By Salma Yusuf
In post-war Sri Lanka, a reprioritising of the national agenda, a change in attitude to state structures and innovating new approaches to embrace forgotten stakeholders remain critical for social change
Though social justice and the advancement of peace has not yet evolved to occupying centre-stage in the corporate agenda, a significant development in the international arena is that businesses are no longer averse to the idea. Moreover, there has been acknowledgement within the international business sector that the credibility of its operations can be strengthened by subscribing to altruistic ideological pursuits and embracing its latent social role.
In Sri Lanka too, there has begun a national momentum to raise awareness on the need to develop the social conscience of the private sector, following the conclusion of the three-decade war that ravaged the country. In this context, what is required is a more radical reprioritising of the national agenda in the post-war situation to socio-economic and political aims to facilitate such a progressive movement.
What must be recommended is the adoption of investment in four areas as critical to a strategy for contributing to reconciliation and peace-building: First, livelihood and income generation activities; second, training and empowerment through capacity building in soft-skills including those that increase innovation, entrepreneurship and employability; third, a need to engage directly with individuals and communities in war-affected regions of the country and finally, to ensure that all endeavours undertaken embrace the vision of preventing economic stagnation which has been at the root of most political conflicts.
” The conflict between the north and south of Sri Lanka has been largely due to the lack of economic opportunities. Waiting for perfect conditions to invest can be counter-productive to social progress. Reflecting on the Sri Lankan political history, both insurrections in the south, and the north, were largely resource, class and caste related. ”
The attractiveness of investing in the north of the country must not be forgotten in this endeavour. The availability of rich natural resources in the region such as limestone, land, groundwater, sea salt, fisheries and agriculture could be tapped into in order to create industries, income generation and livelihood opportunities.
Additionally, the market demand for produce and jobs is increasing with the return of formerly displaced persons to their original habitats. Further, there exists potential for development of tourism-related infrastructure as Jaffna is gaining increasing currency as a tourist destination, both by locals and foreigners. It was recorded that with the removal of travel restrictions to the north of the country, a total of 31,000 persons had travelled to the north in 2012 alone. This in itself is a testament to the promise for both local and foreign tourism in the north of the country which would benefit immensely from private sector investment.
The conflict between the north and south of Sri Lanka has been largely due to the lack of economic opportunities. Waiting for perfect conditions to invest can be counter-productive to social progress. Reflecting on the Sri Lankan political history, both insurrections in the south, and the north, were largely resource, class and caste related. Leaving behind a segment of the community whether in the north or the south will result in the seeds of dissent taking root. Allowing marginalisation of a segment of the community will result in ethnic entrepreneurs exploiting it for personal and political advantage.
To this end, certain considerations need to be made when decisions to invest in the north and the east are taken, namely, that youth and adult populations in the north have been deprived of basic education during the conflict. Capacity building is a sine qua non for generating employability and creating opportunities for income generation.
The business community is well placed for developing capacity of potential entrepreneurs by playing a major role in skill building. Hence, recognition of such a role for the private sector and business community must be taken seriously. Although engagement of the business community has been acknowledged as essential for peace-building by both the World Bank and the United Nations, a system of rewards to lure early private sector entry has yet to be devised, at the international and national levels.
Further, it is recommended that involving the private sector in the larger work of formulating the post-war recovery strategy in Sri Lanka will help generate ownership of the process, and in turn sustainability of outcomes. This would require innovative thinking by both the public and private sectors.
The challenge therefore lies in finding new means to make such engagement attractive by establishing appropriate economic and non-economic incentives for investment.
Possible incentives would be, first, to demonstrate to businesses how early – entry into the war – torn regions are a test of the resilience of the sector’s ability to navigate adverse conditions and establish suitable conditions for economic proclivity.
Second, it can play a crucial self-serving role in shaping of the market for decades to come by securing preferential rights for early entrants and contributing to developing the legal and regulatory framework in which they will have to operate. Such need to be highlighted to the private sector in Sri Lanka who are still weary of potential fallouts associated with investing in the war-affected regions of the country; and are only now being sensitised to the critical role that they can play in re-building the nation and fostering durable peace.
Closely related to this is the need to cultivate a positive attitude towards state structures, administrative structures, public service and international institutions. Hence, these two considerations ought to be integral to Sri Lanka’s foreign policy strategy, which would necessarily involve both direct bilateral and multi-lateral engagement with relevant foreign powers and world bodies.
In Sri Lanka, the need for economic prosperity or at least movement away from abject poverty and economic hopelessness is pivotal to moving towards reconciliation and peace building if the spirit of peace is to not falter and be extinguished. It is the private sector that can provide in the long-term economic growth opportunities, jobs and wealth creation.