The able and the affluent Sri Lankan community around the world amounts to a million. Some have taken dual citizenship hoping to start new ventures in the motherland. Among them are businessman, academics, scientists, creative innovative product developers, marketing and brand builders, engineers, doctors, digital experts, bankers and investors among many other professionals.
Some have great business and political networks and knowledge who can promote the country and increase the visibility of the nation and at the same time build the economy and the image of the country as Lankan ambassadors. Many are high net worth individuals and have the financial capability to put a million dollars and make many folds more if a proper atmosphere is created. Unlike the international investors Lankan expats will not forget the motherland even though the Doing Business Index is in a sorry status as they do have a special attachment to the motherland.
Most of these people have left the country either due to the war or the lack of opportunity in a political system that doesn’t encourage meritocracy and rule of law to expected levels even after the 2015 election. Others left for education as the country’s education system has plunged to terrible levels as the best university rank is above 2000 for a Sri Lankan university. It is a fact that due to years of mismanagement of the economy even after the war ended in 2009, the politicians and their friends along with few corrupt businessmen works on deals with any government. The latest outlook is gloomy as pointed out and downgraded by Moody’s with a B rating few weeks back.
With the Doing Business ranking and other indicators hitting well over 100 in the world list, it is difficult to see how the country can attract large numbers of medium-sized international independent investors commit to Sri Lanka. The sad story is that the business environment continues to lag behind even compared to other nations within South Asia itself. Countries that have long-term strategic reason like China are using the weakness and putting the money and having a hold on key assets (due to no fault of the current government), but with those investments the economy seems not taking off and the consumer confidence and economic activity is not promising.
Certainly, Sri Lanka is not in the world map for the right and positive reasons for business. Most dual citizens who have come and tried the country to work with projects are bitterly frustrated. The reason being that if they do not have the proper contacts nothing moves as systems are not in place and bribery and corruption is a problem to any entrepreneur. Simply, the business environment is not conducive.
Some dual citizen families have problems even if they are dual citizens as the immigration laws are treating members of the same family in different manner depending on circumstances of birth etc. creating the legal vacuum at the border itself. Most ministers come and give speeches written by someone else at functions and request expats to be patriotic and come and serve the motherland, etc. and then they never follow up on matters undertaken and to facilitate the expats to create value through projects and of then of course the bureaucrats have a party to themselves. What has the Foreign Ministry, the Board of Investment, Sri Lanka Tourism, Export Development Board done to reach out to the million high net worth Lankans living around the world in a sustainable manner? Have they ever reached out to the Sri Lankan business community or professionals after awarding the dual citizenship? The fact of the matter is that there is no proper plan and data base of Lankans living overseas. The expats who have tried to help and invest are harassed and discouraged and, in some cases, looked at as enemies due to many reasons.
Why can’t the Government get their act together and use the dual citizens and expats as a force to develop the country. We all know Sri Lanka has a foreign exchange shortage to service debt, investor shortage, skills and ideas vacuum, and continues to bleed with skill drain including ordinary labour and brain drain which remains high as young people look for greener pastures in developed nations for jobs and education.
Indeed, a few in the current Government are trying to put things and fundamentals right but only time will tell if they can do the job as fundamental corrections and results take time whilst the world is moving fast. Using dual citizens with international exposure will help the Government if they are serious of using talent that is available and willing to help the motherland.
Sri Lankans overseas remain committed to the country, but they are increasingly frustrated and after two more generations away it is unlikely that they will look at the birth country to invest if things are not going in the right direction. It is hoped the present Government in the upcoming budget will be pragmatic and do the following to use the dual citizens and expats to help develop the country and the business environment.
nEncourage dual citizens to set up businesses including JVs.
nProvide supportive staff at Government departments and at key institutions with proper information.
nForeign Ministry, BOI and Commerce Ministry should actively engage expats using technology
nBetter interest payments for foreign currency deposits in local NRFC banks and to facilitate and remove cumbersome restriction placed on them by commercial banks and taxing the same
nAllow a tax-free import of vehicles and machine/equipment for commercial reasons if purchased through self-earned foreign currency (vans, trucks, cabs, etc.)
nInvite dual citizens and Lankan expats for voluntary capacity development service
nCreate a dual citizen and expat registration website so that information can be transmitted via technology.
– A dual citizen