Despite the challenges in pursuing an outward oriented strategy at a time of great global strain, Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrama said the Government was committed to inclusive trade as it was the only path towards prosperity for Sri Lanka.
“The Government remains very clear that Sri Lanka must be an economy that is driven by exports and private investment. It is clear by the global discourse now that there is a lot of scepticism around the inclusiveness of trade. However, as policymakers we have to tackle this challenge head on,” he said in his keynote at the ‘Tech4Trade’ forum organised by the Australian High Commission in partnership with the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC) yesterday.
Skills and innovation were identified as the key reasons for the backlash against trade and globalisation while he added that there was a growing sense that some people simply had not benefited from trade and globalisation.
“We must do more to equip our people with the skills they need to face global competition and to succeed. Our Government has made skills development a top priority and is investing more in tertiary education, creating more opportunities for vocational and technical training, aligning education systems with industry needs and inviting the private sector to invest in the education sector,” he added.
Given the rapid speed of change in the global economy, the Minister stressed the business-as-usual approach simply would not work anymore.
“Lifelong learning is the new priority. As policymakers, our focus should be on creating more opportunities for lifelong learning, where people can train and retrain throughout their career lifecycle and continually upgrade or change their skills. This will go a long way in ensuring that trade and technology don’t cause redundancy of workers’ skills,” he said.
Noting that the Government had clearly identified innovation as a key policy priority, Samarawickrama asserted that if they were to move the economy into a higher gear, it was critical to make local enterprises more competitive and resilient to the rapid global changes taking place.
He said Governments had a role in creating the right incentives for innovation, introducing clever instruments that help exporters become more innovative, getting rid of unhelpful or harmful regulations that hold back innovation and also, when required to support very directly, investing in R&D. “My ministry is currently engaging with the World Bank to finalise a national innovation and entrepreneurship strategy for the country. With the World Bank’s expertise in rolling out similar programs elsewhere, we are going to introduce a series of instruments that support exporters to upgrade technology and invest in developing innovative products, instruments that support collaborative research in priority export sectors identified in our national export strategy and instruments that support start-ups and high-growth entrepreneurs.”
Alongside this the Government is also looking at reforming a range of procedural and regulatory bottlenecks that hold innovation back through eight taskforces aimed at improving eight aspects of the ease of doing business in Sri Lanka.
The Minister acknowledged that Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) was providing the resources for technical assistance and advisory services to enhance competitiveness in Sri Lanka.
“I firmly believe that if trade is the engine of Sri Lanka’s new growth model then trade facilitation is the essential lubricant to make that engine run smoother and better. I know the importance of this firsthand, having been an exporter myself.
For every business, one day’s delay, that extra procedure, that time-consuming process, this all adds up. It all adds to the cost of production, it all adds up to operating costs and it chips away at efficiency in the overall functioning of trade,” he added.
Samarawickrama admitted that not just in the Single Window but across the chain of trade-related procedures Sri Lanka must deploy technology to make it easier, faster and less costly for entrepreneurs.
“Trade finance continues to be a challenge, especially for SMEs, and we must do more to find technology-driven solutions for this. With the Colombo International Financial City coming up and it having a unique legal and regulatory structure, we can use that freedom to experiment with new technologies for trade finance, like Blockchain,” he added. (CdeS)