A visit to Marga

Sri Lanka’s oldest development think-tank, Marga Institute was formed in 1972, at a time of deep social unrest.

Uditha Devapriya
9 min readMar 10, 2023
Photo by Uthpala Wijesuriya

The ideological direction of the journal will be radical in that it will unremittingly question the values and systems that hinder development. It stands for an equitable and humane social order which will eradicate social and economic privilege and which will leave no room for the concentration and arbitrary exercise of power in any form.

“About Marga”, Marga Journal, Volume I, 1971

A random jaunt in Borella took me and my research assistant to Marga Institute, in my old hometown at Kotte. Sri Lanka’s oldest development think-tank — and Sri Lanka’s oldest such institution — Marga was formed in 1972 to promote and facilitate research into the island’s socioeconomic problems. That its founding coincided with the first JVP insurrection is not fortuitous: as Gamini Samaranayake would point out, the insurrection proved for the first time that an armed group could threaten the State. Among other commentators, Gamini Keerawella, Gananath Obeyesekere, Fred Halliday, and Hector Abhayavardhana grappled with the JVP’s origins, what it was doing, and where it intended to go. It was in the midst of these often-fiery debates and discussions that Marga came to be.

Marga’s origins were linked to two distinct but interrelated developments: the expansion of the country’s welfare system and social services, and the displacement of the old colonial elite. The turning point, obviously, was 1956: a year which, as I have written before, meant many things to many people. Yet whatever the political repercussions of the nationalist-populist wave that swept across the country in its wake, the 1956 election led to a shift in the country’s economic trajectory. This shift may or may not have uprooted the old order: as Regi Siriwardena noted in a response to Kumari Jayawardena, 1956 “diverted the discontent of the ‘underprivileged’ into false channels, and thus helped to preserve the fundamental class structure intact.” But its consequences were profound.

The repercussions of these developments were felt more tangibly in the 1960s. During that decade, the country’s population rose by 2.6 million, more than a quarter. This exerted a significant pressure on productive capacity and social services — or to be more specific, as Gamani Corea observed, on “education, health, and other facilities in the social sphere, and above all employment opportunities.” It did not help that the university system was rapidly expanding as well: from 1950 to 1965 the student population rose from 2,000 to 10,000. What these figures indicate was that more and more people were entering the education system and benefitting from social services, even as the country’s productive capacity was stagnating: it was in this period that Sri Lanka experienced a severe balance of payments crisis, compelling the World Bank to form an Aid Group.

The country, in other words, was facing a classic developmental cul-de-sac. Its social welfare schemes were growing to unsustainable levels, but the economy was not generating the surpluses needed to maintain them. This was as true of university education as of primary and secondary education: from 1956 to 1963, the number of students enrolled in primary and secondary schools jumped from a little less than 170,000 to almost 250,000. Statistics, however, tell us only part of the story: what is more important are the social groups which benefitted from these developments. Simply put, reforms such as the Sinhala Only Act, the nationalisation of schools, and the introduction of the vernacular as a medium of instruction entrenched a Sinhala petty bourgeoisie. This petty bourgeoisie, as Gamini Keerawella has aptly observed, “educated their children in the firm expectation that it was the best possible investment.”

A JVP pamphlet from 1970 underlies these expectations clearly:

Our poor parents having a thousand and one hopes for us spent the fruits of the sweat of their labour on education instead of spending it on food or clothing or building a house. We studied hard, keeping up in the nights, till our eyes ached. We sat for examinations. We passed examinations. We obtained degrees… Finally, as a punishment we were forced to loiter in the streets and face the insults and the laughter of the capitalists.

The contradiction here was an echo or a microcosm of the contradictions buttressing the economy. It was, broadly, a problem of industrialisation, or the lack thereof. An exporter of primary commodities, Sri Lanka had waded through several booms, busts, and slumps. Contrary to what commentators and writers who should know better argue, the economy was stagnating even before 1948: despite a somewhat impressive array of road and rail networks, the country had been run down to the ground by a century and a half of plantation colonialism. There are several ways of diagnosing this problem, and there were fierce debates over what could resolve it: some felt that the plantation sector needed to be encouraged, in the hope it would spur growth. Yet such a prognosis — a trickle-down theory rehashed for settler states — could not resolve the dilemma of a sector which thrived on the very impoverishment of rest of the economy.

In 1957 a group of economists visited Sri Lanka. The group included Joan Robinson and John K. Galbraith. Keynesian in their outlook, they made a sweeping set of recommendations for the country. In the course of her study, the Cambridge educated Robinson made a remark about the country which economists and historians keep returning to: she bluntly observed that “you Ceylonese had eaten the fruit before you planted the tree.” Those quoting her, however, have failed to place this remark in its proper context: Robinson was writing about trade unions, and she was referring to their demand for a greater share of profits and the absence of “energetic, enterprising, and thrifty capitalists” who could be expected to share those profits. Her statement showed clearly that whatever “native capitalists” that Sri Lanka had were not capable of spurring the kind of growth which the country needed, in the face of an expanding public sector.

The Sri Lankan Left tried to tackle this issue in its own way. It advocated State intervention and the socialisation of the means of production. Yet the Left was undone by two fundamental contradictions. On the one hand, while it had enjoyed some support among the rural masses through the plantation community, the UNP government, facing a formidable threat to their interests, stripped this community of their citizenship, rendering them stateless overnight. On the other hand, the S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike government’s mobilisation of Sinhala nationalist forces deprived the Left of a rural progressive-populist base, and stunted the links it had established between the working class and the rural middle-class, or between nationalist and anti-imperialist forces. This made the Left more amenable to the idea of electoral compromise, paving the way for a rapprochement with the SLFP which fragmented and eventually crippled it.

In any case, the newly emerging rural middle classes in the 1960s spoke a different language and needed to be pandered to by a different political setup. Despite the breakup of the Communist Party into Russian and Chinese factions, there was a perception, widely shared, that neither the comprador elite nor the mainstream Left could resolve the problems of the country. The breakup of the Communist Party and the LSSP’s decision to align with the SLFP led to a tenuous debate in the Left, a debate that was temporarily lulled by the formation of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). Whatever illusions the old liberal elite and the Old Left shared at this point were fundamentally at odds with the aspirations of the classes these new parties sought to represent. To quote Regi Siriwardena, “the JVP and the LTTE were children of a different political culture.”

The Old Left had its own views of the JVP, which need not concern us here. Suffice it to say that while the LSSP’s main theoretician, Hector Abhayavardhana, castigated the JVP for veering to the right of right-wing governments and the left of left-wing governments, the likes of N. M. Perera and Colvin R. de Silva summoned the bogey of CIA sponsored military coups to tar the party as a right-wing conspiracy against a left-wing government. This was of course the obverse of what was happening: a left-wing government, elected on a popular mandate, had been threatened by a left-wing group. The JVP, for its part, equated the UNP with the SLFP, drumming up support among sections of the middle-class, or rural petty bourgeoisie, who had felt let down by both parties.

It was in light of these developments that the need for a research institution which could examine the country’s developmental dilemmas was first articulated. Marga Institute emerged from these discussions. Given the scale and complexity of the issues it was seeking solutions for, its contribution had to be seminal, significant, substantive.

The very first issue of the Marga Journal outlined these problems and dilemmas. Edited by Godfrey Gunatilleke, the Journal was overseen by a Board of Management which included Regi Siriwardena and Gamani Corea. The first issue contained articles by some of the top intellectual minds of the day, including Ralph Pieris. The introduction set the tone for the rest of the Journal: in its opening paragraph, it pointed out that compared to “the intellectual activity in most other developing countries, Ceylon had little to offer in the form of serious writing by Ceylonese on contemporary social and economic problems.” It then went on to point out the need “for a more productive and socially responsive intellectual community”, which could facilitate research into these problems. In this context, Marga set as its aim the promotion of “the conditions for the growth of a more active intellectual community” in the country. The editorial, however, was aware of the financing issues that could beset such an endeavour, and to this end recommended that it “establish a fund which will initially help to maintain the journal till it is established on a sound financial basis.”

Over the next few decades, Marga’s contribution to development research remained, to say the least, substantive. It set the tone and the pace for other institutions, both independent and State-funded, and became something of a landmark in the context of civil society and academia in the country. To say that is not to belittle, still less ignore, the convulsions in civil society and academia which the institute had to wade through: as Vinod Moonesinghe has observed in a research paper, the neoliberalisation of the country’s economy after 1977 led to a fundamental shift in the way civil society outfits, especially NGOs, operated. Many of these outfits developed a “hegemonic identity” that was more political than economic, or more “rights” oriented than “development” oriented. Ahilan Kadirgamar’s point about the evolution of these institutions, that there has been “a shift away from analyzing agriculture and food which research centres focused on four decades ago”, can be reiterated here as well. In that light, Marga remains defiantly symbolic of the alternative paths that think-tank outfits, especially those concerned with development, could have traversed.

This country urgently needs a rehaul if not overhaul of the idea of development, research institutions, and think-tanks. The shift to private sector funding and State patronage — the latter, in my view, much less onerous than the former — has led to a few think-tanks and institutions, concentrated in Colombo and limited to the English-speaking elite and middle-classes, dominating civil society discourse in the country. Organisations like Marga showed that it was possible, in the context of their time, to rethink development, and to raise not just the material-economic but also the moral-ethical dimensions of growth in the Global South. But that was a time when economics was dominated by figures like Gamani Corea, S. B. D. de Silva, and G. V. S. de Silva. Godfrey Gunatilleke, the founder of Marga, is very much active, an indefatigable contributor to development debates in this country. Yet such voices are few and far between. To continue their legacy, to add to what they have contributed, it is necessary to rethink development research. That is what Marga once did, what Marga can once again do, and what Marga should be doing.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.