The revival of the Pakistan Sri Lanka Joint Economic Commission after some years is a welcome development.
Sri Lanka has a number of Joint Economic Commissions with her trading partners. These commissions serve a useful purpose as they provide a platform for trade ministers and senior officials of the two countries to meet regularly and review progress of the ongoing projects and consider proposals for new projects which benefit each other and help build closer ties.
Joint economic commissions can serve a useful purpose only if they are active with regular meetings and regular review of the work undertaken. However most of the joint economic commissions that Sri Lanka has become a partner to do not seem to be very active and the fault does not lie with Sri Lanka alone.
For a JEC to meet in each other’s country alternately, both countries must agree. Due to various reasons, sometimes due to insufficient interaction between the parties, sometimes due to timing difficulties, etc., very few of the JECs are currently in active mode.
In the circumstances, the revival of the Pakistan-Sri Lanka JEC is a move in the right direction. The potential to develop trade and economic ties between the two countries is enormous, but still insufficiently tapped. Joint commission activities go beyond trade and investment. They cover education, aid, culture, infrastructure development, various services such as transport, etc.
Pakistan and Sri Lanka are countries steeped in history. Although predominantly Muslim today, Pakistan’s rich Buddhist history has been preserved in Taxila, Mohendajaro, Harappa and various other places across the country.
In the field of education, Sri Lankan students follow undergraduate courses on scholarships given by the Pakistan Government. Journalists, research institutions, scholars, sportsmen, etc. are intertwined through many exchange programmes. All these areas of cooperation can be further strengthened by intervention of an active joint commission.
Trade, investment and tourism are also important areas for the JEC to undertake active collaboration. Although the FTA is in place, trade has not improved to the level that is anticipated through a FTA.
Sri Lanka’s exports have not seen substantial increases although exports from Pakistan to Sri Lanka show substantial increase. Nor has there been sufficient product diversification due to the FTA. Reaching a billion dollar bilateral trade will be a dream unless concerted efforts are taken to promote more trade through aggressive promotion.
Pakistan has a fast growing young educated population with sophisticated taste. The ever-increasing number of shopping malls with the growing number of foreign retailers opening outlets is the best indication of possibilities for expansion of trade to a neighbouring country where the people have tremendous love for Sri Lanka. This is also a market where there are hardly any visible or invisible barriers to trade.
The situation with regard to investment is also no different. Many are the sectors where there can be substantial investment in each other’s countries which can be identified through close collaboration between the relevant agencies. In the tourism sector, convenient direct flights which are taking place should be utilised for active tourism promotion.
An active JEC is an excellent mechanism to promote closer collaboration encompassing a varied number of areas, particularly because they are chaired at ministerial level. What is as important as meeting regularly is actively following up on decisions taken at the meetings.
Two friendly neighbours with close political and economic ties working together can also bring about a marked development not only bilaterally, but regionally too.
(Manel de Silva holds an Honours Degree in Political Science from the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya and has engaged in professional training in Commercial Diplomacy at ITC and GATT. She has served as a trade diplomat in several Sri Lankan Missions overseas and was the first female Head of the Department of Commerce as Director General of Commerce.)