It is none other than the youth in this country. Let me justify this stand, the youth have the advantage of being ‘adaption savvy’ to any situation, they are ‘technology savvy’, ‘new knowledge savvy’ and they are ‘savvy to networking’. Therefore, youth are more suitable than any other group in our society to bring about this change which is a must for our country at this hour.

The world is changing rapidly, certain things which we have not dreamt of are happening in front of our own eyes today. Are we ready to face the challenge of achieving sustainable development amidst these rapid changes? Let us do a brief analysis of these new developments.

A state of flux, 


uncertainty, and change

During the 21st century, we are in a state of flux, uncertainty, and change. Vast improvements in modern medicine, extremely high productivity, the invention of supercomputers and the internet, the rapid growth of some economies are important developments to recon with. However, alongside these, the persistence of acute problems such as poverty, religious conflict, political dictatorship, corruption, environmental degradation, the danger of terrorism, and weapons of mass destruction is taking place.

Leaders who must chart the future of their organisations are challenged to find the direction that makes sense during this era of rapid transition. Marketing guru Phillip Kotler says, “Change is occurring at an accelerating rate; today is not like yesterday and tomorrow will be different from today. Continuing today’s strategy is risky; so is turning to a new strategy.” 

However, three certainties in this fast-changing and uncertain world must be heeded. Firstly, ‘globalisation’ will continue to affect everyone’s business and personal life. Secondly, ‘technology’ will continue to advance steadily. The biogenetic revolution is gathering momentum. The digital revolution is generating high-tech chips to make smart homes, smart cars, and even smart clothes. We also witness the dawn of an era of intelligent robots who will do much of our work for us. Our younger generation may even visit or live-in space ships. Thirdly, there is continuous pressure for the ‘deregulation’ of every industry. The markets naturally work better under relatively free conditions providing appropriate answers to basic economic questions. 

Many socialist countries are privatising state-owned companies to unleash the benefits of competition to provide appropriate answers to basic economic questions. Cuba is the latest example of being isolated as a truly socialist country that has now started the process of privatisation. The world human population has already reached 7.6 billion and by 2050 it is expected to reach nearly 9 billion. Hence, during the next century many more people will require food, housing, education, nurture, and employment. 

Approximately, 80% of this population will live in areas that are now parts of the developing world and nearly 2/3 of them will be living in cities. The challenges of providing for the needs of these new urban and older populations are diverse and complex. Nearly 1.9 billion people are now impoverished or hungry with little or no employment. Therefore, poverty and extreme inequity are incompatible with sustainability. Hence, we are faced with the challenge of reducing disparities by capacity building and provide everyone with basic human requirements and with access to the knowledge and resources needed for a meaningful life.

For change to take place, those involved must be psychologically willing to make the effort. Those who intimate change has a heightened sense of dissatisfaction with the way things are, but others who will be affected may not recognise change is needed. We also should not forget the fact that some foreign countries that have the economic and political muscle are currently interested in capitalising on Sri Lanka’s geographical location strategically who is competing among themselves. Sri Lanka as a nation must evaluate these foreign direct investments concerning economic, political, and environmental concerns ensuring sustainable development by conducting rigorous studies and taking all the precautions before a final decision is reached. 


Need of the hour

The youth will have to equip themselves with the latest knowledge and lead the change which is the ‘need of the hour’ for our nation. The youth are better than any other segment of the society to challenge the change and lead Sri Lanka toward sustainable development. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change yourself if you want to change others” and start changing the attitudes of the nation and lead Sri Lanka to a bright future. 


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