What’s next for Brand Sri Lanka?

Tuesday, 6 December 2011 00:43 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Last week my phone beeped and the text message read ‘The Chairperson of the Security and Exchange Commission Indrani Sugathadasa had resigned citing reasons of values and principles for her resignation’.

My mind went back to the time when this lady when she was the Board Director at EDB. Whenever tough decisions had be taken between being righteous and being politically correct, the first person to voice her opinion for good governance was Sugathadasa.

Coming from a private sector multinational background, I was totally unaware of her connection to the high echelons of power but the respect she garnered around the table especially to me as the Chairman was very encouraging.

In my view, the resignation was a severe blow to Brand Sri Lanka given her unblemished career in the last 30 years and I strongly feel the time is right for us to find ways to retain the top talent of brand Sri Lanka within the country given that we have already lost many in the 30 years of war.

Sri Lanka on overdrive

Let’s accept it: Sri Lanka is in overdrive mode. The World Economic Forum which evaluates the competitiveness of nations announced that Sri Lanka had jumped 17 places to be within the top 52 countries in the world, which captures the aggressive agenda that the country has been working in last two years post the war coming to a close in May 2009.

The latest report on the Human Development Index once again points out the performance of Sri Lanka, which has notched up almost 10 places, which signifies the qualitative development that the country is experiencing.

I guess the biggest win was when last week the announcement came in that Sri Lanka had performed extremely well in the Global Corruption Index, which indicates that it is a worldwide issue but Sri Lanka is outbeating competitive nations even though we live in a political economy

Think big

Given that I come from 17 years of work ethic of British and American multinationals, the attitude change that I see in post war Sri Lanka of ‘thinking big’ is the best disease that Sri Lanka has acquired.

Be it the different private sector-driven industries wanting to make Sri Lanka a hub (apparel, logistics, IT/BPO, financial hub, tea, etc.), the quest for hosting the Commonwealth Games, vehicles only one-year-old allowed to be imported into Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan IPL, the Southern Highway, the Shangri-La and the Sheraton being attracted, to name a few, are very positive signs that Sri Lanka is well on its way to be a top 30 country globally.

Whilst commending this entrepreneurial attitude, it is paramount that we have very strict financial regulations so that the country’s long-term financial viability is checked first before launching such mega initiatives and running up million dollar bills.

We cannot make Sri Lanka another Greece, post the hosting of the Olympic Games that cost the country US$ 12.5 billion and shaved off 2% of GDP off the EU, but it must be said that we must not be risk aversive either.


From a policy perspective, the recent COPE report findings must be given top priority as it clearly explains that Government-run organisations must be carefully evaluated and a roadmap grounded before the Government acquires more underperforming assets that have been leased out to the private sector.

If not, the currently poorly ranked pillar ‘Trust on Government Policy’ on the Competitiveness of Nations by the World Economic Forum will further deteriorate. Already Sri Lanka has been downgraded to a rank of 115 from the earlier rank of 59 last year, which is extremely unhealthy given that we are in hunt for FDIs to sustain an 8% GDP growth next year.

Tourism: 5-star?

Sri Lanka can be upbeat on the performance of the tourism industry that is registering 800,000 tourists in 2011 and touching the US$ 1 billion mark on revenue. But the fact remains that we are not attracting the 5-star tourists into the country.

One of the key reasons for this from the industry experts is said to be because Sri Lanka is not being promoted globally as the ‘Wonder of Asia’ even though factually the product portfolio is unbeatable.

Whale watching, best sightings of leopards, the only blow hole outside Australia in the Asia Pacific, the eighth wonder of the world Sigiriya or the surfing capital of the world Arugam Bay are all the best kept secrets of the country as at today.

A recent research study done globally in our key markets revealed that the awareness of the above features was less that 12% but once awareness was created, the propensity for one to visit Sri Lanka catapulted fourfold.

Apparel challenge

Yesterday we were called the tailors to the world, but today our apparel industry has created a new wave globally of going green and has proved to the world that a low carbon footprint manufacturing operation can be a reality. The plan for tomorrow by this trendsetting industry is the desire to be the apparel hub of South Asia in innovation and design.

Whilst this ambition must be supported with strong policy like the Budget proposals of 2012, the reality is that with unemployment at the low ebb of five per cent, we simply do not have the people to make this dream a reality. So, unless we stop the migration of Sri Lankans to overseas countries for work, we are heading into a catch 22 situation that’s going to strangle Sri Lanka’s growth agenda.


Although the 1.5 billion dollar tea industry is the jewel of the crown for Sri Lanka, the reality is that from a demand end and a supply side end we are at crossroads, requiring serious policy intervention.

For instance, from a private sector perspective, unless we open up the lease agreement for 66 years as per the recommendation of the President-appointed 10 man committee on tea, we cannot expect the private sector to invest in long-term development initiatives like replanting and good agricultural practices.

The country must mature to move away from making industry decisions for political gain. What I am referring to is the annual wage increase that happens once in three years on a political agenda.

The good news is that the Rs. 10 billion tea promotional fund that will be orchestrated by the private sector is a big win for the industry and Sri Lanka. Incorporating this into Budget 2012 is also a very smart move and I must commend the line ministry and Treasury for this bold decision.

Now the challenge is the appointment of an advertising and promotional agency based on market needs at the earliest. To be honest, this is a very tough challenge given that I have done this one for the Tourism Ministry. It took over six months due to the FRs and ARs that come into play.


The Budget proposal of 2012 sketching out the need to develop FTAs with key African and East Asian countries is a very interesting move, but a point that must be noted is that the incubation period will be two years.

This means that for a typical FTA to gather momentum and the results to hit Sri Lanka’s export numbers, it will be at best by 2016. This means that the focus will have to be current FTAs with India and Pakistan and how they can be made more meaningful. May be the implementation of the CEPA must be fast tracked so that we can take these two FTAs to US$ 2 billion by 2015.

Next steps

Given that Budget 2012 has been grounded on a strong economic development agenda outside the Western Province, the next step is for Sri Lanka to develop a nation branding plan so that at the front end we carve out a unique position for Brand Sri Lanka globally whilst at the back end we develop the supply chain.

We must introduce a strong governance agenda into the country so that ‘talent’ can be protected and retained in Sri Lanka as we have suffered enough of the brain drain that has happened in the country during the last 30 years.

All line ministries must break down the budgeted activity for 2012 on a quarterly basis so that implementation of Budget 2012 can happen in a systemic manner. The performance must be tracked at the highest level.

All communications that happens out of a line ministry to the global consumer must come under one ministry, so that a single-minded proposition can be communicated to the outside world. This will also have a synergy effect.

The chambers must develop their activity plan on the national Budget game plan, as at the end of the day over 70% of the economy is driven by the private sector. The productivity council must take centre stage in the 2012 developmental agenda given that the unemployment level is at the low ebb of just five per cent and the only way growth can be ensured is by increasing productivity

(The author was the first Executive Director of the National Council for Economic Development, the key policymaking body in the Presidential Secretariat when the country crossed the 7% GDP growth mark. He is currently the Head of National Portfolio Development for the United Nations – UNOPS – for Sri Lanka and Maldives. The thoughts expressed are strictly his own ideas and not the views of the organisation he serves in Sri Lanka or internationally. Rohantha is an alumnus of Harvard University, Boston.)