By Shabiya Ali Ahlam
For about nearly a decade the people saw the nation being steered forward by a set of vision statements proudly owned by our former president and chanted like a prayer by his officials.
When the highly anticipated change in political leadership took place last year, the people expected something similar to be presented before them but are yet to see a heavily documented set of strategies which would fuel the nation forward.
While the public, as Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe on Tuesday (24) rightly said, are concerned and questioning what the new government is doing and in their rights should do so, it was pointed out that what has been going on in the recent months is getting the foundation right to ensure a sustainable economic environment.
Premier Wickremesinghe’s address at Sri Lanka’s first National Summit on Foresight and Innovation in Colombo brought out time and again the key words, sustainability, rapid development and innovation.
As it seems the new government is using the 2002 manifesto ‘Regaining Sri Lanka’ as an invisible guiding hand, Wickremesinghe’s short but comprehensive speech at the UNDP event that was on ‘Reimagining Governance: An Opportunity for Sri Lanka’, pointed out that efforts are being taken to ensure the new conceptualised strategies are more current and in line with the current global economic environment.
Dare to dream?
The premier kicked off his address with a rather unusual and unexpected question, “Can a government have a dream?” which was followed by a more obvious question, “Can a government have a vision?”
He went on to question further as to what happened to the small island nation that was leading in Asia in the context of economic and social development.
“What happened to us, that others overtook us? What happened to us, that we got left behind?” While it is no news what indeed happened to the once flourishing country, Wickremesinghe jumped to reveal the expectation of the citizens, which is to want to catch up on the lost opportunities.
A dream of the nation that will come true with better living standards, he implied.
Government’s strategy to fulfil nation’s dream
What is the vision of the government to fulfil this dream? It was said point-blank it is no easy task. “First and foremost, it is a challenging task and to undertake such you need democracy, consensus and a challenging team,” said Wickramasinghe. He elaborated that it is precisely for these reasons under President Maithripala Sirisena that the two major political parties of Sri Lanka and other partners got together to form a national government.
“What we could not do individually as different political parties, we can do it better together today,” he said.
As the two main parties joined hands, what received attention at the outset were reconciliation and the strengthening of democracy.
“Without reconciliation the end of the war would not bring peace. Without reconciliation we will never be one nation. And without further strengthening democracy, we won’t be able to have free flow of ideas that is required for foresight and innovation for 2030,” Wickremesinghe professed.
Looked at next was the ways and means of achieving high standard of living, which he said in economic terms would mean doubling the nation’s current gross domestic product (GDP).
And lastly, attention was directed towards establishing a framework of sustainable development though which the government’s vision would be realised.
“There is enough experience of people and countries that have sacrificed its environment, values, democracy, for the sake of rapid economic development. We need economic development, we need social development, and more than all we need sustainable development. And this is the vision that we have for Sri Lanka and what we should be in 2030,” said the prime minister confidently.
Too broad to be good?
Acknowledging the vision outlined is rather broad, he reiterated it is the achievement of higher living standard for the people that will get the nation to that destination. And if this is to be realised in the near future, it means nothing but rapid development on the basis of sustainability.
“Sri Lanka has to rely on itself. We have to innovate. We have always been a small island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Now what we have to do is to innovate and make use of our location for our development,” he asserted.
Earlier on, Wickramasinghe provided a snapshot on the possible benefits Sri Lanka can reap being surrounded by the Indian Ocean, which he pointed out was for the longest time the richest trading region in the world.
With it progressing to become one of the fastest growing regions in the world in the coming decades, he stressed growth and the advantages that would follow are unavoidable as around it is a large population base, making it an attractive market.
“If you take the Indian Ocean, the population around it will be over three billion. The countries around it are fast growing, which in economic terms means they are on track to become middle-income countries. We are situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean where the main shipping routes of the world go past us. This we need to capitalise on,” said Wickremesinghe.
Be the shining pearl of the Indian Ocean
Being the peal of the Indian Ocean means enough opportunity is present to trade with the world. As the natural question is why Sri Lanka can’t take up this endeavour now, the premier noted that in the current economic context, it is easier said than done.
“Trading with the world today is a bit more complicated than before. The silk route just went through various countries. Today you have a global competitive market. So if you have to cut costs and create a market, first move in and ensure you have a sufficient number of free trade agreements (FTAs) that will enable you to deal with a large number of counties. So we are now looking at our economic and trade relationship from the European Union (EU) up to Japan. That’s what we are handling now.”
He told the high-level plenary that included top foreign delegates, that Sri Lanka is in the midst of strengthening ties with over 20 counties which include India, China, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Korea.
He added that the nation is looking forward to have an agreement with the USA, which will be decided after November this year. “It’s not in our hands but let’s see how we adjust ourselves.”
Valuing nation’s talent pool
Wickremesinghe acknowledged that in Sri Lanka’s 68 years of independence, a high level of human development has been achieved. Stating it is the “only one” resource the nation has, it is essential to utilise the available human resources and policy of human development, which combines well with the island’s location. However, to reap the benefits of this highly valuable talent pool, innovation is necessary, he said.
To become a fierce competitor
Pointing out that Sri Lanka has been successful in identifying the market it wants to serve, to be competitive it was stressed that joining the global value chain is mandatory, for which the economy must change.
“The economy must be competitive. You can’t just be competitive. We are living in an age where competition alone and profits alone is not sufficient. We need to ensure that people have good living standards and not go through social inequality.”
In an effort to make certain Sri Lanka stands out in the region, he said the government set out to transform the Western Province into a Megapolis. While the dream of having a large city in the middle of the Indian Ocean is yet to see any proper initiation, it was shared that many issues, of which majority are man-made, are yet to be resolved.
“Still going by our visions, going by our goals, the Megapolis must not only be the largest city in the Indian Ocean, but must rank high in the achievements of sustainable development. We want a liveable city because in South Asia cities are no longer liveable. We have planned that out,” assured Wickramasinghe.
Stressing on the necessity for sustainability, he asserted the need to use cautiously the environment and available energy resources.
Furthermore, he added that many opportunities are still available in developing the south of Hambantota for industrialisation, again within the goals of sustainable development and protecting the environment.
Communication and technology
In the age of communication and connectivity, it was stressed the need for reaching out to the world with the right message is now more than before. In that effort, digital infrastructure was identified as key, which according to him, is of prime importance if a nation is to leapfrog.
“We need to look at an economy which is in line with this thinking. We certainly are,” he noted.
With the age of digitisation and technology at its peak, Wickramasinghe noted it is an area that corresponds well with sustainability.
“What we are manufacturing, the industries must be in accordance with our thinking. When you look at the desire of our people, they want high income standards. These are some areas we have to address and we have to innovate. If we don’t promote innovation and technology, we certainly won’t get to these goals,” he stressed.
He added that once all the components fall into place, the economic development will allow in having a robust business and financial sector.
Increased focus on North
Admitting the North has not received the attention it should have, be it by the previous or the present regime, the premier stated increased focus is needed for that area as not only did the war create economic disparities, it also disrupted the social life of its people.
“The type of village we know that pulled everyone together is no longer there is many parts of the country. The village is now just a group of houses. Where do you find the social fabric? That is virtually rebuilding community life. But the culture of the north is strong enough to achieve the targets to enable us to rebuild this. This is where innovation is required,” he professed.
He stressed that the government is committed to a highly social market economy and strategies for the same will follow.
A four-year sustainable development plan
During his address it was revealed that the government is gearing up to unveil in the coming month a four-year sustainable development plan. Having worked for about a year to stabilise the economy, by ensuring the country will not face any serious financial crisis despite a global downturn, he said now it will be more about implementation.
“At least we can breathe now, which is what we couldn’t do for some time. When we presented the budget we did it with the belief that the global economy would improve. There were many false starts and too many predictions but we are confident now that the global economy is sustaining itself,” he said adding that the only question is the outcome of the UK referendum that is due June 23. “If that is positive, we all hope it is for the sake of the world, then we could ensure the strategy will follow,” he added.
What has the government been doing?
Stating this is the first concern of people, he said such question had come up since the public is now used to an era where they saw only large projects that were overly promoted by the media.
“That is what we are used to and that is what we want to depart from.” He added that the national government wants all its parties to work together and for that, a must is a programme that is based on consensus.
Wickramasinghe shared that in the recent months efforts had been directed towards putting together a package of economic strategies, which would be presented to the parliament in the coming weeks.
“Now we can go ahead on economic and socioeconomic development. From what we have discussed here and what we are doing, there seems to be travelling down the same path. We hope we will have one consensus in parliament. The vision will not change and by 2030 we will achieve the goals we set out,” concluded a confident prime minister.