Harsha de Silva: A policy intellectual moves to the next level

Posted on April 21, 2010  /  21 Comments

The broad objective of LIRNEasia is to bring evidence to the policy process and thereby improve it. The means by which we achieve this objective range from directly taking evidence to the policy process, through advocacy and dissemination, to building up policy intellectuals. We never quite thought that the means would extend to actually placing researchers within the supreme legislative body of a country, but with the entry of Dr Harsha de Silva to the Parliament of Sri Lanka representing the United National Front, the principal opposition party, this too has happened.

We warmly congratulate Harsha and wish him the very best in continuing to improve policy discourse in Sri Lanka by bringing evidence to bear on the important questions that face our country.

Harsha has been an exemplary policy intellectual, though much of his policy advocacy has occurred outside the framework of his work as LIRNEasia’s Lead Economist. He had the greatest impact in contributing to the shifting of the frame for discussing inflation in Sri Lanka from the misguided focus on imported inflation to one that correctly places the actions of the Central Bank and the now commonly understood term, money printing, at the center. His persistence paid off; his words made into the discussions of the Monetary Board. He was called names, but the Central Bank corrected itself.

Harsha’s interventions, along with those of Fuss Budget in LBO, served the country well. In particular business and the asset-poor benefited. While LIRNEasia would like to take credit for this stunning achievement, it cannot. Harsha did it in his spare time. Macro economics falls outside the remit of LIRNEasia, however broadly defined.

His next great achievement was in advancing the understanding of the role of information in agricultural markets and contributing to well-designed applications that mobilize ICTs, especially the now almost ubiquitous mobiles, to reduce the frictions that characterize the agricultural value chains.

Here, LIRNEasia has played a role, but we cannot claim credit for getting Harsha started on this path, or even for the majority of the work. He started investigating the functioning of a specialized agricultural market, the market for tea, back around 2000, before LIRNEasia had even been thought about. He was responsible for one of the successful pilot projects funded under the eSri Lanka initiative, in 2003.

This was the beginning of Govi Gnana Seva (GGS), centered on the Dedicated Economic Center in Dambulla, the country’s largest wholesale market for agricultural produce. ICTA was very pleased with the success of the project, especially when it received the highest evaluation. But the funding did not continue. Harsha kept the project going, paying the salaries of the workers out of his own pocket and twisting the arms of companies and organizations to assist with some of the technical functions. While the project could not be continued at the previous levels, the basic data collection continued, with GGS becoming the source of daily price reports given out by Sirasa FM and being even picked up for free by government organizations.

It was at this point that LIRNEasia entered the picture, funding some exploratory research on transaction and information costs in agri-markets in the Dambulla area. The research got written up, people started citing Harsha in papers and proposals, and appointing Harsha to international research advisory boards and such. Now some of the key ideas developed in this stream of research are being incorporated into the design of commercial services. Another great achievement of Harsha the policy intellectual.

But the work of a policy intellectual is never done. The UNF manifesto included a section on the necessity for forward contracts and better market design in agriculture. Without question, the policy debate has to be shifted from the easy focus on spot markets to forward markets. We know that Harsha will use the bully pulpit afforded by his seat in Parliament to advance the debate on improving agricultural value chains and ensuring that the people who grow our food do not remain in poverty. Inflation is creeping up again and Harsha’s informed voice is still needed on the macro-economic front.

We wish Harsha well and look forward to continuing our mutually supportive relationship. I hope he will consent to continue as our part-time lead economist.

We congratulate the Leader of the Opposition on his decision to include professionals such as Dr Harsha de Silva and Mr Eran Wickramaratne (the founding Chair of the ICT Agency and a key proponent of the eSri Lanka initiative) in the National List, honoring the intent of the Constitution. We urge the President and the ruling party to draw upon their considerable knowledge and experience to solve the pressing problems besetting our people.

Rohan Samarajiva, Chair and CEO of LIRNEasia
Cape Town, 21 April 2010


  1. Harsha can confidently boast of being one of those rare lawmakers having a huge pool of unconditional friends as well as well-wishers at home and abroad. I am one of them. Ignoring the scary newsfeed of western media outlets I have been visiting Sri Lanka since 2002. The country and its people impress me every time. Harsha impresses me the most. I generally struggle to fathom the depth of his knowledge during daytime. Harsha after dusk displays his signature fireworks of hospitality – fuelled by the true spirit of Sri Lanka. The country is lucky to have a lawmaker like him. I am proud to call him a friend. All the best, Machhang!

  2. United National Party, unlike our rivals, respects professionalism. That is why we have Harsha and Eran and not Karunas and Malini Fonsekas in our national list.

    I am sure Harsha in his new position can immensely contribute to the economic development of the nation, even under a government that can hardly be termed market friendly. We certainly need professionals of Harsha’s and Eran’s caliber to make our mark in the regional map.

    I, as a proud member of same team, wish Harsha the very best in his new position. You have a long way to go and treat this just the first step.

    Please see http://bandaragama.wordpress.com/2010/04/21/congratulations-eran-wickramaratne-and-dr-harsha-de-silva too.

    Ajith P. Perera
    Member of Parliament,
    Kalutara District

  3. i am extremely happy about the appointment of Dr. Harsha de Silva to the parliament. his appointment really represents the purpose for which the national list was created. our neighbour, India possesses excellent intellectuals such as Manmohan Singh, Shashi tharoor and P. chidambaram. but unfortunately our voters send people like mervyn de silva and muthuhettigamas to the legislature. we wish him all the best.

  4. Malathy Knight-John

    CONGRATULATIONS Harsh! VERY, very proud of you….with you all the way!

  5. Way to go Harsha:-)) Warm congratulations and the very best to you as you take up the new challenges. Thanks Rohan for the article.

  6. I thank Rohan for this piece. I appreciate the nice things he’d said about me but I must say it was always a team effort. Many have helped me along the way and I take this opportunity to thank them all.

    I am truly fortunate to be in the company of people like Rohan who genuinely appreciate the work I do notwithstanding the nastiest of professional disagreements in the process :-) It actually gives me more strength to continue. I want to assure Rohan and all our colleagues here and overseas that I will continue the relationship with LIRNEasia; in fact I look forward to the planned work ahead.

    From a policy influence point-of-view we now have the unique opportunity to place evidenced based policy recommendations where it matters the most [in the case of Sri Lanka]. I plan to make the link between evidence and policy as strong as possible during my term of office by identifying areas that LIRNEasia and others within our network could contribute beyond our already defined areas of focus; perhaps increased rapid response type work.

    Sitting in the Parliament chamber a few hours ago just before taking my oath of office and reflecting on exactly what I was about to do I was humbled by the thought of the responsibilities that came along with this appointment. I plan to use this opportunity to further our broad objective of “bringing evidence to the policy process and thereby improving it” so that we could truly make the lives of our people better. Ultimately that is our dream! I hope I will receive the fullest support from all.

    Thanks again


  7. Congrats Harsha! I have no doubt that you will bring your intellectual horsepower to bear on parliamentary debates and keep everyone honest! But more importantly, you will also bring civility to public discourse. Enjoy the ride!

  8. I am the happiest person to hear this news, Harsha. Yesterday night I had the most peaceful sleep for the last three years. Didn’t wet my bed even once. As a wise man, I am sure you will now focus on the national issues at broader level than inflating minor issues like inflation.

  9. Congratulations to Harsha, and good wishes for the daunting tasks ahead. An opposition that is well informed, well-focused and policy-conscious is an essential element in a healthy democracy, and (although few ruling parties would openly acknowledge this) it’s also an ‘insurance policy’ for the ruling party/coalition.

    It’s our sincere hope that economist Harsha, lawyer Ajith Perera (UNP MP from Kalutara) and other professionals will be an effective opposition in the best traditions, despite the feudal and ineffective leader of the UNP. Our hope is that you will stay focused on macro-economic issues, policies and laws – your forte – and not try to be all things to all people!

  10. My gosh. There may be hope for democracy after all. The problems are formidable, so it is good that Harsha is tenacious in his pursuit of the public interest. Congratulations to Harsha and to LIRNEasia. This is a sign of relevance, commitment and effectiveness. Best wishes for the challenges ahead.

    Bill Melody

  11. Try to k33p your genitals intact. There’s another Silva there.

  12. Mr.Silva it is my pleasure to see aprofessional guy talking about the economy.But,please don’t become a donky by making political statements.Then your education and the respect you will have from us as ordinary citizens will disappear and you will become another cheap politician.

    So,my advice to you is as a Sri Lankan,have an agenda and don’t make comments like “economy is bad ..but good but this that and the other.

    We just concluded a 30 years of suffering.Don’t under estimate our great Government.Don’t deny facts just because you are form the UNP.

    God bless you !

  13. Isn’t it illegal/unethical for an elected representative of people to work simultaneously for an NGO too?

    1. Dear Mr “Fernando”,

      Dr de Silva is not an employee of LIRNEasia, as we have made clear in the above post and elsewhere. He is our consultant economist.

      In the same way that lawyers in Parliament can argue cases, he has informed us that he can practice his profession as an economist. Your query has been brought to his attention and he may wish to elaborate.

  14. If Namal Rajapaksa MP can head ‘Tharunyayata Hetak’ (clearly an NGO – not a government institute) and Sanath Jayasuriya MP can play in Sri Lanka team (again not a government institute, strictly speaking) what prevents Dr. Harsha De Silva doing the same? Do all MP monks stop attending to their religious duties just because they are MPs?

  15. Thank you Rohan for your clarification and thank you Mr Gamage for the easy-to-understand way you have supported my position.

    To be open and accountable while engaging in my profession as an economist to supplement the modest allowance I get as an MP to me is any day more ethical than doing sordid deals with dime-a-dozen unscrupulous “businessmen” while claiming to be holier than thou! And, of course what I am doing is 100% legal.

    Also, let me inform the public that I have declared my assets on time, paid my taxes, not sold my car permit and not employed any family members as staff.

  16. It is commendable if Dr. De Silva follows what he says, but for somebody who gets his MP post by a chit and has additional sources of income, this not a difficult task. Dr. De Silva does not have to run an election campaign and may not print a single poster. If one who runs an election (and has no additional income) says this I take it seriously, not a chit MP.