The Economic Development of Sri Lanka: A Tale of Missed Opportunities
Donald R. Snodgrass
WHEN SRI LANKA, then known as Ceylon, achieved independence in 1948, it was regarded by many, with the flawed foresight common in these matters, as one of Asia's most promising new nations. The island had escaped World War II unscathed. It had practiced limited self-rule based on universal franchise since 1931. Levels of literacy and educational achievement were high relative to those in other parts of Asia. The transition from colonial rule had been peaceful. There was a smoothly functioning export economy that provided commodities urgently demanded by the world market. What more could a newly independent nation want? 1
Other observers took a more sober approach, noting that productivity was low and population was growing rapidly. 2 Some foresaw that the existing economic structure would be unable to support the growing population at its current standard. One writer noted perceptively: "Most thoughtful Ceylonese today agree with friendly foreign observers that the success of Ceylon's development projects and her credit standing among the free nations of the world depend upon early settlement of communal quarrels and firm control of extremist elements."3
Whatever a reasonable assessment at the time may have been, succeeding decades have revealed Sri Lanka as an undistinguished economic performer among the developing nations of Asia and the world. But Sri Lanka's economic development has not been the disaster that one might have expected to result from its inability to settle communal disputes and the wild policy swings that accompanied changes of government throughout the first three decades of independence.