Australian Minister for International Development and the Pacific, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, who was in Sri Lanka on an official visit last week, says Sri Lanka has a lot of potential as a country. In an interview with Daily Mirror, she said she was impressed by the visit.
"The trade relationship between Australia and Sri Lanka has the potential to expand, and to expand into other areas. I had the benefit of having a very productive economic roundtable with some business organizations doing business here."
At the end of your visit, what is your impression about the government and the country?
It is truly a beautiful country. This is my first visit and it has afforded me opportunities not only to see the beauty of this country but also to see some of the work Australia has been doing for a very long time. Our relationship with Sri Lanka goes back to 70 years. During my time here, I was really pleased to open a wonderful exhibition which looks at a pictorial history of the 70 years of development assistance. Over this time, we have provided $1.35 billion in development assistance and we are one of the top bilateral donors to Sri Lanka. We have been consistent and constructive, and we have done a lot of things over those years. Our relationship goes right across so many sectors. We have helped in de-mining, education, water systems, training, economic development and public infrastructure.
What is the kind of importance you attach to relationship with Sri Lanka?
What we actually planned was to put our relationship much more on an economic development footing. If I can give you a couple of examples, we went to the Northern Province. I visited a number of different places. One of course was a crab factory. This is a very good example of how Australia has partnered with a private company, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and local fishermen to establish a crab factory. We are talking about a sustainable crab industry for fishermen in that area.
They bring in crabs. Then there is a factory. We have 80 women working there earning good wages. That crabs, within a short period of time packaged and exported to the American market. It is a very practical example where Australia is partnering with the private sector on long term sustainability for a local community. Another example is some of the work we do in our Skills for Growth Programme, where we are specifically targeting the tourism industry. We had a fruitful discussion about this with Skills Development and Vocational Training Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe. We looked at how we were cooperating particularly in the skills and vocational training sector. We have also been working very closely with the Education Ministry to support the education system through the Transforming School Education Programme with the World Bank. I visited a school where I was able to see this in practical action.
"We have also been working very closely with the Education Ministry to support the education system through the Transforming School Education Programme with the World Bank. I visited a school where I was able to see this in practical action"
One very important thing that I launched today was a new $ 15 million programme over four years called ‘Women in Work’. We are partnering with the International Finance Corporation - part of the World Bank - to cooperate with Sri Lankan business circle to create better opportunities for women. That is basically to provide toolkit for businesses to say it makes good business sense for you to include women in your business supply chains. There is value being added to your businesses. We are hopeful that this will provide valuable tools for business activities to look at employing more women. There is an issue of unemployment and underemployment of women in the economy. These are four very different aspects of our relationship.
How do you look at the economic potential of Sri Lanka in the post war context?
Well, of course, Sri Lanka is strategically positioned. There is no doubt about it. As maritime trading nations, we work closely with Sri Lanka. The trade relationship between Australia and Sri Lanka has the potential to expand, and to expand into other areas. I had the benefit of having a very productive economic roundtable with some business organizations doing business here.
The strong sense that I got was that Sri Lanka is now at an important crossroads in terms of economic development in terms of potential. Tourism of course is very important. Clearly the government is embarking on a programme of reforms. That programme of reform includes facilitation of business, making it easier for people do business in Sri Lanka. I think that is really important. From a country like Australia, we can lend technical assistance, expertise and support in different ways. We look forward to see the programme of the government being rolled out, particularly the economic reform process. This is something we have gone through in Australia in the past. We had to take difficult decisions which were at times challenging. But, those are necessary to go to the next step - to make it easier for businessmen to invest and for foreign investors to come to the country. All of these are challenges. But, they are also the opportunities for the Sri Lankan government. Wherever we can, we lend support to the SL government in terms of technical expertise. We think Sri Lanka certainly has a potential value as it attempts to implement an economic reform agenda.
With your outlook, how possible is it for you to encourage Australian investors to come to Sri Lanka?
Well, I have to say that there has been quite a bit of to-ing and fro-ing from our two countries. We had a number of business delegations. I actually met Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva in Australia last week. We are starting to see those linkages being made. Ultimately, the strength in any relation between Australia and any other country has been the people-to-people links.
Sri Lanka and Australia have not only this long history, but on the statistical front. For example, through the Australian Government we have funded scholarships for more than 1,000 Sri Lankans since the early 1950s, quite apart from all the students who have gone through private means. We have about 7,500 students going to Australia to study at present. We have students in Sri Lanka studying at universities here that are collaborating with Australian universities. Those linkages are very important.
We also have quite a large Sri Lankan community living in Australia. It’s about 140,000 though that’s probably quite a conservative figure. Those linkages are very important, and ultimately are the ones that will form the entrepreneurial base between Australia and Sri Lanka. Therefore, one of the things I have looked at during this visit, is the ways that Sri Lankans living in Australia can utilize their skills better, can look at ways they can invest in Sri Lanka and how to encourage them to invest back home to the ultimate benefit of the people of Sri Lanka.
"It is important that the international community work constructively with the Sri Lankan government to get implementation of those transitional and justice arrangements and commitments right. We are supportive; we recognize the work the government has done to date"
In any post conflict situation, there are always concerns and we respect those. But in the end, this is a very good window of opportunity for good local economic growth. Now that takes partnership with government reform, it takes partnerships with encouraging people to want to invest in Sri Lanka. One of the things we look at is tourism, which could be a very good opportunity.
This is one of the sectors that we are going to help the Government with up skilling in the tourism sector. We know that is going to be vitally important for the country. We can make practical contributions in that area.
What is the latest approach to address the issue of illegal migrants from Sri Lanka to Australia?
We have excellent bilateral cooperation in border protection and maritime security. We have a very close partnership with the Sri Lankan government in countering people smuggling.
We appreciate the strong collaboration that we have with the Sri Lankan government on the return of illegal human-smuggling ventures. We have to deter the crime of human smuggling because otherwise people would get lost or die in the sea. Therefore our joint efforts to date have saved in our view many lives and many people from perishing at sea.
These economic migrants seek safe haven in Australia citing Sri Lanka as an unsafe place to live. You saw for yourself the situation here. What is your message to them?
There are very positive stories about Sri Lanka from people who have been involved in the conflict area and people who have come back to Sri Lanka, and people who have chosen to stay back. As your Prime Minister said in Australia, we want people to return home.
He has encouraged people to return to Sri Lanka. We want to make it very clear that we want to deter human smugglers from getting people on boats. We have complied with our international legal obligations, especially in the return of Sri Lankans. It is important that we work with the Government of Sri Lanka to put human smugglers out of business. As I said, we have successfully deterred some ventures, which have avoided lives being lost at sea.
What is your observation on the government’s reconciliation process?
We welcome very much the efforts by your government to progress the implementation of its Geneva commitments on human rights, reconciliation and accountability, of course, including the establishment of the Office of Missing Persons. Also we welcome the work done in progressing the Office of Reparations.
We have been pleased to co-sponsor the two-year extension given to Sri Lanka in Geneva.
It is important that the international community work constructively with the Sri Lankan government to get implementation of those transitional and justice arrangements and commitments right. We are supportive; we recognize the work the government has done to date. We are very supportive of the process of reconciliation. In practical ways, we have made a substantial contribution in the humanitarian and reconstruction assistance to Sri Lanka. We have invested close to Rs. 30 billion in the North and East since 2009; especially in de-mining, road construction, housing, education and business development.
One of our programmes, the North-East Local Services Improvement Project (NELSIP), we tied up with the World Bank. We invested $25 million in NELSIP between 2011 and 2017, and yesterday I had the opportunity to travel on some of the roads we actually helped build. That was the sort of practical way we have assisted in the reconciliation process. We have also assisted in other practical ways. Apart from helping to spread the economic peace dividend, we supported post conflict institutions and strengthening the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation.
We have facilitated constructive engagement with the diaspora. We have also supported the government, where it requests it, on transitional justice mechanisms.
What is your opinion on the Constitution making process?
We are very supportive of the process. Obviously, we will consider future requests that we may receive in relation to possible assistance. We continue to provide reconciliation support in those practical ways. For us, the long term stability, prosperity and peace in Sri Lanka as an Indian ocean neighbour is very important. That is Australia’s interest in a secure, stable and prosperous Sri Lanka. We remain very committed to supporting the Sri Lankan government in its efforts to ensure that it continues on a path towards being a prosperous and reconciled country.
"We have complied with our international legal obligations, especially in the return of Sri Lankans. It is important that we work with the Government of Sri Lanka to put human smugglers out of business. As I said, we have successfully deterred some ventures, which have avoided lives being lost at sea"
The GoSL has taken steps to ensure and improve the rights of women. What is your observation on that?
That is very important. Today, we launched the Women in Work programme. This is a very good project. We are very pleased that the Minister for Women and Child Affairs attended to support the launch of this project. We are investing US $ 15 million in the project, in partnership with the International Finance Corporation at the World Bank.
It is a programme that encourages companies to look at ways women can be more involved in their supply chains, not just to employ more women but why it makes good economic sense for women to be involved. By providing companies with a toolkit to look at ways their companies can employ more women and why this makes good economic sense. It is vitally important to any economy to have its women, half its population, fully employed..
What is your message to the Sri Lankans at the end of your visit?
I am very pleased to have been here. We have stood by Sri Lanka in the past and we will continue to do so in the future. Australia has been a long standing friend. 70 years has gone past, and we look forward to our long-standing close friendship continuing for many, many years to come.