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behavioral economics

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illustration by KAL (great to have met him in Sri Lanka at the US Embassy btw)

“Kabul ain’t Colombo” I said unthinkingly. My Afghan friend laughs. Leaving things in one’s car while one wanders off into a restaurant or a mall isn’t done in Kabul. Not if you want to find them still there when you come back.

Kabul isn’t Colombo by a long way. Katmandu isn’t Colombo either. For one thing we have better roads, cleaner streets and better public services. Neither is Karachi, Lahore, Delhi (our rape count is much lower for instance) or Male for that matter. For a country that likes to complain a lot, Sri Lanka has a pretty good capital city. Sure, Colombo is kind of boring and it can sometimes feel very claustrophobic and stuffy (that’s what long weekends are for) but you can still travel in public transport with relatively low risk of getting pick pocketed, same goes for the rest of the country. You don’t have that luxury say, in Europe. No Colombo and Sri Lanka are comparatively crime free.

Or perhaps I should say Sri Lanka is pretty street crime free. Most of the crime committed in Sri Lanka is carried out by the so-called civilized. The new elite and the haute bourgeoisie of post war nepotism, which is more a culture here than a contrived state of affairs. From bribery and corruption to burglary, murder and kidnappings most high profile crimes today lead upwards; into rarified stratospheres the country’s weakened law enforcement mechanisms dare not venture into.

Economically, Colombo and Sri Lanka appear to have it pretty good. We’re growing at above six percent a year, we’re doing well on indicators like global competitiveness and our human development indicators trump most of our South Asian counterparts. But Colombians and by extension Sri Lankans don’t seem to be happy. The numbers tell us that we have it good, but we’re not happy. Why?

One explanation could be that I’m an elitist. Living in a bubble of economic prosperity and social comfort that the vast majority are deprived of. Another explanation is that Sri Lankans are just a bunch of unsatisfied materialists that will stoop to anything to get at personal prosperity. And in a context of rapid development, tend to forget their own modest improvement in the face of the vast wealth accumulated by the ruling classes.

Yet another explanation is that yes, there is jealousy. But there is also strong economic discontent and dissatisfaction, exacerbated by the feeling that the top of the pyramid has it easy. The evidence is in front of us, the amount of people complaining about the rising cost of living aren’t just restricted to the poorer segments of society anymore, the number of people taking to the streets in protest of not having basic services is indicative of the failure of the state’s administrative capacities at that level.

In Sri Lanka it is normal for leaders to steal from their subjects. It is almost expected of them. The petite bourgeoisie needs role models after all. And rarely does a Sri Lankan from any walk of life think of not taking advantage of his/her position if they can. Just walk into any government public services department, have a euphemism laden conversation with a traffic policeman or see how many times that bus conductor will hand over your change voluntarily. But at the larger level, Sri Lanka’s nepotistic and hand-out based economic structure seems to be unraveling.

As an example, take the numerous accounts of foreign investors being turned away due to the myriad bribes, protection fees and other baksheesh demanded by its bureaucracy and organized crime networks, which are incidentally indistinguishable from each other. Any foreign projects approved are locked up tight with contracts awarded mainly to parasitic contractors with connections to the ruling classes. Trickle down is minimum What is worse, as the pagawa demanded rises above all reasonable levels, the amount of investment coming in is stalling, drying up reserves of cash that could otherwise have gone into appeasing the people. What trickle down there is, is stalling.

And it’s all about trickle down. Because leaders, while being allowed to enrich themselves, must also ‘take care’ of their subjects. The people must be given a part of the spoils. In effect steal from the poor and give back to the poor, but with a significant cut. The cut is forgiven if their share comes fast enough. Efficient government services thus become a hindrance to this system of patronage. But some rudimentary form of it needs to exist in order to be put into motion as and when the need to dispense some patronage comes up. It is perhaps telling that increasing breakdown of public services is happening though, that means that the upper echelons are either getting too greedy or simply running out of money.

I suspect it’s the latter. Rampant corruption has begun to deprive the economy of what efficiency it had. Political gridlocks and deep rooted biases are pitting it against an international community in a battle that threatens to permanently damage its reputation. And somewhere in the complicated system that is Sri Lanka’s political/social structure, the cogs that facilitate the smooth functioning of this hand-out machine are clogging up. Favors are not being churned out at the pace they should be. Whether there is recourse to address this problem through the coming elections is questionable. In fact, no real solutions other than the ending, or at least cutting back, of corruption can help. Aberrations, like the recent spurt of racist propaganda, have failed to distract. And people are getting angry.

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The Rally For Unity crew has done a pretty neat timeline and infographic (click to enlarge) of the events that took place in Grandpass between June and August this year. Accurate information is crucial if anything is to be done about the upsetting problems we’re seeing today. IMO mainstream media, due to various restrictions, is failing at providing a cohesive and honest picture, a much needed vacuum for some solid citizen journalism to fill.

Sinhala and Tamil translations are on the way according to R4U’s Facebook page, which posted the below along with the graphic.

“What Really Happened in Grandpass?” – This infographic was developed to shed light on the events that unfolded at Grandpass from June to August this year. All information has been factually verified and vetted. Sinhala and Tamil translations will be made available by the weekend.

It is regrettable that certain groups can unduly influence and divide peacefully co-existing multi-ethnic communities. We encourage all Sri Lankans to remain vigilant against such interference and to continue to preserve goodwill among all communities.

labour-movement-610x282

As published in Echelon (artwork by same) 

May Day Rallies to me were a vague call back to communist absurdity, until I found out that the phenomenon actually started in America, and has more to do with the labor movement than communism. I’d always greeted it with appreciation; because like every Sri Lankan I appreciate the occasional holiday, them being so hard to come by and all that. This time though, volunteering with a movement of anti-hate activists, I found myself stepping out to distribute our message to rally attendees. As veteran activists assured us, there is no easier way to get your message across to otherwise practically unreachable corners of the island than to ambush the people when they gather in Colombo en masse.

May Day in Colombo is a crazy affair. Busloads of people are brought in from all over the country, hundreds of thousands of people gather in the city, they eat, they drink and they pay for nothing. Although no official figure is known, if the government’s claim that nearly 2 million people were ferried into the city this May is to be believed, then the cost for the whole day could have been close to a billion rupees. What is also unknown is who actually footed the bill. Mainstream media was silent on this particular nosy question.

Minor rallies attracting fewer people had move the staging area to the middle so that only half or even a quarter of the grounds were fully used. This seemingly absurd tactic succeeded in giving the illusion of a larger crowd, especially to the cameras. However the JVP rally drew massive crowds to the BRC grounds with its decorated floaters and people in red t-shirts with stylized pictures of Rohana Wijeweera, reminiscent of that iconic Che Guevara portrait, emblazoned on their backs.

The emasculation of the labor movement in Sri Lanka started before Wijeweera, in the 1950s, when it was at its peak. During its glory days the labor unions organized a series of successful strikes under the leadership of AE Goonasinge, who founded the movement in the 1920s. At the height of the power of Sri Lanka’s political left, which soon adopted the movement, the general strike and civil disobedience of 1953 brought the UNP government of Dudley Senanayake to its knees. A massive outbreak of what some called ‘hooliganism’ and others termed a ‘public uprising’ forced his resignation. The 1953 hartal represented the first and probably the last real instance when genuine public discontent was allowed an outlet via something close to ‘democratic’ means in independent Sri Lanka.

The general strike of 1980 for instance was less successful. The vicious crackdown of JR Jayawardene’s UNP only put the nails on its coffin. In a nation with the glimmerings of war already on the horizon, and politics highly oppressive, the labor movement had lost much of it potency. In the intervening decades, the once influential LSSP had split in to various parties touting Trotskyist, Maoist, Stalinist and other ideological manifestations of leftist thought and the labor movement had split along with it. Traditionally ‘capitalist’ parties had encroached it in a bid to dilute its power and transform it into a means of countering political opposition. In the process, public recourse to expression of dissent was quickly moving from democratic to undemocratic means. The eighties are a bloody testimony to this, with not one, but two insurgencies tearing the country asunder.

Alcohol and sycophancy go together. Now parliamentarians bring their own busloads of people whom they apparently ply with drink to appease. Indeed an overwhelming number of people we met that day were drunk. The scent of liquor and the doddering unpredictable congeniality of drunk people was everywhere. When we reached out to grab a number of caps that fell out of a bus carrying rally attendees, eager for any implement that would allow us to ‘blend in’, we found them soaked in vomit. At rallies that were starting off, people were enthusiastically shouting slogans and dancing to the beat of drums; at rallies that had gone on for a while, they were morose with a higher tendency to get into fights. After tactfully extricating ourselves from a tight spot we proceeded in the afternoon to a rally where the crowd, seemingly done partying for a while, was idly napping in corners of the grounds as the speaker onstage droned on about Engels and whatnot, as oblivious to the crowd as the crowd was to him.

What motivated them to come? Perhaps some came of their own accord, spending hundreds of rupees, from distant villages, in order to fight for the rights of the laborer in a broken system on a much needed holiday. But May Day today is less about the workers than the politicians that represent them. The money, in a rare example for our country, is flowing from the top to the bottom. It is the politicians that are bringing the workers into town. It is the politicians that are spending money, apparently motivating workers to fight for their own rights. The labor movement has been sabotaged by politics; its integrity sold for a free trip into the city, a lunch packet and a quarter bottle of liquor.

Today, any resemblance the labor movement has to a ‘people’s movement’ has all but disappeared. In a few decades, from the height of its power in 1953, it disintegrated from fighting for the people and toppling governments in their name to being an instrument for their subjugation. The failure of several attempted general strikes in the wake of utility price increases in recent weeks evidences its lack of cohesion and unity. May Day rallies today are a sad testimony to what infighting, politicization and a loss of purpose can perhaps do to any truly grassroots movement that strives to express the ‘people’s voice’ in our country. The labor movement is a body without a soul. A farce perpetuating an ongoing political charade.

Dharmapriya Dias and Gihan De Chickera in a scene from Machang

Dharmapriya Dias and Gihan De Chickera in a scene from Machang

Sri Lankans have a fascination with everything foreign. Going ‘to the foreign’ or ‘ab-road’ is considered to be the epitome of success. For after you are ‘in the foreign’ life there is going to be all feather beds and high disposable income.

I’ve run into many people like that in my time, who hasn’t? Once i had someone explain to me in great detail how to make a convincing case to seek asylum in Canada. The process involved coming up with a newspaper article/advertisement calling me a wanted man, going through highly exciting cut-throat late night border crossings and conning Canadian judges. I was sixteen at the time.

Just yesterday i met someone who expressed a strong urge to go to Germany. Why? because it is ‘awesome over there’. Praneeth (name changed) is a low level executive at a multinational corporation. In other words, he has a job and background that many would kill for. Initially I just thought he wanted to visit, how naive of me.

A friend of his: “do you know what he did? he’s working in a garage in Germany.”

And I say, wow yeah that’s great. Praneeth gets a wistful look in his eyes as I ask him ‘so you want to get a work visa?’ But apparently there are no work visas for Germany, which  brings us to the thorny question; “how is your friend working in a garage there?”

His friend (let’s call him Channa) ingeniously played the system. He didn’t go all ‘Machang’ and escape the hotel the night before the big handball game, but he still lied and connived for all he was worth.

He went there for a holiday, stayed with a monk he knew and somehow negotiated a deal with a local restaurant which produced a letter attesting to the German immigration authorities that ‘Channa is absolutely the best, and pretty much only, cook in the world capable of cooking at our restaurant and it is absolutely essential that you help him come work for us”.

This enabled him to get a five year stamp the next time he applied. And now Channa works in a garage, painting cars and doing other garagy things, cooking be damned. His education is wasted, but he tells Praneeth during his frequent visits home that he feels “very secure” and wouldn’t give it up for the world. And now poor Praneeth wants to quit his corporate job and do the same thing.

If you thought Channa was quite the ‘arch bugger’, let me tell you about Praneeth’s other friend Nimal who is some kind of an ‘international player’. His life involves shuttling between several high profile foreign countries every five months or so. He’d work for five months in the US, come to Sri Lanka, and go work for five months in the UK. I am fascinated, how in the world does he manage this?

Nimal, like Channa, initially went for a holiday. He then came back to Sri Lanka and applied again, and this time got a much longer stamp on his visa. He used this to surreptitiously get a job being a waiter, cleaning stuff or like Channa, working in a garage. Unglamorous, but it pays the bills for a glamorous image back home.

Actually, he is part of a whole network of such ‘international players’ who simply switch jobs with each other when their visas begin to expire; ensuring a constant supply of international jobs that will not cause them to overstay their visas and impinge on the hospitality of their hosts in any way (other than by stealing their jobs of course).

So for example Nimal would give his job in the US over to his friend Riyas as Riyas leaves his job being a street cleaner in the UK which he gives to Nathan who gives up his job as a logger in Scandanavia to Kamal who in turn will leave his job as a shop assistant in Italy just in time for Nimal to come back from a short intermediate stay in Sri Lanka to claim it. And they keep switching ad infinitum. Praneeth thinks its brilliant.

No wonder us unambitious Sri Lankans get so much shtick from Western visa authorities. I don’t blame them either. We enter their countries by the boatload, clog up their social security nets and even contribute with our own brand of organized crime, with raging chain gangs in countries as diverse as Canada, UK and Italy hailing from places like Ja-Ela and Wattala (town names just an example, nothing personal if you live there).

I’ve spoken to others who are a lot more honest about this kind of living. And apparently, hard labor is hard labor whether you are in a developed country or not. Some work three jobs and barely get enough sleep. They show a pretty picture to everyone back home, but they live on the fringes of society and become anonymous automatons with no identity. No life even. And many regret ever leaving home.

*Abroad Yamuda Machang?: Shall we go abroad, mate?

SAMSUNG

Shamrock, Nawalapitiya. Nawalapitiya came up in colonial times as a town built around a British railway hub, as far as I can tell.

My grandmother grew up in tough times. She was born in 1926, whence ignorance was rife and widespread. Women died of childbirth because their families did not want them exposed to doctors who were invariably ‘strange men’. Babies were delivered by midwives who would walk straight in from the tea estates, and wouldn’t really bother with washing their hands. Umbilical cords would be cut with anything handy; yes that rusty old scissors will do fine. Unsurprisingly, infant mortality was high.

My great grandmother died of childbirth; her immune system was weakened and welcomed a fatal attack of malaria, which overtook her newborn as well. They remained at home until they died. Never seeing a doctor. My great grandfather was rich, but money had nothing to do with it. She was a woman, and in those times there were certain things women weren’t eligible for. He married again and his second wife suffered the same fate. (Nonplussed, my great grandfather married for the third time, but thankfully she survived. He had altogether 18 or 20 surviving children.)

A newborn came into a wild place. For every family sporting ten healthy children, there were two or three that died; still births, disease; people just took it in their stride. My grandmother delivered seven of her six children at home, but by her time she access to qualified midwives.

Of a keen intelligence is my grandmother. And she has a PhD, in the school of life. But in those days girls were not educated. Muslim girls, especially, were not exposed to strange eyes and they were mostly kept at home; one reason why she enjoyed school so much.

Because even though her father refused to educate her, her grandmother, who was another rock a linchpin just like my grandmother would become, would not stand for it. My great-great grandmother took over the care of her son’s first flock after their mother died, and with her the rules were somewhat different.

They were sent to school; the car and by extension wealth, enabled them to remain secluded. A cloth separated the rear and front so that the driver could not see them. But in those days they used to say; ‘girls need only be educated until they have learned to sign their name’ and eventually this saying came back to haunt my grandma as it did thousands of other girls at the time, and many girls to this day. She was taken out of school when she was fourteen, and at sixteen she was married.

This is slightly unbelievable now, but back then the bride and groom really weren’t allowed to see each other before marriage. The parents would close the deal, and my grandparents only met on the day of their wedding.

My grandmother didn’t mind, marriage offered the only way out of her secluded, pampered existence. It was only after marriage that she saw the world, spoke to people at large, and took a train ride. My granddad was in the Police, and they traveled far and wide for his work. My uncles, mother and aunt were born in places as diverse as Jaffna, Kalutara, Colombo and Nawalapitiya (which is where, decades later, I was born as well).

I like hearing stories from that time. Most of it makes me nostalgic, but some of it shocks, like the denial of basic rights of education and health to women, and the acceptance of this as a part of the cultural identity of being Muslim, carried out by people with good intentions. I guess its a testament to how far corruption can spread so as to seem normal, a lesson for today perhaps.

This ignorance was a sad reality of the community back then. But it is not a reality of Islam. Ignorance started to disappear as religious knowledge spread. And cultural practices long adhered to in an age where colonial invasion had all but destroyed active religious life (many would not attend Friday prayers, let alone pray five times daily), were slowly abandoned as the community gradually modernized. Back then going against customs so set in stone would have called upon the wrath of society, today Sri Lankan Muslim society accepts most of those customs as relics of an age of ignorance.

That is not to say though, that we are completely rid of faults. Muslims continue to do things in the name of religion that would make the Prophet (may peace and blessings be upon him) raise his eyebrows at the very least. We bicker and fight among ourselves, and we fail to stand up for justice. And yes some of our women still face abuse, even though that abuse may not always be in the same form the outside world paints it out to be.

These are not the faults of Islam, but they are the faults of Muslims, and not all Muslims either. We are much better than we used to be, but there are long ways yet to go. But there is hope for me in the story of my grandmother. Let’s have patience, and persevere.

ce

This post was originally published in The Platform

I dislike the label ‘activist’, armchair or otherwise. To be defined as an activist is to be defined by the inactivity of others. Armchair activism, as I see it, is a constant struggle against (to paraphrase Milton Freidman) ‘the tyranny of the status quo’; that dread inertia that prevents people at large from forming the critical mass required to propel decisive solutions to social issues that affect them all.

Armchair activism is different in nature from ‘on-the-ground’ activists who have a gamut of other responsibilities, like standing in front of tanks and bulldozers should the need arise. (Raashid Riza has an excellent post on contemporary activism, armchair activism and cynics of all forms in the light of recent events here.) Armchair activists are more specifically involved in spreading the word in the domain of public opinion – they are in the fight against ignorance, cynicism and apathy.

The goal of the armchair activist, conscious or otherwise, is to convince OTHER people of the need for altruism and moral consideration. Theirs is a sustained effort at tipping the balance of this inertia, at creating that critical mass. Social media has contributed to a phenomenal rise in armchair activism. The ability to influence public opinion is now at our very fingertips.

But armchair activists are rendered outcasts in an environment still dominated by  the primary tyrannical force, materialism. Materialism breeds selfishness, and selfishness is protected by cynicism. Cynicism denies responsibility for the actions of others, even individuals the cynics themselves have elected into power. Cynics deny that one can make a difference, but know that many can. However they doubt that enough will overcome their own cynicism in order to join together convincingly, thus building a self fulfilling philosophy that makes selfishness always comfortably right.

This is played out in social networks, both real and virtual, everyday. People cannot understand why other people get all up in arms about things that happen thousands of miles away. These others can’t understand how some can idly sit by and look at pictures of kittens when not only kittens but children are being slaughtered indiscriminately ONLY a few thousand miles away. Vocal cynics resent being reminded of the latter. And say so. Scoffing at idealists is a popular pastime when idealists get active.

And then there is the silent majority, too caught up with its own affairs to even bother with vocalising its cynicism. To all of them, the ‘voice of the people’ is a myth. Or if it exists, it only exists in order to elect the next American Idol, or president.

This disillusionment with the power of the ‘voice of the people’ is the primary source of conscious or unconscious ire for the armchair activist. Forever trying to influence and educate, shock and engage the public at large, armchair activists capitalise on critical events they see as having the ability to finally tip the majority in their favor. These are the times when they get really active, because to them it is all about critical mass.

And they help. Public outrage in the wake of Israel’s illegal Operation Pillar of Cloud helped accelerate the ceasefire agreement; public outrage at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill sparked investigations debating BP’s drilling practices, the risks of oil spills and key environmental issues in general. But have they done enough? I’d say no. The underlying causes of these issues remain, ready to burst forth in some new form of violence in the future. Change more radical than this would need to happen for a permanent solution, the kind of solutions that all activists, everywhere, ardently hope for.

But, unfortunate as it may be, this kind of critical mass manifests only when a major crisis is imminent. Only when the disease spreads to the very foundations of the materialism that breeds the cynicism, that breeds the apathy of public opinion, will the majority awaken from its inertia. But when this does happen, to paraphrase Friedman again, their actions will depend on the ideas that are ‘lying around’, the discourses, social infrastructure, alternative policies and theories of change that have been kept alive by activists of all kinds, waiting until the ‘impossible’ becomes the ‘inevitable’.

This is probably why activism and armchair activism appear futile in the short term and only superficially effective in the medium term. For long lasting change to occur, whatever that may mean, the efforts of activists are not enough.  It takes the efforts of non-activists as well, in the process converting everyone into someone who acts, removing the need to define what an ‘activist’ is altogether.

Nice guy Pakistan fan at Pallekale

Halaal Sri Lanka tweeted the below this morning. The ACJU already sent what i think is a mass SMS via dialog saying the same.

Interesting. I think the ACJU message was a little blunt and slightly tactless. But in the context of the recent protests i suppose they rightly thought to quell any antagonistic behavior from more disruptive elements that work not out of any loyalty to the Prophet (peace be upon him) or Islam but for their own/inciteful reasons. So maybe we should applaud the ACJU for taking the initiative, but also one wonders if they couldn’t have done it in a more subtle manner. Indi has a post on it here.

As for why some Muslims in Sri Lanka support Pakistan over Sri Lanka. Personally i don’t know. But i can make a few guesses. Number one it is pretty much the only Muslim country that plays cricket. And if you look at the Muslim psyche there is a strong affinity towards Islamic collectivism (since Islam in essence doesn’t subscribe to nation statism). But Muslims in Sri Lanka identify themselves both as this global community of Muslims as well as Sri Lankans.

When it comes to cricket, almost every Muslim i know, including me, will support Sri Lanka over Pakistan. But i have known some Muslims who have opted to support Pakistan. Most of them come from communities that are very tight knit and isolated. So i’ve known this to happen in certain parts of Panadura like Sarikkamulla. I’ve heard of open and defiant support for Pakistan being expressed in towns like Maradana, Thihariya etc. Or at least, i think i have. Some of these displays have been very in-your-face. Like crackers being lit etc. Not very nice.

Muslims openly supporting Pakistan, to me, is quite a dated phenomenon. If you were to ask me what i think, based on my experience, i would say that i used to be aware of this a lot more when i was younger. But as time progressed, especially after the ’96 world cup, a lot less Muslims supported Pakistan over Sri Lanka. So i think it also has something to do with having a strong team in Sri Lanka to support. If your national identity doesn’t work for you, you switch to the alternative. Its an easy way of finding a winning team to root for.

My enthusiasm for cricket also changes with the Sri Lankan team’s performance. Although I’ve never supported anyone against our team, after the world cup throw away i got so dejected that i didn’t really start showing any interest in cricket until Sri Lanka’s last two matches in the World T20. Let’s face it, our team has an uncanny knack of never failing to disappoint. At the most crucial moments. So much pain.

Anyway does Pakistan’s team even represent Islam? I don’t know. Most of them are Muslims that is true. But i don’t even always support Pakistan when they are playing against another team. Truth be told to me cricket is not about religion. Cricket is about cricket. Entirely a different thing. And honestly i think this is the case for most Sri Lankan Muslims. I was at Pallekale for the Pakistan-New Zealand match. I was supporting Pakistan. But there were hundreds of Muslims in the crowd from Kandy. And most of them were cheering for both teams. Some of them even only for new Zealand.

So i don’t know how sports here in Sri Lanka mixes with identity politics. Indi says that even Prabhakaran supported Sri Lanka, but then again did he really have a lot of reasons to support India? If Eelam became a reality would they be sending a team to the SLPL? One thing i have noticed though is antagonism viz India. So much hate for India. I wondered why and asked around. People apparently don’t like their team members’ ‘arrogance’. And there’s also the perception that India has been historically always interfering with Sri Lanka’s internal affairs.

Generally speaking though. Sports is a major outlet of dissent. Take Scottish soccer for example. So if there are elements supporting other teams against Sri Lanka, it’s probably prudent to check why these elements apparently feel so disenfranchised.

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