Business Times

Squandered opportunity or ‘nation building’ sans Lankan expats?

By Ravi Randeniya

There remains a vastly untapped knowledge resource pool among the Sri Lankan expatriates for an economic renaissance. Soon after the ‘war on terror’ ended in May 2009, Lankan expats the world over did express their enthusiasm on Internet forums for building a partnership with the Sri Lanka government andbring a wealth of critical knowledge to our motherland that is desperately wanting after decades of ‘brain-drain.’ When the government announced the Sri Lankan Expatriate Forum 2009 in November 2009, the expats accepted the invitation warmly and arrived from all corners of the world, mostly taking leave from their jobs and other commitments.

As an island nation, Sri Lanka ought to be doing more to protect and harness our marine resources. Currently our seas are poached by foreign vessels harvesting our fish stock. File photo - Fishermen in the north.

Those who attended the lavish banquet at the Temple Trees found the ensuing Expatriate Forum dominated by the condescending presentations of the Central Bank, the BOI, EDB and the Tourist Board with a singular message – “we need your money now” was the theme, a sign of desperation for foreign investment. No doubt, the attendees were perplexed, as a vast majority were professionals who did not arrive with bags full of monies to doll out to the government, but were in ownership of significant intellectual capacity to contribute to every imaginable area for our nations’ wealth generation.

Their expertise was never called for during the much advertised event and moreover, disappointingly there was zero preparedness for follow-up with the expats by categorization in a database their specialities or expertise and how they could contribute when needs arise.

It was clearly felt that those who organised this event lacked the foresight to classify the expats into two distinct groups: Investors and Advisors. Had they done so it would have possible for the government to measure the response from each group and address adequately. Evidently, from the dim response to the government’s call for immediate cash investment, hardly anyone bothered to have serious discussions with the BOI or the EDB for export opportunities or the Tourist Board for building the industry’s infrastructure. All in all, it was a missed opportunity to recognize the shortcomings and to raise crucial economic issues to bring to the attention of the government.

However, a determined handful of expats pursued the authorities and produced several proposals since the Expatriate Forum did not present them the opportunity for a ‘meeting of minds’ on how to get involved or assist in nation building. In addition, they felt there are compelling reasons for the government to follow through utilizing the knowledge and skills of Sri Lankan expats who are enthusiastic about extending their commitment to help shape Sri Lanka’s economy. Given an opportunity to serve our motherland, it was clear, they will make personal sacrifices to contribute in anyway as they can, if there is a firm direction from the government and the right opportunities are presented for them to contribute.
The proposals below provide the opportunity for Sri Lanka to deviate from our reliance on conventional foreign NGO programs that provide development assistance under their dictum. Also, this allows us to demonstrate how to build our nation the way we see fit within our own capacity.

Identification of vital issues and strategies
The Expat Group recognized that there is multitude of concerns that needed state attention; however, they acknowledged the need to concentrate only on the most pressing issues. They were unanimous in identifying the shortage of Human Capacity or Skilled Workforce required for nation building. Examples of individual experiences were cited where BOI projects folded when Sri Lanka failed to afford skilled personnel while India scored by luring investment with their skilled Human Resources pool as their key attraction, and of investor resistance to invest in Sri Lanka in “back-office” ventures simply because, there is a dearth of skilled workforce to handle advanced technology.

Three major sectors: Expansion of Private Sector Higher Education, Agriculture and Fisheries were recognized as having the best potential of making an immediate and lasting impact on our economy to align with social development while enhancing our human capacity to address our ability to expand into multitude of industries.

This diversification of industries approach gives Sri Lanka the best opportunity for endurance during global economic turmoil from time to time.
The strategies for each sector are discussed below:

Expansion of Private Sector Higher Education
Human capacity building begins at the academic level and for a nation that can boast 94% literacy rate we must aspire to transform that statistic to meaningful competency benchmark to fill our intellectual void.

Problems Areas:
They focused on those students who do not get admission to our universities due to lack of space. This time round that number is about 100,000, whose talents will be wasted away if attention is not paid to find alternative education avenues. Consequently, it is a drain on our foreign reserves millions of dollars are spent by parents who can afford to send their children overseas for higher education.
Permit continuous “brain drain” that impedes our capacity to retain skills and talent required for our industrial development and public services.

They propose a politically difficult, yet, a necessary policy change on restrictions imposed on private sector higher education by opening up our higher education, where they would offer UGC approved degrees just as O’ level and A’ level exams are conducted by private schools in Sri Lanka. They see no distinction between them – but hypocrisy.

Fees can be marginally less than what is now offered by foreign institutions as an incentive to invest in studying higher education in Sri Lanka.
Impose a tax on fees to help our state universities upgrade their facilities to compete with private sector education.

Direct benefits:
Alleviation of lack of spaces for state universities and an increase in graduate output that is desperately needed to serve our industries with foreign direct investment.

Replenishment of our foreign reserves when students are afforded the opportunity to study in Sri Lanka instead of seeking overseas placement. The nation’s need for a pool of diversified professionals in engineering, IT, science, agriculture and medicine will be met.

This strategy will also provide increased employment for higher education teachers and other related employment for many.

New arable land has now been recovered in the N & E for export crops as well as domestic consumption, while there is abundant neglected land in other parts of the island that can be fully utilized for domestic and export market.

Problems Areas:
Lack of technology that would otherwise enhance productivity, sound crop management and processing has lead to colossal wastage of resources, lost opportunities in the market and under-utilization of our arable land. There is a lack of comprehensive education and skills training in advance farming technology in Sri Lanka, which requires biotechnology and mechanized agriculture for optimum productivity for modern societies.

Increase intake into Agriculture and Botany programs in universities while reducing the intake for Arts.
Encourage the introduction of mechanized farming in agribusiness and crop processing for waste reduction and efficiency via reduced tariff and tax concessions for import of farming equipment.
Enhance Agro-skills training for rural communities in crop management.
Encourage crop management expertise and entrepreneurship for export market oriented crop diversification.

Direct benefits:
New employment opportunities for graduates. Increased crop harvesting and post harvesting productivity. Expansions into new export markets to meet world hunger for food. Increase income from agricultural enterprises and value for money for consumers – quality produce.

As an island nation, Sri Lanka ought to be doing more to protect and harness our marine resources. Currently our seas are poached by foreign vessels harvesting our fish stock.

Problems Areas:
The fundamental issue is lack of oceanography education at the highest academic level to have an understanding of our maritime resources. Also, neglected are our under-utilized inland fresh waterways for breeding popular fish for local and export markets.

Establish oceanography studies at all coastal universities and invest in a research vessel for ocean bed mapping and marine life research. Encourage the introduction of offshore fish farms utilizing our shallow waters.

Adopt new strategies towards populating our inland fresh waterways with new fish species for our daily diet and for the export markets as processed fish.

Direct benefits:
Self-employment for thousands in inshore and offshore fishing. Offers new career opportunities for science and engineering students in the field of Marine Sciences leading to R&D with potential spillover technology for export.

New revenue streams for entrepreneurs in the fish processing industry with new market opportunities overseas.

For each sector, they recommend that the government draw specialists from expats to form a Presidential Task Force to work with relevant Ministries and public service officials through formulation of an action plan, implementation and monitoring phases.

One crucial question is how to mobilize and secure contributions from expats scattered across the globe. The realistic approach is to create a Presidential Task Force with authority to influence the role of vital ministries, comprising Expats and senior public service officials serving on two fronts.

On Advisory role:
To create, coordinate and manage an ‘Expat skills database’ by classification according to areas of expertise and availability, To draw expat specialists and form ‘expert groups’ to assign them to multifaceted crucial nation building assignments identified by the Task Force for individual ministries and government agencies to help them formulate strategic action plans, implementation and monitoring phases of such plans,

To guide the government in an advisory capacity to identify vital areas for immediate attention and give sound recommendations on ways to fast-track programs,

On Investment facilitation role:
To direct expat investment to vital projects in regions that they desperately need investment often overlooked by FDI,

Establishing a new Venture Capital Investment Fund exclusively for expats to invest in public-private sector partnership (PPP) to maximize return for people’s assets, and be managed jointly by development banks and traded in the stock market.

They recommended that the government establish a Presidential Task Force, which will give significant opportunities for expats with diverse expertise to contribute their skills and genius to Sri Lanka’s economic and social prosperity.

In addition, the Task Force should be mandated to discuss and coordinate with relevant Ministers and ministries; address a wide range of issues, such as, conducting infrastructure feasibility studies; town planning; macro/small/medium industry development; public-private sector partnership; infusion of advance technology in education and industry; human capacity building; management skills training for both public/private sectors to bring efficiency/effectiveness, and any other relevant issues that may deem necessary for nation building.

The writer was a former Senior Policy Analyst, Ministry of Trade and Economic Development, Govt. of British Columbia, Canada.

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