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SL’s economy must be run just like the elections

Article Index
SL’s economy must be run just like the elections
Best Brains
Passionate delivery
Winning at any cost
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"We have to make Sri Lanka known to be the nation that beat terrorism and now, the economic tiger of Asia. Currently many are talking positive of Sri Lanka but this fan fare will last only for two year the most. Thereafter, another country will become a buzz nation in the world stage. We must make the best of it now".

Last week at the inaugural session of the first parliament after defeating the LTTE took place and it was great to see so many young faces in the system. Having served the country in the pivotal economic policy making body-NCED for two successive Presidents in the country and also chairing the premium export arm of Sri Lanka the EDB, I had the privilege of frequently visiting parliament for meetings but what I experienced last week was different. The enthusiasm, commaradie and youthful laughter of the young members of parliament sure gave me hope that Sri Lanka was poised for a 8-10% GDP growth in the years to come. All that was needed was for us to support the developmental agenda.


The challenge

Whilst being very optimistic, the reality is that the challenges we are up against are gigantic in nature and unless the private and public sector work in synergy, we will not be able to do justice to the hype that surrounds the country.

From the data that has been released by Central Bank in the month of January, imports have shot up by 70.1% to 1160.9 million dollars whilst exports has dipped by 3.9% to 472 million dollars which not very healthy. The trade gap has ballooned to 688.9 million dollars from the 191.5 million dollars the year before. What’s worrying is the declining Industrial exports by $16.9 million with textiles and garments dipping by 27.8% which indicates that urgent action required.

Election best Practices

The need of the hour for Sri Lanka is a robust and sharp development programme but on a strategic footing. The good news is that all the policy makers who took oaths last week to form the new government has publicly demonstrated the new competitive culture that is required to succeed.

Hence, all that is required is to ensure that an enabling environment exists so that together with the support of the private sector this same behaviour demonstrated at the elections can be extended to driving the economy. If this becomes a reality, I strongly feel Sri Lanka is not far away from being the ‘Miracle of Asia’. Let me capture the best practices we witnessed at the elections and why the economy needs to be run just like the elections so that we as a nation can be the new economic tiger of Asia.


Best Brains

A first key feature of the last elections was that competition was so entrenched that there was no room for a back of the envelop strategy to be implemented. Hence, many politicians hired professional marketers and advertising agencies to conceptualize and implement the campaign. The manner in which the campaign rolled out on media and how hit the masses, demonstrated the professionalism which is commendable. Scientific techniques were also used by some candidates to evaluate the effectiveness of the communication with concepts like awareness and top of the mind awareness (TOM) so that voter behaviour can be tracked and corrective action taken if need be.

What is now required is for the similar behaviour to be extended by the same policy makers in running of the economy. The best brains must be picked for strategy development from each sector so that the most relevant game plan can be orchestrated. The National Council For Economic Development (NCED) was a very good model that existed in the country at one time. Policy making and evaluation was done by the top six private sector and public sector officials under the mandate of the Presidential Secretariat. A similar model can be used so that a ‘home grown developmental model’ will come into play. This is some times called a ‘National Committee on Economic development in some countries.

The private sector must also respect that being politically right is also very important, in today’s day and age. As history has proved in South Asia a developmental model based only on an economic developmental agenda has resulted in the government getting kicked out. It happened in Sri Lanka in 2004 and in Indian in 2006. Hence we must be sensitive that in our part of the world, community development is equally important together to be practiced with a very more urban approach. Hence if this balance is not maintained in Sri Lanka, we will loose the opportunity to grow even after winning a record 144 seats in the new parliament.

Strong game plan

Going back to the best practices in the last elections, we saw that the candidates that had a sharp strategy came through well at the elections. We need to extend same in the economic development agenda too. This requires discipline and the ability of focusing on a few key priorities that will generate the best results.

For example if we take the tourism sector as a case in point, the focus should be how do we build more hotel rooms in the country, given that the room current capacity even at a 100% occupancy can attract only a 760,000 visitors into the country.

If this single-minded strategy of developing tourism infrastructure is pursued, then all it requires is to flesh out the components that fit under this strategy like approvals from different stakeholders such as wild life, archeology, and environment.

We also require a competitive financing model for the private sector to use he credit structure of the banking system. If this is not conceptualized and launched we will be up against the project being not be financially viable..

If I take the tea industry as a case in point, we need to address the supply chain issues in the industry like re-planting, fertilizer applications, lease period of the privatized tea sector to be extended whilst from a demand side, driving home the unique positioning of Ozone friendly ethically manufactured tea proposition are some of the strategies that can be pursued. This needs to be supported by a multi barrel dollar marketing budget if we are serious of the development of this noble industry. Currently the pivotal promotions agency for tea- the Sri Lanka Tea Board is on survival mode to be very specific with responsibility.


Passionate delivery

If we analyze the most successful candidates of the general elections a key feature that stands out is the passionate delivery of activity at the ground end. Be it the house-to-house leaflet operation or the reminder telephone campaign it was done with a lot of passion. We need to extend this into the detail dynamics when implementing the economic development initiatives.

This is especially a tough task given the Financial Regulations (FRs) and the Administrative Regulations (ARs) that come in to play, but it has to be worked around. If not, all the beautiful strategy documents will only collect dust just like what has been in the past. A key point that needs to be highlighted is the million of cabinet appointed committee reports that keep getting collected over time. This must ideally be curtailed and more emphasis given for driving passionate implementation just like the elections.

If I am to take some national projects that I was personally involved in that Sri Lanka where passionate delivery was seen in Sri Lanka. One of them was the first Hikaduwa Beach Festival that was staged by the Ministry of Tourism at the height of the ground operation against the LTTE in 2008. This event attracted almost 17,000 people in to Hikkaduwa and its surroundings properties that was a total sell out.

The Sri Lankan Designer Festival in 2009 was another project that demonstrated passionate delivery in the Apparel industry. The model Public-Private partnership that was used, came out very successfully where the industry in chorus told the world buyers please practice ethical purchasing so that Sri Lanka can practice ethical manufacturing.

We need to use such model in other industries too which has driven a culture of being bias for action.

This is especially important as we as a nation are perceived to be having an island mentality instinct that is quite laid back.

Take the high ground

Going back to the elections once again, some of the candidates who garnered the highest preferential votes were candidates that took a very strong stance in their campaign and there by cutting through the clutter. Meaning, those who aimed very high made it to parliament. This was either by the single minded campaign idea or the money’s spent on the campaign. Incidentally this beaviour was seen by the new comers. My take out is that we need similar thinking in running the Sri Lankan economy, if we are to achieve a 8-10% GDP growth.

If I am to take an example the world’s chocolate nation it is not a nation that either grows cocoa processes cocoa. But it happens to be a land lock nation called Switzerland. The only reason they succeeded is because of the high ground stance the decided to take and then stuck by this decision over time.

I will be failing in my duty if I do not mention the cricketing extravaganza of India- IPL. Be that it may on the scandal that has emerged, the fact of the matter is that it’s a powerful idea that has been creatively crafted to take the high ground of the game that undoubtedly has become the super bowl of India.

We must draw a few lessons from the innovative steps that India took to make this a money spinner for the Indian Economy. We need to take a similar high ground with strong financial commitment in our thirst to searching oil in Mannar, the making of the 2nd international airport in Hambantota, driving a novel Tourism project in Kalpitiya, launching of BPO’s in Jaffna or in the making of Sri Lanka a hub port in South Asia so that Sri Lanka also create an IPL for the economy.

We must make Sri Lanka known to be the nation that beat terrorism and now the economic tiger of Asia. A point to note is that we will enjoy this fan fare from the world only for two year duration the most. After that, another country will become a buzz nation in the world stage so we have to make the most of it. Currently, National Geography has ranked Sri Lanka the 2nd most recommended place to visit and the New York times has selecting us to be in the top ten growth nation of the world. We now need to make this recognition into driving foreign investment in to the country of diversifying our export portfolio.

Winning at any cost

May be I am too aggressive when I say this but, in today’s world the ethos is winning at any cost. It’s not how you played the game. The election was a classic example to this fact. Coming from a sports background I commend those candidates who played the game strong right to end and won. I know of one candidate who employed all his school mates to man the counting centers. This is the spirit we need to run the Sri Lanka economy too.

Competition for Sri Lanka is very tight. Kenya in the tea industry, Bangladesh in the Apparel Industry, the emerging of Cassia in the Cinnamon industry that is dominated by the Sri Lanka is what Sri Lanka is up against. On the Tourism from Malaysin, Cambodia, Thailand and India is what we have to fight against. Competitors spend millions of dollars to woe consumers in to their brands and countries. This is the entrenched competition that we are up against. We have to win at any cost and there is no excuse for non delivery. If we do not we cannot bridge the budget deficit or the ballooning trade gap.


Whilst being upbeat on the new chapter unfolding in Sri Lanka, we as a nation should be known for the ‘home grown economic model’ that has helped achieved a double digit economic growth. We must also drive towards zero poverty, zero child mortality and zero un employment levels which are all achievable goals. However, we must be smarter post the IPL fiasco and ensure a strong regulator exist so that we do not allow entrepreneurship drive corruption.

If we do not do have a strong regulator from an industry wise basis, we might move to the same dilemma just like what has happened to IPL. To be honest, I do not blame Laith Modi and his team for the fiasco of IPL but the policy makers like BCCI for not regulating this industry. Entrepreneurship drive development and regulating it in mid stream can kill the industry. We must ensure we avoid this happening in Sri Lanka whilst we take the election spirit to running the economy.

~ The Island ~ By Rohantha Athukorala

Athukorala is a double recipient of the "Marketing Achiever of the year award in Sri Lanka and a Business Achiever Award from PIM Alumni University of Sri Jayewardenepura. He also won a Business Achievement Award from the Johnson-Lever Industrial business for business leadership. Currently the Head of National Portfolio Development for Sri Lanka and Maldives in the United Nations Operations (UNOPS) and sits on the Management Team of the Sri Lankan Mission too. Athukorala is a past member of the sovereign rating team for Sri Lanka in the Central Bank and Chairman of the Sri Lanka Export Development Board and National Council for Economic Development (NCED) when the country crossed the 7.4% GDP growth. He has served two Presidents of Sri Lanka in his tenure of service to the country.


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