Navigating turbulent times in Sri Lanka: how our think tank stayed relevant

12 May 2023
SERIES Think tanks and political uncertainty 7 items

The Advocata Institute was conceptualised in 2016, with a single goal in mind. We wanted to create a lawful Sri Lanka, where anyone may succeed through hard work and free exchange regardless of their caste, creed, ethnicity or religion.

This vision is still our driving force.

We’ve worked hard to cement our role in Sri Lankan society. In a country of 22 million, we’ve reached more than 4 million people on social media so far.

But the impact that we’ve had on Sri Lankan society to date is a more important indicator of this success. We’ve built the economic literacy of the nation, empowered the public through information and broadened the space for conversations by championing the economic narrative.

We’ve done this by staying relevant to the national conversation, ensuring consistent work to promote reform and solutions within our core principles, and by building our visibility through proper communications.

Promoting reform in turbulent times

Times have been turbulent and uncertain since our inception. In 2015 – before we began our work – a bond scam was reported at the Central Bank. And between 2016 and 2017 there was a massive drought.

A period of constitutional uncertainty followed in 2018, when the post of prime minister was held by two people simultaneously.

In 2019, the aftershocks of the Easter Sunday attacks brought our tourism sector to a standstill, which was worsened further by COVID-19 in 2020.

And then, in 2022, a home-made economic crisis was manufactured by bad economic policy, which doubled and tripled the ripple effects of the previous years. And when Sri Lanka’s economy plummeted, thousands of people took to the streets in protest.

The political and economic instability peaked in July 2022 and by August we had scaled up our communications efforts to host the #Reform Now Public Policy Conference. This attracted about 300 participants, both in person and virtually.

At a time when Sri Lanka was desperately looking for ways to overcome its crisis, we looked to the people to build the narrative for reform. We engaged think tanks and other actors to create a platform for necessary reform, highlighted areas for reform and targeted relevant policies. These efforts gained us the Asia Liberty Award and the Sir John Templeton Freedom Award in late 2022.

Our Ideology

Advocata’s strategy has always been to act proactively, rather than reactively. We’ve advocated for change relative to the context, while remaining relevant to the national conversation.

Our core work is to oversee tangible impact through economic policy reforms that benefit people and bring prosperity. It’s a simple blueprint in theory, but complicated in practice.

A successful strategy requires a deep-rooted ideological framework. And Advocata was built on a pragmatic ideology: the best way to allocate resources is through the market system and prices. All our subsequent creativity and actions have been enabled by our strong theoretical foundation.

Yet, finding relevance in the national conversation has not always been easy because Advocata’s scope of work is new to the country.

But opportunity exists in this gap. We capitalise on the economic impact of issues. And we work to create a culture of conversation and action to advocate for the change we believe in.

Staying relevant


Any new think tank must have some early successes and visibility. At first, we drove our strategy through public events with high profile speakers to establish the Advocata brand name.

We also launched a comprehensive research report on state-owned enterprises to bring our research to the forefront. It was easy for us to reach out to people and for people to reach out to us as we gained visibility.

Principles and independence

Advocata has remained solution-oriented and driven by market principles throughout, focusing on building lasting change for a better nation.

We’ve had to adhere strictly to our principles and ideology because we’re an independent think tank – remaining independent in a divided world is not easy!

But because we’ve been able to engage with almost all the main political parties, we’ve been able to present our own thoughts logically. And this trust has been built slowly, over the years.

Communicating and engaging

To succeed in today’s digital world it is essential for think tanks to build a strong communications team.

Events – our main channel of engagement – came to a standstill during the global pandemic, only three years after our inception. But we converted this into an opportunity by initiating virtual forums to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on Sri Lanka’s economy and to propose solutions. We took up the challenge of speaking about exports, tourism, banking, and the overall economic impact of COVID-19 because these were crucial conversations.

After the pandemic, Sri Lanka’s economic condition deteriorated due to a combination of bad policies and a misallocation of resources. As a result, Sri Lanka’s sovereign debt was quickly becoming unsustainable.

To proactively address the issue, we launched Advocata’s Deep Dive: a new product that presents our research in a simplified, video format. It was designed with two main components:

  1. An in-depth, video and report on the selected topic, which is disseminated to stakeholders to study beforehand.
  2. A live discussion of the details of the study and the findings, with a policy focus.

We provided a comprehensive study on Sri Lanka’s sovereign debt using this product.

Our communication efforts were multiplied in the Sri Lankan context to target policy-makers in a new way – i.e., not requiring them to read a detailed report.

We also wanted to simplify complicated economic theory, making it easy for people to understand. Thus, we created short videos to mainstream our policy ideas. Anecdotes and infographics were also used, which have helped us to engage the public.

Keeping up with public discourse

We use the Overton window as a model to produce economic reform ideas based on the public conversation. E.g., market-based solutions will remain in public discourse until public policy questions are reformed.

This model explains how some policy ideas may seem impossible at one point, but then inevitable when the societal context shifts. We focus on this window of opportunity because it’s where real change can be targeted.

The on-going road to reform

Some of our efforts to date have succeeded, like the lowering of tariffs on menstrual products. But our journey is far from over as it may be some time before our other reforms are realised.

Although the road to our desired change in Sri Lanka is long, we’re committed to reaching the end. Change can’t be built overnight and becoming society’s agent for change can’t be rushed.