By Rasika Jayakody –
The fact that Sri Lanka was under the jackboot of colonial subjugation does not invite any celebration. The country’s economy was plundered by the British over a period of 133 years and socio-cultural dimensions were distorted. The divide and rule policy adopted by the British – primarily on Sinhalese and Tamil ethnicities – resulted in a three decade long bloodshed that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Sinhalese and Tamils. Like Sri Lanka, almost all the countries – who were once under the British colonial rule – are still struggling hard to efface certain scars left behind by the British.
It is against this backdrop that Sri Lanka is hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit (CHOGM) taking place in November. It was no secret that the government lobbied hard over the past several years to become the host nation of CHOGM– a summit that is actually a vestige of the British colonial rule. Despite strong resistance mounted by several countries in the West, Sri Lanka succeeded in achieving the desired goal. At the moment, the government is spending heavily on pre-CHOGM preparations and comprehensive city beautification programmes that are taking place under the supervision of the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development. The government has already launched a massive PR campaign – through state and private media – to gear the national psyche towards CHOGM and that initiative has already made a significant impact on the society. The colossal expenses – borne by the government to facilitate and entertain heads of state and their delegations – are making headlines in the media on a daily basis.
What is the logic behind this CHOGM Tamasha? That is a very valid question raised by certain sections of the intelligentsia, including some erudite economists. After all, the concept of ‘Commonwealth’ derives from remnants of the past and as an international forum it does not wield any significant power in the realm of international politics. In that context, is there any point in spending colossal amounts of money just to boost the feel good factor of some visitors who are here only for a few days? Or, will those expenses actually translate into tangible economic benefits in the long run, as predicted by the government?
The most important aspect of Commonwealth, in my view, is the Commonwealth Business Forum, taking place parallel to the Heads of State summit. This year, Commonwealth Business Forum is slated to be held in Colombo in November 2013 and that is where movers and shakers of commonwealth economies will meet to discuss business and investment opportunities that exist in Sri Lanka. Realistically speaking, that is where the wealth of Commonwealth lies!
At the launch of the 2013 Commonwealth Business Forum which took place in October, Commonwealth Business Council Chairman Mohan Kaul said the forum would provide a strong platform on which real business could get done. Speaking of past experiences, the Chairman said the Government of Nigeria received over US$ 3 billion worth of investment, Malta saw tripling of levels of investment in the country, and Uganda’s infrastructure sector alone received US$ 2 billion after successive Commonwealth Business Forums.
“In 2009, “he explained, “when the forum was held in Trinidad and Tobago, nine MoUs were signed during the forum’s proceedings and received US$ 1 billion in investment with a focus on energy. During the biggest forum yet held in Perth, Australia, in 2011, over US$ 10 billion worth of business was discussed, with US$ 6.5 of it completed so far.”
The message is clear. This is where Sri Lanka, as a country, needs to cash in on. With rapid infrastructure development taking place all over the country, Sri Lanka is well-positioned to facilitate FDIs and other forms of investments that would lead to tangible economic benefits. Having said that, it is not advisable to paint a roseate picture of the picture saying all will be fine after the Commonwealth Business Forum, assuming it is a bottomless pit from which the host country can draw money.
Sri Lanka still has a lot of “homework” to do in terms of elevating the level of confidence on the part of investors. What the government should understand is that the investors needs to be confident that there money would be safe in Sri Lanka and the country’s economic atmosphere in investor friendly. “Brand Value of a country” is something that investors take into serious consideration before pumping their money down on large scale investments. Conflict-free environment alone cannot bring up the “brand value” of a country. The entire governing structure of the country and policies adopted by the government – not only in the economic sphere but also in the political sphere – should be friendly towards new investments and investors.
If the CHOGM is to be of any benefit to Sri Lanka, the country, and especially the government, should grasp CHOGM in the correct way. Time is ripe for the top echelons of the government to realize that excessive self-glorification and self-congratulation will prevent Sri Lanka from moving in the right direction.