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Engaging Diaspora For Commercial Gain

Hemas Holdings plc Chairman and CEO Husein Esufally speaking at a seminar in Colombo on Monday (December 23), stressed the importance of the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) engaging the island’s 1-2 million strong diaspora to further business activities (see article found elsewhere on this page).
Virtually in the same breath, Esufally inferred that Sri Lanka’s 20 million market is too small.
The message Esufally gave the audience, in a seminar held with a focus in reversing the brain drain, targeting in particular knowledge workers, was that Sri Lanka’s market was not big. Therefore it had to look outward, to the world beyond, if it wanted to grow.
A number of those present at this event were expatriate Sri Lankans or Sri Lankan students studying abroad.
Based on what Esufally said at this seminar, this may be why the few Sri Lankan companies which have had gone global have had hired expatriate workers to further their business activities, not least Hemas, which also has an exposure to the leisure industry, whilst even recruiting high end expatriate workers to service the island’s small 20 million market as well, due to apparent skills deficiencies in certain fields here.
The majority of Sri Lanka’s diaspora is the Tamil population of this country who fled the island in the aftermath of the July 1983 Tamil-Sinhala riots and the 26 year old Tamil terrorist war that was spawned thereafter, a war, the fuelling of which was aided and abetted by the country’s giant neighbour India, until the signing of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord four years later in July 1987.
But listening to Plantation Industries Minister and President’s Envoy on Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe speaking at a function in Colombo the other day, he however gave the impression that engaging the Tamil diaspora at least in the political firmament held little or no promise due to their apparent antagonism towards the country.
In his speech Samarasinghe said that the Tamil diaspora is working to destroy Sri Lanka. They are working “24×7” to destroy Sri Lanka, he had said at that occasion (see also last week’s issue of The Sunday Leader).
Under those circumstances it may be a tall order for the GoSL to accede to Esufally’s request to engage the diaspora, more specifically the country’s Tamil diaspora, to promote business activities emanating from Sri Lanka, in overseas markets.
Nevertheless, there are a number of diasporan Tamils, especially in the knowledge sector, who have returned to Sri Lanka, to further their commercial activities from Sri Lanka, whilst catering to overseas markets.
Additionally, there is also certain sections of the Tamil diaspora who visit the country from time to time to see their relatives and also of the state of their properties here, bringing with them  valuable foreign exchange in to the country as well.
“Commerce” and “politics” do not always go together.
It’s important for GoSL and its cabinet ministers to remember that. Both should not be mixed, emotions should not be allowed to get the better of the two.
In fact Arj Wignaraja, Director, Stax, which the internet identified as a consultancy, and who was one of the principle speakers in the seminar that Esufally  too addressed, said that though they don’t agree with GoSL on issues concerning economics and politics, they could still work in Sri Lanka.
That is a positive comment which GoSL, leaving politics aside, should try to exploit at least from a commercial and economic perspective (not least political!), by engaging Sri Lanka’s 1-2 million strong diasporan population who are mainly domiciled in the wealthy West and Australasia, for the economic betterment of the island.
This then may be the angle that GoSL should take in dealing with the Tamil diaspora vis-à-vis bringing them in to the economic and commercial mainstream of the island, divorced from the political theatre, which should be looked at separately and for which is needed, a separate approach, ie in dealing with that issue, and, as far as possible, not try to mix the two.
Feelings should not be allowed to come inbetween or get the better, otherwise their separate and dual roles may become blurred, and the country will be the loser at least from an economic perspective.
Who knows, commerce may well be used as a weapon to heal the political, sentimental and emotional wounds of the Tamil diaspora, a fact enumerated by Samarasinghe in that speech of his where he said that their hatred may be stemming from what they and their families suffered in the July 1983 riots
As Esufally said in his speech, the knowledge that the diaspora has of overseas markets is huge and which needs to be exploited, an untapped reservoir of opportunities for Sri Lanka’s commerce and the island’s economy, to be taken advantage of, if properly addressed.
In a scenario of falling exports and a deficit experienced in the island’s current account in its balance of payments, the authorities should take serious note of what people like Esufally have to say in regard to the commercial importance of the diaspora, other than the remittances they send to their families back at home and investments in certain theatres they make, like in the knowledge economy for instance or for that matter possibly the real estate and leisure sectors in the country, as they may well have a lot more to offer other than those.
It’s not only about reversing the brain drain, but also by taking advantage of the “brain drain,” or more appropriately the availability of the diaspora in wealthy markets, to be exploited, to further Sri Lanka’s commercial activities in overseas markets, was that which Esufally inferred in his speech, and which needs to be given thought to, by the authorities.
It may also be asked, cannot the private sector, without the aid of the state, in this the era of the internet, engage itself in such commercial relationships without the help of GoSL?
In as much as Sri Lankan firms have had, and continue to recruit high end professionals not available here from overseas markets, not least Esufally’s firm Hemas, cannot the same approach be adopted to engage the diaspora not only to find new, international markets, but also to fill in the talent deficiencies found in certain of the island’s economic sectors, independent of GoSL?
The latter is seemingly being take care of, especially, aided and abetted by private sector led organizations such as “Work in Sri Lanka” which organized Monday’s (December 23) event, in particular in the area of knowledge workers, but whether the former need is also exploited, ie by engaging the diaspora to further markets’ outreach, probably lacks visibility, at least as far as the Sri Lankan public is concerned, even if it’s working.
Perhaps, “Work in Sri Lanka’s” next seminar should be “Engaging the Sri Lanka Diaspora” as a follow up to their Monday’s seminar of making the island, Asia’s Knowledge Hub, giving thought to Esufally’s suggestion?
A seminar of that nature may unearth the “Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats” that may be available, by pursuing this line of a topic?
With 1-2 million Sri Lankans domiciled overseas as inferred to by Esufally, equivalent to 10-20% of the island’s population, this may well be worth a shot.
Perhaps, as a first step, GoSL should tap people like Esufally with their experience in the area of commerce here and abroad and also of working with foreign expertise (after all Hemas’ CEO designate is a foreigner), what needs to be done to engage the diaspora to further Sri Lanka’s commercial activities.
A seemingly revolutionary step would be if GoSL, with the aid of the private sector, organize a seminar titled “Engaging the diaspora to further market opportunities!”

1 Comment for “Engaging Diaspora For Commercial Gain”

  1. I think we should engage the Diaspora for the betterment of our country. There are multi millionaires among the Tamil community living in England, USA, Canada and Australia. We should approach them and discuss with them about investment. We need to create an environment for them to invest. I am sure some of them will invest substantial amount. We should refrain making statements against minority Tamils people.

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