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Strong case for being optimistic about medium and long-term prospects of the Sri Lankan economy

2 May 2016 11:50 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Speech made by Malik Samarawickrama, Minister of Development Strategies & International Trade at the 12th Joint Council Meeting under thr US-Sri Lanka Trade and Investment Framework Agreement

Minister Malik Samarawickrama meeting with Ambassador Michael Froman 
and Ambassador Samantha Power with Ambassador in US Prasad Kariyawasam in the background

 

 

s is well known, our countries have had very productive bilateral relations over seven decades.  The US continues to be Sri Lanka’s largest export market.  The importance of this should not be underestimated for a country like Sri Lanka, which is small and highly trade dependent for promoting growth and shared prosperity.  
Our bilateral relations have been multi-faceted and have covered a range of activities.
The US is Sri Lanka’s largest export market.  Like Oliver Twist, the main theme of my remarks today is going to be about asking for ‘more’ market access.
Increased market access for Sri Lankan exports will be crucial for building a more prosperous, stable and peaceful Sri Lanka.
I hope our deliberations today will yield concrete outcomes, which give our exports increased access to the US market.  This will also enable us to leverage the trade-investment nexus to attract much needed FDI flows.
I hope you will bear with me for a while as I seek to elaborate upon the case for using these talks to generate concrete outcomes which will give a rapid boost to Sri Lanka’s efforts to increase exports and FDI, the two key pillars of our private- sector- oriented development strategy.
As you are aware, major changes have been underway since the dramatic, peaceful and people-led political transition, which took place on 8th January, 2015. The present Unity Government provides a cooperative framework for long overdue reforms.
A Constitutional Council appointed, has established eight independent commissions that are now functioning.  The powers and capacity of the legislature are being increased with greater parliamentary scrutiny through Oversight Committees and the Parliamentary Budget Office; the independence of the judiciary is being reaffirmed; there is a free and vibrant press and media; and bribery and corruption are being tackled based on the UN Convention Against Corruption.


Our government has also initiated a process of constitutional reform, which includes nation-wide consultations.  We are also in the process of putting in place a four-pronged approach to reconciliation and accountability to promote the healing process after the end of the conflict.
All this serves to revitalise Sri Lanka’s democratic credentials; improve governance; and strengthen the role of law.  These are key elements of the platform which brought our government into power.  It is encouraging that progress is being made on these fronts.  There are those who would want us to move faster.  However, given the compulsions of coalition politics and the capacity constraints found in any developing country, I am firmly of the view that the direction is positive.  We are making steady progress and we will continue to do so. While all this is encouraging, the primary concern of the vast majority of our people is their material well being.  In their eyes, the dividends they expected from the 8th January, 2015 political transition is not confined to the gains I have just catalogued.  They are also interested in a sustainable economic dividend.  In fact, they are becoming impatient for it.
Here, the challenges are considerable.  We inherited a legacy of unsustainable fiscal deficits and fragile debt dynamics.  These constitute a very negative overhang on the country’s economic prospects.

 


In addition, global economic conditions have become more uncertain and difficult.  The combined effects of a shift in the US Federal Reserve’s interest rate cycle; the uncertainty caused by the re-balancing of the Chinese economy; continued sluggish growth in Europe and Japan; the net outflow of funds from emerging markets; the elevated risks associated with Brexit and weak commodity prices have had an negative impact on many developing countries.  Sri Lanka is no exception.
At this difficult time when global growth is being downgraded and international trade is sluggish, we are having to ask our people to tighten their belts to achieve fiscal consolidation, external account stability and increased external reserves, as well as to contain inflation.
As a lower-middle-income country, Sri Lanka has an expanding middle-class, which is impatient for an improvement in the living standards of their families.

 


It is in this context that our government is seeking to stabilise the economy and implement a development strategy that is capable of giving our people sustained accelerated growth and a million jobs in the next 5 years.  We are determined to break out of the cycle of stop-go policies, which have characterised our past.  For this, we need to create a sustainable growth framework.
In response to these challenges, we are putting in place a stabilisation programme, which will strengthen our macroeconomic fundamentals.  We are confident that the IMF will support our efforts through an extended fund facility.  This will serve to attract other multilateral and bi-lateral support as well as boost sentiment when we go to international capital markets.  
We have initiated a number of measures to improve the investment climate and strengthen trade facilitation. 

 


The new government is committed to improve the overall investment environment in Sri Lanka to attract more foreign direct investment to the country.  For this purpose, a number of initiatives have been put into operation.The government has taken the initiative to establish an agency for development and an agency for international trade, in order to establish better coordination among government agencies, corporations and departments, in order to expedite decision making.
The investment-trade nexus is being promoted by initiating a number of free trade agreements and economic partnership agreements.  The government will finalize an Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ECTA) with India by the end of 2016 where the economic relations with India would be broadened by liberalisation of services and investment between the two countries and deepened with further liberalisation of goods and trade now mostly governed by a FTA between the two countries.  An FTA with China will come into effect by early 2017.  With these two agreements in place, Sri Lanka will be the second country in Asia after Singapore to have duty free market access to the two Asian giants.  The government also plans to finalize trade agreements with Japan, Singapore and Turkey within the next 12 months.
The Cabinet of Ministers has approved the ratification of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement.  This will be lodged formally at the WTO shortly.

 


I should also add that there are a number of major area development programmes in the pipeline, which will transform the Sri Lankan economy.
The Western Region Megapolis Plan (WRMP), as well as the Hambantota, Jaffna, Kandy, Galle and Trincomalee District development programmes will have a transformative impact on the lives of many Sri Lankans.  We are working with the Chinese, Indians, Japanese, Singaporeans and the South Koreans to implement these programs, which will have a large equity component.
This will create opportunities for investors from all over the world, including the US.
I believe there is a strong case for being optimistic about the medium and long-term prospects of the Sri Lankan economy.  However, a number of the projects and programmes that are in the pipeline will have gestation periods of a few years.
It is important, therefore, to explore quick wins that can have an impact in the short-term.  Here, I believe the US can be very helpful.  

 


Our government greatly appreciates the support we have received from the US authorities.
Sri Lanka has been encouraged by the visit of US State Secretary Hon. John Kerry to Sri Lanka and other high level visits and the words of support received from the President of the United States and several members of the United States Congress as well.  The first ever “Partnership Dialogue” held between the two countries last month signals the excellence in bilateral relations and high level of convergence between the United States and Sri Lanka in all aspects and in particular, support of the United States for peace building and political reform.
We also appreciate the fact that USAID is ramping up its operations in Sri Lanka.  Its proposed programme to support the BOI is a welcome development.  In addition, the Millennium Challenge Corporation is working with us to explore the possibility of Sri Lanka becoming a ‘Compact’ country, which will open up significant amounts of grant financing.
I also hope USAID will give favourable consideration to our request for assistance for the Agency for Development, which will play an important role in coordinating and implementing the government’s priorities, policies and programmes.
However, the ‘Jewel in the Crown’, would be significantly increased preferential market access as this has the capacity to generate ‘quick wins.’  I would like to reiterate that we need to manage the short-term.

 


Sri Lankan exporters know how to operate in the US market. They would have the capacity to respond quickly to greater market access.  In contrast, our initiatives to increase market access in China, India, Singapore, Turkey, etc., will have longer lead times before they yield benefits.
Let me now set out how I believe the US can assist us to achieve some ‘quick wins’.
The US already has special programmes, such as the Qualifying Industrial Zones; the Special Programs for Haiti; the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act, as well as the special programmes for the Caribbean and Andean countries.
Ambassador Froman, may I request your office, together with the State Department, to work with the US Congress towards establishing a similar programme: a preferential trade programme for promoting reconciliation and consolidating democracy through trade in Sri Lanka. 
While a special trade preference program is our immediate priority, we would also like to explore with you the development of a process, which would make it realistic for Sri Lanka to consider TPP membership further down the line.  In my view, establishing a joint working group to examine the implications of TPP for Sri Lanka would be a good first step.
Sri Lanka has a negligible presence in global value chain.  We are seeking assistance to improve the competitiveness of domestic enterprises to enable them to become part of global and regional production sharing arrangements.

 


While opening up the economy, our government is also seeking assistance to build capacity in trade policy enforcement to ensure that Sri Lankan producers and workers have a level playing field to compete in an increasingly outward-looking economy.
Our government is attaching high priority to upgrading SMEs to enable them to participate in international trade as an important means of promoting inclusive development.  In this connection, there seems to be merit in establishing a US-Sri Lanka Partnership for access to credit through which USAID, in partnership with local banks, can make credit available for SMEs.
May I also suggest that we consider how we can work together in the area of tertiary education and training and skills development.  Our government is attaching high priority to empowering our people to take advantage of opportunities that would arise in an increasingly competitive and rapidly modernizing economy.
Digitalisation is also receiving close attention across government.  The US is clearly very well positioned to support a national strategy for delivering basic services, improving citizens’ life styles and promoting e-commerce.

 


Our agenda today also includes a number of other items.  Many of them came up during last month’s ‘Partnership Dialogue’.  I hope we can get favourable outcomes in these areas as well.  Our Mission in Washington will follow-up with the relevant authorities.  As our government continues with its private sector-led development strategy, it will become even more important for the business associations in our two countries to establish closer links.  In this connection, it would be useful to set up a US-Sri Lanka working group within the US Chamber of Commerce.
Before I conclude, I would like to raise another avenue, which we would like to pursue vigorously. Sri Lanka has just ratified the Paris Declaration thus opening up opportunities under COP 21.  We would like to see how best we can take advantage of these alongside facilities available through OPIC.
Finally, Sri Lanka is on the cusp of a transformative leap forward.  However, there is much to be done and we require the goodwill and assistance of our friends like the USA.  We look forward to working very closely with you Ambassador Froman, and your office, Ambassador Samantha Power, the State Department, USAID and other US government agencies as well as Congress as we pursue our reform-oriented goals.

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