Destination overseas and paradigm shifts

Thursday, 11 August 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Paradigm shifts are not easy to achieve. Within one’s mindset, to shift a set of beliefs or an understanding to another direction, one needs to understand and understand well.

The paradigm shift concept came from the writings of Thomas Kuhn, when he wrote on scientific revolutions – a change in the basic assumptions or paradigms. Thus, the concept of normal science and revolutionary science came in. These changes in basic assumptions can happen outside science as well.

Today the term is well used in all types of situations to describe profound change. It is with respect to paradigm shift necessary in our planners and perhaps within all of us in ensuring that we move forward in this moment of opportunity obtained that I would comment on.

Korea calling

I wonder what the spectre of many thousands queuing to collect documents to go to Korea would trigger in minds of people. Queuing is a milder term compared to what has taken place. The view was as if the crowd was seeking salvation rather than a solution.

It is interesting to note that more forms are to be distributed across the island and the closing date extended and so on to satisfy the expecting masses – a dire situation from the looks of it. However, when seeing these human congregations, some may feel relieved as these numbers will find some opportunity elsewhere and reduce the burden from the system to find or yield opportunities.

Some may see that we having a drain of youth in their prime who could deliver to society today in many areas that are available. Some may question the reasons and psyche of many on why seek solace in jobs overseas – especially of the type that may await these youth once moved out.

We should not forget that a key resource for a country is its human resource and from the educated to the skilled people, one just cannot lose this resource in their prime just for the gain of some currency. As we have been used to this situation of actually laying a red carpet for those whose ideals lie overseas, we need to correct – if indeed correction is required – this loss via human resource exports. There is the need to take the internal economy forward in all places – not only in the Western Province – in many ways.


Sri Lanka today is classified as a middle income country and some of the privileges of being a poor country in the global League of Nations are no longer available. For some in our planning hierarchy this appears to be difficult to get used to.

Having taken decisions based on poverty-based economics – easy fund lines, grants and soft loans including lots of aid packages – when one has to seek, analyse and select, options appear daunting. There is much more accountability and one should not allow hedging or dodging from this requirement citing collective responsibility.

There is an element of Sri Lankan thinking that definitely needs some reanalysis – “Sri Lankan market size is a problem and there aren’t many chances for expansion and growth within.” While there is truth that one should never only plan to satisfy the needs of the island nation in this era of globalisation, the statement that one is restricted by the small market space offered by 20 million citizens is questionable.

Today the 20 million population of Sri Lanka offers a different opportunity and the sooner this is realised and the importance of more collaborative development understood, the nation stands do better.

Global economic uncertainty

The global economic uncertainty is quite visible. Some may be economic theatrics, yet effects can be dramatic for small and medium economies when you are linked across the world in a weak manner. It is important to have a certain amount of self sufficiency to demonstrate resilience and this is quite important when it comes to basic requirements.

Following all the short-term market instruments opting to maximise returns in all activities should not be the way forward – placing all our eggs in the basket of short-term market instruments! The provision of basics to society should not be left to market forces alone.

It should be remembered that some of the sound numbers corresponding to human development in Sri Lanka were brought about not by market mechanisms but by more direct interventionist social schemes. It is by actively pursuing this provision of basics across the nation that one could add dynamism to the local economies.

Paradigm shift

A paradigm shift is necessary when today most of our actions are based on serious infatuation with all things overseas. It is not only about individuals but include planners who appear to be preoccupied with external markets.

We plan for x number of tourists preferably from a selected number of countries, we crave foreign direct investments, we plan for foreign students who have money to be entered into our degree programmes, we plan for foreign universities to set up their off-shore campuses… the list can go on.

Just consider in case of education a place like University of Cambridge. They do not plan to accommodate money, they plan to accommodate talent and the thinking is that if they get a student who may not have money to pay for his or her education but has demonstrated competence, then it is university’s task to support the person.

It is almost organising the mechanics of the system to get the best in and certainly not the most amount of money in! Thus, there are many scholarship funds and endowments to ensure that the process can go on.

How can one bring about this much-needed resilience? As these shifts in thinking or subsequent performance are less scientific but more economical, we may not observe as per what Kuhn described in his original essay. It is possible and even easily shown that many ways and ideas are possible rather than a single course of action unlike in hard sciences.

However removing barriers to ensure that what is needed is allowed to happen is important. C.K. Prahalad who espouses the concept of bottom of the pyramid opened up many ideas and activities. It is known that the bottom billions is significant. Today one finds many multinational companies engaging and actually working with markets with sluggish or low growth rates.

It is not the importance of buddy pack sizes and low end reload options paving the way to collect more rupees from people with not so deep pockets that Prahalad was advocating. He was advocating identifying entrepreneurial activities and allowing upliftment of those individuals with simultaneous opportunities to companies and individuals alike.

Encouraging micro enterprises

Do we a need different set of rules to emerge to encourage micro enterprises that need to emerge to take the economy forward and bringing regional growth? These micro enterprises can add more colour to the business spectrum available regionally.

Consider a situation that I would like to hypothesise considering the fact that energy is one of the basic necessities, which I would consider that we should be self reliant.

One hypothesis is about us shifting to a bioenergy-based economy. Regional energy companies that would generate biofuels and support a local bioenergy economy can be a significant activity. A business plan may exist or could be generated to show the viability, yet many investigations into this area have failed to deliver in Sri Lanka.

Much of it we do not feel as technical barriers as technologies identified were not novel. Simply, frameworks do not exist to utilise resources and to benefit local economies. As oil prices are again rising, the whole economy can backslide if we fail to implement desired novel practices across segments that could benefit and simultaneously contribute for the want of risk taking and decisive action.

Columbus moved out of Spain in search of the elusive India, hoping to bring riches to his country. We moved out of Sri Lanka wowing at times never to return as if penalising the country for all our ineptitudes.

While one may find fault with the logic, one should equally find fault with those who allow such thoughts to surface, gain force and equally execute. At the end of the day, it is failing to understand the value of your human resources and the folly of counting on only on those who can purchase at a given time to bring long-term economic success.

(Professor Ajith de Alwis is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is a Science Team Leader at the Sri Lanka Nanotechnology Institute. He can be reached via email on

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