One of the more poignant realities of Sri Lanka, a year after it defaulted on its debt for the first time, was voiced by a Sri Lankan athlete, Sachini Perera, a record holder in pole vaulting in her country, who recently told The National: “Mine is only one story. We have many stories in Sri Lanka. They need help."
Ms Perera is employed as a housemaid in Dubai. She is right about being one among many: in the past year, about 311,000 Sri Lankans from the 22 million-strong nation have left their homes for jobs abroad, seeking better salaries and escaping the country's economic crisis. Many of those who have emigrated have headed to the Gulf to find work and support families.
These are not just young people. Sri Lankans in their forties and fifties, in mostly the low and semi-skilled categories, have also joined the work force in the GCC. Skilled workers, including doctors and engineers, have left in large numbers too. The salaries that overseas workers send home contribute to lifting the country out of its economic crisis, which is why the Sri Lankan government is encouraging citizens to take up jobs abroad.
One of Sri Lanka's great assets is its human capital. Most of its citizens have had primary-level education, with a 92.38 per cent literacy rate reported in 2020, better than many other low and middle-income nations. This bodes well for the country's future, despite the economic challenges that were compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic.
A year ago, Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe took charge after his predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was forced out of office by popular protests and riots. Sri Lankans have had a tough time in recent years, with inflation touching 50.6 per cent in February and salaries at home unable to keep up.
The economic turmoil has arguably been most concerning in the health and information technology sectors, where professionals have left in droves, understandably seeking greener pastures, but at the same time also leaving a vacuum in these sectors that ultimately proves most costly to those who continue to live in the country. Citizens there have access to free medical treatment and education but when medical staff leave in big numbers, the result is destabilising to say the least.
Although Sri Lanka has a long way to go, revival is most evident in sectors such as tourism as leisure travellers return to the island nation. The country is expected to earn $2.7 billion in tourism revenue this year.
Crucially, moreover, the country secured a bailout package of about $3 billion from the IMF in March. While it proved to be a lifeline, the bailout came with tough conditions that require imposing higher taxes and making cuts to government spending and welfare programmes. So, as the government tries to restructure its debt, much-needed reforms will inevitably make life difficult in the short run for ordinary Sri Lankans.
The government has been making strenuous efforts to attract foreign investment – including most recently from India, Japan and France. But for now, the story of Sri Lanka's slow but steady economic recovery is embedded in the lives of its ordinary citizens, whether they work in the country or abroad, and at whichever age and stage of their careers and lives they are at.
Sri Lanka's human resource loss has been a gain for other countries, especially in the Gulf. But as Sachini Perera and hundreds of thousands of other Sri Lankans join compatriots who have moved far from home and send back money, they deserve credit for rebuilding not just their own lives, but for reshaping the future of their homeland.