Sri Lanka must not be blind to global realities

Tuesday, 21 December 2010 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The other day I was sharing with a close friend on how a group of us used to teach English at the Blind School in Ratmalana and how a kid one day asked: “If God has created us equal, why are we blind?” to which I did not know the answer.

After having spoken to a specialist, I found out the answer. Apparently, everyone of us is blind in some area in our lives and sometimes it’s better to be visually blind as we know our weakness rather than live a lifetime not knowing the blind spot all our life. I guess this same ethos holds ground when running a country as after all it is human beings who govern a country too.

When I look back at the last year-and-a-half, we as a nation have become so internally focused with our achievements that we have forgotten to understand the global realities, which has now become a priority in 2011, if we are serious about making our country the ‘Wonder of Asia’.

Sri Lanka today

The logic to this argument is that if we analyse the media in the recent past, be it the Government or the privately-owned, it is dominated by reports of the world class Colombo Stock Exchange, the eight per cent plus GDP growth, the unemployment levels registering a near perfect five per cent, poverty at a single digit and the per capita income doubling to cross the US$ 2,000 mark.

To cap it we highlight the strong Government at play that no other country can boast in the South Asian region, which is all true and to be honest noteworthy. In fact, I share these views at every fora that I am invited to address.

But, given the developments globally in the recent past, when we do some soul-searching strictly from a marketing perspective, the reality is that even with the revolutionary Budget which is focused on value addition and higher productivity levels, the 20 million people who live in Sri Lanka cannot consume all these products and services that are being produced – be it the garments we stitch or the tea we produce.

The fact of the matter is that almost ninety per cent of all these items are bought by a global consumer who is either in the United States or the EU. Hence, unless we identify the challenges we are up against in each of these countries and then address them, we cannot make Sri Lanka the ‘Wonder of Asia’.

Global reality

To be specific we must identify the consumer who purchases Sri Lankan merchandise and understand their perceptions, attitudes and what influences them; that includes lobby groups like the Sri Lankan Diaspora.

In this respect, a point that needs to be noted is that in 1983 there were more than a million people who left the country with hatred and dismay, never to return to this country. The challenge is even greater given that their siblings now have become the voice of the Diaspora who have actually only heard of the issues in Sri Lanka rather than actually experienced them.

The reality of this new generation Diaspora is that they are more educated and more connected to the powers that be in that respective country, which is why Sri Lanka is experiencing the apprehension by many countries globally.

The reason why we need to address this brewing issue is because Sri Lanka is strategising to take the high ground on its key export products like the apparel industry launching a global campaign on the theme of ‘Ethically Manufactured Garments’ and the tea sector driving on the proposition of ‘Ozone Friendly Teas’ whilst the Food and Beverage sector is talking about a ‘Rainforest Alliance,’ which are strong positions that require support from stakeholders domestically and globally if we are to really make an impact.

This is the reality that we must be sensitive towards where we have to engage such stakeholder groups like the Diaspora and make them feel that their concerns are addressed for their kith and kin, who live in the north and east of Sri Lanka. This includes such decisions like the national anthem being able to be sung in Sinhala and in Tamil as well as being able to engage either in either the Sinhala or Tamil language in any Government institution.

If Sri Lanka does not go to these brass-tack building blocks of reconciliation, we will continuously have protests and agitation that will result in the dream of ‘Wonder of Asia’ being on blindsided.

Budget 2011

Whilst Budget 2011 is a revolutionary budget and I strongly endorse the strategies that are to be implemented, if I may critique the masterpiece, it is very internally focused. In simple words, the incentives and policy decisions are all on the value chain internally.     

It’s on the funding towards research and development, rebates to increasing the efficiency of production chain, reforms have been suggested on the computation of the middle of the business in the value chain and finally on the packaging side, the value addition incentives that have been offered so that we are ready for the word. What is lacking are the marketing and promotional support details on driving Sri Lankan trade to overseas markets.

I would have liked to see some revolutionary thinking, like for instance all small brands in the tea sector to be purchased for around US$ 40 million either by the Government or a large conglomerate and then they are given focused marketing support so that within 10 years Sri Lanka can have a 10-12 large power brands just like the Akbars, Dilmahs, Mlesnas or Impras of the world.

I would have also liked to see the appointment of key middlemen who can drive the Sri Lankan portfolio in each key market with a strong bias to brand marketing. May be from the 430 billion spend on infrastructure development some monies should have been allocated for soft infrastructure development like nation branding and key sector promotional strategies in the global market. If this focus existed, maybe the global realities like the apprehensions of the Diaspora would have been a priority area in the plan of 2011.

Positioning SL

A recent research study has revealed that global awareness of Sri Lanka is below four per cent. Some are not even aware of the LTTE terror organisation that the country has been up against for the last 30 years. Some do not even know that Sri Lanka has been a budget destination in the tourism front in the last 20 years or more. This can be in one way a blessing in disguise as we as a nation can start a global positioning campaign from a clean sheet.

May be a mother branding can be done in a way so that sector specific positioning can be done connected to the mother brand theme. For instance, the ‘Garments without Guilt’ proposition linked to the overall brand positioning of Sri Lanka as a brand. Ideally this initiative together with the iron-fisted changes to make Sri Lanka a more competitive nation in the ‘Ease of Doing Business Index’ can make sure that Sri Lanka becomes the ‘Wonder of Asia’.

But what we experienced in the recent past is that we as a nation have not been sensitive to this global reality and hence got blinded with protest campaigns even with a multimillion dollar PR company at play.

Cannot be blind

On a separate note, when the interest payment of the total debt of the country for 2009 – being around 305 billion as against the 70.2 billion way back in 2000 – indicates the importance of global donors to Sri Lanka’s economic development agenda.

Apparently, almost 44% of Sri Lanka’s income will be on domestic debt repayment, which indicates the challenge at hand financially. In fact this was pointed out by the World Bank President during her visit to Sri Lanka last week.

We also need to make sure that a conducive environment exists for the private sector to drive the economy via Budget 2011. However, last week we saw the sense of agitation on the consistency of policy with the 103 per cent increase in electricity tariff in the hospitality industry, which has resulted in the private sector going to court. This has been pointed out by some as a decision taken with a blind perspective.

The apparel sector has also voiced their concern post the 9.6 per cent proposed increase in electricity rates that the industry will struggle to absorb whilst the ceramics industry has issued a release that the whole industry will be in the red, which are not at all positive signs for 2011.

I guess these are the realities that affect the competitiveness of the Sri Lankan merchandise as well as the economy in general. But all these challenges can be addressed through a consultation mechanism by a joint private-public partnership on the premise of being sensitive to the global realities. If this is not done, Sri Lanka becoming the ‘Wonder of Asia’ will only be a dream.

(The author serves the country on many private and public sector boards of management whilst serving the International public sector. The thoughts expressed are based on his doctoral research studies the author is engaged in and not the views of the offices he holds in Sri Lanka or in the South Asian Region.)

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