Does Sri Lanka have what it takes to be a thriving financial and infrastructure metropolis?

Tuesday, 5 December 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


By Tanya Goonewardene

The Sri Lanka Economic and Investment Conclave (SEIC 2017), hosted by HAIRONG Investments International Ltd. and TRIVE International, concluded successfully at the Kingsbury Hotel with the participation of foreign delegates from China, the US, Netherlands, Switzerland, Dubai, Japan, Singapore and Hong Kong. 

The conclave was organised with a view to facilitate the participation of potential investors in identifying the dynamic economic opportunities available to Sri Lanka as a global gateway with preferential access to over 58% of the world. The initiative was the brainchild of Dr. Palitha Kohona, the former permanent representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations. He was praised for his timely effort to organise this momentous event, which brought Sri Lanka under the spotlight of many willing and able investors to whom the country’s hidden treasures were unearthed by carefully selected eminent speakers and renowned panelists who addressed the distinguished audience on both successive days of the conference. 

The ambition and forethought of Dr. Kohona was clear in the structure of the conference which covered a diverse portfolio of topics that benefited all attendees. His mandate as one of the global custodians of brand Sri Lanka was carried out in a way which bore testimony to his use of knowledge and extensive experience in international relations, trade and the law to attract sustainable and commercially viable investment opportunities to Sri Lanka and was taken cognisance of by all speakers. 

Amongst the assortment of thought-provoking topics dealt with at the event were inter alia China’s One Belt One Road by Xiong Meng, Sri Lanka’s Economic Outlook and Opportunities, Sri Lanka as an Investment Destination moderated by Niranjan Devaditya, Private Investment in Sri Lanka by Dr. Rohantha Athukorala, Hot Sectors and Specific Investment Opportunities in Sri Lanka, Regulatory and Legal Framework Applicable to Foreign Investments and Sustainable Investment Challenges and Opportunities. Amongst the notable addresses were those of Minister of Megapolis and Western Development Patali Champika Ranawaka and National Policies and Economic Affairs Deputy Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva. 

Financial and infrastructure metropolis

A session which was well-received dealt with whether Sri Lanka has what it takes to achieve the ambitious goal of being a financial and infrastructure metropolis. The session was presented by Dr. Asanga Gunawansa, who was applauded for his candid interpretation of the existing ground realities of the Sri Lankan investment environment. 

Under the topic Existing Mega Development Projects and Future Opportunities, he brought to light public sector-driven megaprojects with private sector participation and private sector-driven Megaprojects, including the Airport Expressway, Sothern Highway,  Hambantota Sea Port and Airport Development Project, Port City of Colombo,  Colombo South Port and Queen Elizabeth Quay Development Projects, Hill Country High Way and Light Rail Way Project, Havelock City Development Project, Waterfront (Keells City) Development Project and Colombo City Centre Development Project. 

At the commencement of his address there was an analysis of similar models of mega development models across the world, including in Dubai and Singapore. By analysing the rapid development trajectory of both ideological destinations, Dr. Gunewansa presented his case to substantiate the success factors unique to both destinations. 

He highlighted that as for Dubai, the success factors included its vision and political stability, policy commitment by government institutions, public-private sector partnerships, participatory knowledge creation and excellence in creating experiences. Whereas the takeaways from Singapore, also commonly known as the little Red Dot, were highlighted as political stability and predictability, commitment to sustainable development, business-friendly laws appealing to international investors, advantageous relative location and an established port system, the ‘Whole of Government’ approach, the public sector providing true leadership and taking active partnership in PPPs and openness for foreign talent whilst encouraging locals to compete. 

The speaker was quick to infer that both regimes had one common thread in their tapestry of success – stable leadership and an autocratic nature. Saying that he was by no means calling for an autocratic regime, he drove home the point of establishing the need for strong and stable government policy which would not waiver upon an election outcome which erodes investor confidence – a poignant reality of Sri Lanka. 

In selecting resource personnel who were the custodians of imparting up-to-date, relevant information and analytical input which would become a key takeaway for participants of the event, the organisers had made a great effort in selecting academics, elite professionals and thought leaders in their industry. 

Dr. Gunawansa holds a PhD in law from the National University of Singapore (NUS) and an LL.M in International Economic Law from the University of Warwick and is an Attorney-at- Law. He was a Professor at NUS, Singapore from 2007-2013 and prior to that was attached to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and the  United Nations Compensation Commission (UNCC) as a Legal Officer. Dr. Gunawansa is currently heading the Colombo Law Alliance, a law chamber specialising in investment law and commercial law. He is also the Chairman of the Sri Lanka International Arbitration Centre and an Advisor to the Green Climate Fund in Songdo, Korea and a consultant to the ADB on Public-Private Partnerships.

Recommendations for sustainable mega development

His penultimate remarks included six concrete recommendations for sustainable mega development in Sri Lanka: 

1.A stable political regime and commitment to development policy. Depoliticisation of all policies and actions related to the project should be strongly ensured.

2.Supervision by a highly professional and business-like team which is willing to consider out-of-the-box solutions.

3.Local and foreign investment, technology and expertise must be promoted and facilitated.

4.Future paced development: permit considerations of mega project’s long-term impact on financial, environmental and social sustainability. 

5.Considering public-private partnerships as the first option 

6.Introduction of a state-of-the-art PPP law to encourage the private sector to participate in development and to generally increase investment, mitigating  the financing burdens placed on the general Budget in connection with project costs and to generally reduce the financial risk to the Government of such projects, increasing  productivity and improving the quality of public services and facilitating the transfer of knowledge and experience from the private to the public sectors and to train and qualify governmental personnel to manage and operate the projects in the future.

In closing, Dr. Gunewansa assured the foreign delegates and participants that they were at the right place at the right time and encouraged them to tap into the treasure trove of opportunities Sri Lanka had to offer. 

(The author is an Attorney-at-Law qualified in Marketing and Human Resource Management and an independent economic commentator.)