Sunday Island: Dr. Gamani Corea one of the most illustrious Sri Lankans of the Twentieth Century

Sunday Island Newspaper tribute to Dr. Gamani Corea

Sunday Island Newspaper tribute to Dr. Gamani Corea

Dr. Gamani Corea.

Dr. Gamani Corea.

Dr. Gamani Corea (1925 – 2013) – A career of distinction and achievement
An appreciation by Leelananda De Silva

Dr. Gamani Corea, who passed away recently, was one of the most illustrious Sri Lankans of the twentieth century. His career was one of great distinction and achievement. At the age of 40, he was appointed Permanent Secretary of the newly created Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs, and for the next five years, he was one of the three or four most powerful men in the country, and was the virtual economic Czar. At the age of 48, he became Secretary General of UNCTAD, and for the next eleven years, he was at the centre of international economic relations and of the North-South dialogue, then at its peak. He belonged to a very small group of top level economists in the developing countries at the time, and ranked with Raul Prebisch, the first Secretary General of UNCTAD, who was partly his mentor. He also belonged to that small and brilliant group of economists in Asia, which included I.G. Patel (later Director of the London School of Economics), Amartya Sen (Nobel laureate in economics), Mahbub Ul Haq (later Minister of Finance of Pakistan) and Manmohan Singh, now the Prime Minister of India. They were all friends, and a striking feature of this group was that they were not interested only in economic theory, but extended their main concerns to the development of domestic and international economic policies, which would benefit the poor and developing countries. They straddled the worlds of national and international policy making.

Gamani Corea was born into a world of affluence, authority and power. His parents were Freda and Syd Corea. His paternal grandfather was Victor Corea, an important figure in the nationalist movement. His maternal uncle was Sir John Kotelawala, later Prime Minister. He was mostly influenced in his early years by his formidable maternal grandmother, Alice Kotelawala, who was an Attygalle. The three Attygalle sisters married into the Senanayake, Jayawardene and Kotelawala families, and their children were active in Sri Lankan politics for the next few decades. The UNPs sobriquet “the Uncle-Nephew party”, partly originates from this family interconnections. Gamani Corea had to live with these familial linkages from his early days. A few days after he was born, he was first brought out to see the sunlight by F.R. Senanayake, who was to die a few days later. He lived at Horton Lodge, his grandmother’s rambling house, almost all his life. For any other person, this kind of political labeling would have been a drawback with those on the other side of the political divide. Gamani was able to overcome that, and be recognized as his own person with his own contribution to make to the political and economic development of the country.

After his schooldays at Royal College, he proceeded to read economics at Cambridge. His College was Corpus Christi, which had family associations, with both his maternal granduncle, F.R. Senanayake, and his kinsman, Dudley Senanayake, both having been at the same College. Gamani’s choice of economics was unusual during that period, but it was a lucky choice. For his post graduate work, he proceeded to Nuffield College, Oxford, where his research was on the economy of Ceylon and the role of commodities in Ceylon’s international trade, in the years of depression. His early interest in commodities and world trade was to continue with him to his UNCTAD days. The supervisor of his research was Ursula Hicks, and along with her husband John Hicks (later a Nobel Laureate in economics), were to become his close friends. Later, Ursula Hicks came as an advisor to Ceylon when the ten year plan was being prepared. One of his Cambridge mentors was the eminent economist Joan Robinson. The first time I saw Gamani, was at the University at Peradeniya in the late 1950s, when he brought Joan Robinson to give some lectures. Gamani maintained his connections with Cambridge and Oxford and much later, when he ceased to be Secretary General of UNCTAD, Corpus Christi invited him to spend a year as a distinguished fellow. During this time, he wrote a book on his experiences at UNCTAD, which was later published by Manchester University Press.

Gamani joined the Central Bank of Ceylon in its very early days. He kept up the Central Bank connection well into the 1980s, when he was designated deputy governor. Although nominally with the Central Bank, he was more out of the Bank than in, undertaking assignments for the government and later for the United Nations. Gamani can be described as the father of national planning in this country. It started with the National Planning Department in the 1950s, and he was later Director of the National Planning Secretariat. He was largely responsible for the ten year National Plan. His life in National Planning was not all smooth, and there were many political and bureaucratic obstacles. His experiences at the time convinced him that an effective machinery of national planning had to be placed directly under the Prime Minister. This led to the creation of the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs, when Dudley Senanayake became Prime Minister in 1965, and Gamani was invited to be its permanent secretary.

From 1965 to 1970, Gamani was the economic Czar of the country. He was close to the Prime Minister, and no major economic decision was outside Gamani’s orbit. The Ministry of Planning emerged as the power centre, and was the most powerful and influential Ministry of the time, overshadowing the Ministry of Finance. Gamani built up strong technical capacities in the Ministry, drawing in administrators, Central Bank officials and others, and blending them into a robust team. Godfrey Gunatilake, played an important role in the affairs of the ministry, and he was to be a lifelong friend of Gamani’s. Others in that early team were David Loos and Lal Jayawardene, later joined by Nihal Kappagode, D.R. Siriwardene, G. Uswatte Aratchi and several others. Aid negotiations, which were very critical at the time, came under the Planning Ministry. He was largely instrumental in establishing the Aid group for Sri Lanka, which was a key mechanism in ensuring a predictable flow of economic aid to the country. It was the World Bank which managed the aid consortium. Gamani did not allow the Bank to have its own way. While anxious to maintain good relations with the Bank, he stood firm for the country’s interests. Gamani’s management of relations with the Bank was an object lesson in economic diplomacy. For the first time, there was a period of sound economic management, based on firmly established economic and social priorities (the free measure of rice was one of the ideas). The economic growth rate averaged five percent during the five years 1965 to 1970.

In 1973, Gamani was appointed Secretary General of UNCTAD, and he held that post for the next eleven years. Gamani’s term in the 1970s coincided with the global oil and food crises, and the most articulate and contentious period in North-South relations and negotiations. Issues of international trade in commodities were at the centre of North-South tensions. This was Gamani’s opportunity. He brought together another strong team of economists, and evolved a comprehensive scheme, which came to be known as the Integrated Programme for Commodities (IPC). The centerpiece of these proposals was the establishment of a Common Fund (CF) with large resources, which would intervene in international commodity trading and stabilize commodity prices. The CF and the IPC were the central issues that were discussed between the North and the South, largely within an UNCTAD framework. Gamani emerged as the top international diplomat leading the charge for better terms for the South. UNCTAD IV held in Nairobi in 1976, with Gamani as Secretary General, was the high point in North-South negotiations. The West was particularly worried at the time of what might happen. US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger made a rousing intervention in Nairobi. Gamani required all his negotiating skills to pull off a broad framework of agreement between the West and the developing countries. UNCTAD IV was Gamani’s finest hour.

Gamani’s achievements in the 1970s must be set within the broader context of an active Sri Lankan foreign policy of the time. Mrs. Bandaranaike, as Prime Minister was a leading protagonist of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and she was to chair the Fifth Non-Aligned Summit in Colombo in 1976. North-South issues were a major factor at the Summit. At about the same time in the 1970s, Shirley Amarasingha, who was Sri Lanka’s permanent representative to the UN in New York was elected to the high office of President of the UN General Assembly, and he was later to be elected as Chairman of one of the most important UN conferences ever held – that of the Law of the Sea. Mrs. Bandaranaike, Shirley Amarasingha and Gamani Corea stand together as the eminent trio, who placed Sri Lanka on the global map. Sri Lanka achieved a prestige and fame within international and UN circles which it has never had before, or since.

Partly at least, Gamani’s outstanding achievements are due to his impressive personality, great negotiating and diplomatic skills, his great strengths as a chairman of meetings and committees, his capacity to synthesize and crystallize arguments in debate, his understanding of complex economic arguments and his impeccable oratorical skills in English. He was a charming and lucid speaker who could hold a discriminating audience. Among developing countries, and in UN circles, whether it be in Geneva or New York, he was one of the finest speakers. Sometime in the early 1970s, he was asked to chair the International Cocoa Conference in Geneva, and he negotiated a durable agreement. I first got to know Gamani well when he chaired the meeting organized by the ILO in Geneva in 1972, to review the ILO mission reports, including the Seers report for Sri Lanka. It was an outstanding performance in chairmanship. Gamani was rarely flustered and was always courteous and had a great sense of humor.

Gamani had a lifelong interest in developing and improving economic and social policies, whether it be through governments, or through international organizations. He was a great believer in research, and encouraged it in all spheres. He was the founding chairman of Marga, and with Godfrey Gunatilake, was instrumental in getting this first ever research organization in Sri Lanka off the ground. He had a long relationship with the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex, the governing bodies of which he was a member. He was a founding member of the Third World Forum, which brought third world intellectuals together in the 1970s. He was a guide and mentor to the International Foundation for Development Alternatives (IFDA) located at Nyon, outside Geneva. Its President, Marc Nerfin, was a great friend of his. Gamani succeeded President Julius Nyrere as Chairman of the South Center in Geneva. He was also a member of the South Commission. In Sri Lanka, later in his career, he was an active chairman of the Center for Policy Studies.

There is so much to be written on Gamani Corea. But let this suffice on the immediate aftermath of his passing away. I have consulted with two of the very few remaining friends of Gamani from his old days – Lakdasa Hulugalle from the 1950s and Godfrey Gunatilake from the 1960s, in writing this appreciation. His funeral on a dark evening on November 4 (which was his 88th birthday) brought memories of other fourths of November in Geneva when we met at his apartment to celebrate his birthdays. On one of these occasions, I met Manmohan Singh, now the Indian Prime Minister and whose moving message on Gamani’s death, charmingly captured the essence of Gamani’s life and achievements.


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