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Sri Lanka: preparing for a future without international aid

October 31, 2014
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“Up-country” on a Sri Lankan tea estate

During what was recently my fifth visit to Sri Lanka in as many years, my taxi driver picked me up at the airport in a Honda Prius, with the air conditioning set to “glacial” and the FM stereo blaring out 1990’s classics.

On closer inspection over the course of the next eight days spent in Colombo, and also “up-country” on tea estates, it was clear that not every aspect of the nation was motoring on hybrid fuel and gyrating to the sounds of Take That. However, change is occurring here, for a country still only five years free from a long standing and debilitating civil war. The question remains, how positive might that change be for every Sri Lanka citizen, and how can inclusive growth for all be created in the future?

With Honda Prius taxis also comes an array of international fast-food joints, peppering the main streets of the capital, and beyond, and ensuring Sri Lanka’s “middle income” status and advancement towards that end goal to which so many Asian cities are now succumbing: modernisation.

As the Italian author Tiziano Terzani puts it: “We have convinced the Asians that only by being modern can they survive, and that the only way of being modern is ours, the Western way…”

I was au fait enough, as an Englishman, with the notion that when moving about Sri Lanka, the majority of the people you meet direct an energized line of enquiry at you about all things to do with being from England (cricket, the Queen, and Manchester United tend to be top picks to kick start an exchange) however, on this visit the more striking impression the capital city left on me was how quickly the new affluence and middle-class poise of so many of Colombo’s neighbourhoods is growing.

Trendy coffee bars, smart cars, and vast new hotel complexes are popping up all over the place. Out by the docks, the Chinese have just won a deal to build “Port City” – 237 hectares of soon-to-be-constructed real estate, built into the Indian Ocean. A pristine new trading gateway between South Asia and the East.

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Sigiriya Summit

Sri Lanka is an enchanting country, in so many ways, and I was fortunate enough not only to once again enjoy the natural hospitality and generosity of both old and new acquaintances, but also to travel to some national treasures – the caves at Dambulla, the stunning 8th Wonder of the World edifice at Sigirya, and the breath-taking vistas of the tea estates up near Nuwara Eliya.

For the first six months of 2014, the Sri Lankan Tourist Authority reported an influx of 727,353 tourists, representing a 25% leap in the number of tourists than during the same period last year. Long may the attraction of such places lure in the annual tourist foot-fall that the country relies upon.

And it is almost ten years now since the anniversary of the Asian Tsunami, a tragedy which Sri Lanka felt with the utmost pain and suffering, with over 35,000 people losing their lives, and the entire coastline of the country affected. Since the Tsunami, and then the end of the war in 2009, building back the infrastructure and livelihoods of the 20 million people occupying this unique island has so far ensured positive year on year growth rates, and attracted lucrative foreign direct investment.

Simultaneously, the international donor community are fast moving out of investing their funds to the variety of social programmes which for many years have bolstered Sri Lanka’s public services and addressed issues of poverty and injustice. It is now the turn of the country’s Government to champion the issues of the day – gender equality, natural resource management, inclusive market flows, to name a few – and, as we at CARE International are seeing in other examples throughout the Asia region, the role of the private sector in this narrative is critical.

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Can sales of Ceylon tea hold some of the answers for the future?

Take the tea plantations sector. For over two decades, CARE has been actively engaged in one of the country’s most famous exports. Approximately 90% of all Ceylon tea produced here is shipped overseas for consumption. Many hundreds of thousands of tea estate workers continue to depend on the industry for jobs and, gradually, through the work of organisations such as CARE and the initiatives introduced such as our Community Development Forums the traditional hierarchy of management within the tea estates, and the resulting pressures and prejudices enforced on the workers, is being addressed and is changing for the better.

That said, many workers continue to live at the very low end of Sri Lanka’s economic demographic, and face a multitude of challenges. Many more improvements can be made. The private sector plays an important role here, too. Not only do more responsible and enlightened tea sector companies now tackle social and environmental issues in their supply chains, but others – for example, financial service companies, and businesses operating in the agriculture sector – are seeing the “value-add” to their bottom line, by being prepared to better understand how to sell, procure and employ people living in poverty.

In 2020, what will this emerging social eco-system then look like in Sri Lanka?

With every international “aid” donor having exited by then, but with new trading opportunities unfolding, and a more responsible private sector, working collaboratively with NGOs and the public sector, can the country meet the challenge that Terzani puts forward – namely, to develop and to ‘modernise’ in a way that is in the country and its citizens’ best and longer term interests?

It is hard not to come away from a trip to Sri Lanka without being inspired in some way, and I remain both curious and excited at the prospect of one day resolving an answer to this bigger question about the country’s future – as so many other countries (if not already, soon to be faced with similar dynamics and dilemmas) watching on, should be as well.

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Gazing into the future: buddha statue at Kandy

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