Subhashini Abeysinghe: Public debate based on critical thinking, facts, figures and intensive research is what I’m referring to especially with regard to economic policies and issues. What you find is very opinionated stances taken either based on their own agendas and not really backed by facts or good research. People who do research also do not write enough to the papers. There are a lot of people involved in research but I don’t know why they are not sharing their findings.
Anushka Wijesinha: I think it’s about how you position it. If your opinions or your insights are based on evidence and fact, there is still a space and it’s all about how you message it.
I’m seeing people who we considered thought leaders who have now perhaps retired. You see them writing frequently and shaping people’s opinions but you also find that some of them are detached from reality. Now that some of them are retired they have the freedom and they are saying things but it is sometimes not grounded in what is going on in Sri Lanka. So that is proving to be a challenge because of who they are. Those opinions take on a life of its own and we saw this happen recently with the per capita income vs GDP and that whole argument. Because of who they have been in the past their opinions are taken and run with. As a result of this those who are more current may hold back highlighting the reality. So it’s important for those who are current to be true to having a tighter argument based on the facts.
Deshal De Mel: I think part of the challenge is that a lot of it is because we as a society are uncomfortable with questioning, debate and thinking critically and creatively. I think this stems from the education system. This is something that has worked throughout the society over the years and it really affects us negatively right now.
You see this in public fora when the Central Bank Governor or Secretary to the Treasury speaks and when question time comes nothing really comes out. That space is there but people aren’t willing to ask questions. It’s almost too late for our generation but it’s not something we cannot address in the future.
Lewie Diasz: I see public debate happening at two levels in Sri Lanka. One debate is in urban areas and Colombo centred around the economy and industry. I also see debate in rural Sri Lanka which are mostly centred around their political ideology. So rather than have an open fact based discussion about the pros, cons and choices, people end up taking a position based entirely on their political leaning.
People need to understand what a debate is fundamentally about. I think we are influenced largely by what we see on television at night, and people think that’s what a debate is.
Anushka: As researchers trying to influence policy, what we need to ask ourselves is, how much have we done to democratize that debate? The arguments grounded in fact are happening at an elite level. So how can we bring those two worlds together while continuing to make sense to people? For example if you are talking about Mihin Air losses; ideologically we can talk about how the state should not own an airline and the economic argument about the losses being a burden. But unless you make that argument real for people, like explaining that the accumulated losses of Mihin are equal to a year’s funding on Triposha and uniforms for school kids people won’t be able to relate to those economic arguments. At least the younger generation can be reached through social media, and we are seeing this now happen.
Subhashini: Having done a study on how the economic issues are covered in the newspapers, we have realized there is a huge gap between the English and the Sinhala media. We need to write more to the Sinhala media. Most of our academics are ground in English and comfortable in writing in English; but we need to write in the vernacular if we want to change people’s thinking.
Secondly is accessing influential individuals. This is a challenge in Sri Lanka that certain individuals have a high acceptance. Advocacy can be identifying someone who is more accepted talking about a certain subject and convincing that person about your position. When that more accepted person speaks it then carries more weight and influence. Especially as academics one challenge is us talking about business issues. I have been challenged, ‘what do economists know about business?’ so you are gunned down.
But when I convince influential business people about the soundness of my argument and they take it out, there is far greater acceptance. So we need to also understand that when we advocate for policy change there are several strategies we can use.