Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Saman Kelegama (1959-2017): A Thinker Of A Think Tank

Dr. Udan Fernando
logoThe totally unexpected and devastating news of the untimely demise of Dr. Saman Kelegama on Friday 23rd June has left many people shocked and sad. I have not seen such an outpouring of messages of condolences from a wide spectrum of people on the death of an Economist. Indeed, Saman was a very gentle and amiable person who earned respect and admiration as a humble and modest human being. While saddened by the realisation of the fact that he is no more, as my professional paths crossed very frequently with Saman’s, I would like to reflect on what made Saman so well-recognised and respected as an Economist in the Sri Lankan context. While I join many people who grieve Saman’s passing, this note is not an obituary but an attempt to understand Saman’s role as a leader of a Think Tank.
Kelegama emerged as an Economist upon receiving an illustrious training at Oxford. His father, Deshamanya Dr. J. B. Kelegama, was an eminent scholar and civil servant who was much respected in Sri Lanka. As such, Kelegama had all the credentials and the pedigree to embark on his career as an Economist. However, he did not choose a conventional academic career, like his father nor did he join the Central Bank or the public service to pursue a career at a place like the Treasury. Instead, Kelegama chose to work for the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) which was called a Think Tank at a time when only a few people knew the purpose and function of a Think Tank. Kelegama’s name is intrinsically enmeshed with the IPS, the Colombo-based Think Tank, which he gave leadership to since 1995 until his untimely demise.
Dr. Saman Kelegama
I think it was Kelegama who made Think Tanks an operative term in the Sri Lankan context. In fact, it was not Kelegama who founded IPS. However, Kelegama was undoubtedly the singular person who made IPS so well-recognised in Sri Lanka, as a premier Think Tank that offers research and policy advice on economic affairs and related subjects.  The emergence of IPS marks a salient milestone in Sri Lankan contemporary history as a direct corollary to the water-shed transformation in Sri Lanka when an aggressive economic policy shift liberalised the economy in 1977. I am privy to an anecdote shared by Dr. Howard Nicholas, an eminent Economist of Sri Lankan origin, now domiciled in The Netherlands, about the conception of IPS. As I recall, the then Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel has stressed the importance of having an independent Think Tank to generate ideas  and offer policy advice to the new environment of the economy, business and trade under what was popularly called an ‘open economy’. Howard has been entrusted with the task of doing the spade work of this novel venture which took the name of IPS in 1988. Howard himself led IPS in the years of its infancy albeit maintaining a low-key.