“We never quite thought that the means [of bringing evidence to the policy process and thereby improving it] would extend to placing researchers within the supreme legislative body of a country, but… this too has happened,” Rohan blogged on 21 April 2010 from Cape Town. LIRNEasia’s Lead Economist Harsha de Silva had just been appointed on the National List of the main opposition party to the Parliament of Sri Lanka.
In 1998, Rohan, as the Director General of the Telecom Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka was looking for a market survey company to conduct some cutting-edge research. He wanted to find out what people thought of the quality of service and what they wanted from the Internet. He found the Survey and Market Research Team (SMART), run by Harsha, and worked with them to get the research done. That was how it all started.
Harsha de Silva is an Eisenhower Fellow, with a PhD in Economics from the University of Missouri. He also founded ‘Govi Gnana Seva’ as a labor of love, funding it with his own money at the outset. It is to date, the main source of wholesale agricultural market prices in Sri Lanka and has now been folded into the commercially successful ‘Govi Mithuru’ application, used by thousands of farmers.
When we set off on our journey in a single-room office back in 2004, Harsha joined our team as Consultant Lead Economist. His was one of the five ‘hot desks’ in the room. He led the initial study of universal service funds, commencing with a case study in Nepal. He authored two chapters in LIRNEasia’s first book. In May 2005, he was sent to the first ever executive course offered by the Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He provided intellectual and methodological leadership for the T@BOP 2, 3 and 4 research, which ran until 2011. He spoke on the findings in multiple countries and settings. People read his work online, and started citing Harsha de Silva in papers and proposals. He was appointed to international research advisory boards. He consulted for multiple organizations, but recalls his part-time work with LIRNEasia as being among the most enjoyable.
Harsha’s entry to Parliament in 2010 took place after years of being a public commentator on economic topics in the media. He had his own economics program on TV. In 2009, when the Board of Governors of the International Development Research Centre visited Sri Lanka, his visage was on street hoardings.
Even after his appointment to Parliament, Harsha kept his engagement with LIRNEasia. He presented the findings of some his research on agriculture at dissemination events in 2011, and served as peer reviewer on some research products. But his engagement tapered off as constituency responsibilities increased.
Our former Consultant Lead Economist has since moved on to creating direct policy impact as Deputy Minister of Policy Planning and Economic Development, with a stint as Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in between.
This story was first published in the LIRNEasia Annual Report 2016-2017.