History of how trade develops, within and between countries, is often fascinating: British High Commissioner

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The launch of Trade Research Book on Bilateral Trade between Sri Lanka and the UK CBB with the CCC Economic Intelligence Unit was held at the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce on Friday July 19.

Addressing the launch, the British High Commissioner, James Dauris said it’s his pleasure to join at the launch of the trade research book on bilateral trade between Sri Lanka and the UK and congratulated Shiran Fernando and the team of the Ceylon Chamber Economic Intelligence Unit for the hard work they had gone into.

Following are excerpts of the British High Commissioner’s  address:

The history of how trade develops, within and between countries, is often fascinating. And it can be hugely informative for us, whether we are in business or in government, to understand why one sector thrived in a nation’s economy and another didn’t, why a particular policy or business approach worked while another didn’t, and why GDP grew and the country prospered under one government but not another.  These are things that will interest and concern all us here.

My guess is that for the majority of us in the room these histories are of most interest not for what they tell us about trade and business in the past, but for what they can tell us about growing business and doing more trade in the future.

One of the things I enjoy about my job as High Commissioner is that I spend a lot of my time promoting and arguing for things that I personally believe to be important.  It would be too much to say that trade and investment between Sri Lanka and the UK is critically important to either of our countries’ economies – the figures don’t back that up.  I would however insist that thriving foreign trade is critical to our economies and our peoples. And I do believe that it is in our own and our two countries’ interests that trade and investment between them should grow.

One very obvious question, one we ask regularly, is: How do we achieve this?

As I have been invited to say a few words only about market liberalisation – and a few words is plenty anyway on a Friday afternoon – I’d like to offer one thought in answer to each of three questions:

  • What steps ought the government to take to help trade and investment grow and the country to become more prosperous?
  • What steps ought businesses and businessmen to take?
  • And what steps ought the Ceylon Chamber, its member chambers and similar business bodies to take?

Each question deserves and needs many answers, but I’ll stick to short ones. And I’d like to preface my answers with the observation that Sri Lanka is not as well placed for doing and developing business within itself and with the world outside as it needs to be.  Some of you have heard me mention on other occasions that Sri Lanka was ranked 100th out of 190 in the 2018 World Bank Ease of Doing Business Index.  That’s to say that more than half of the countries in the world scored better than Sri Lanka.  I think it likely that most of you will agree that the climate for doing business here, and the climate for investing here, are not as good as they could be and not as good as they need to be.  After more than four years living and working here, I feel I can say that Sri Lanka needs to be doing better, and I’m confident it can do better.

Turning to the first of my three questions: What more should the government do?

I would encourage the government to move on, across the board, with addressing issues raised in the Ease of Doing Business Index.  Many of these were described and policy ambitions put forward in the Vision 2025 strategy that the President and the Prime Minister launched in October 2017.  Freer trade, lower barriers, less protectionism, more dependable enforcement of contracts, simpler property registration rules are some of the keys, I believe, to fostering a climate favourable to entrepreneurial activity and wealth creation, to making Sri Lanka prosperous and to having its companies thrive, not just in domestic markets but around the world.

The second question: What steps ought businesses and business women and men to take?

I have three parts to my answer.

The first, that Sri Lanka needs each and every company and each and every businessman and woman to be setting and sticking to principled standards and practices, and needs them to be holding their employees, customers and suppliers to these.  It needs them also to be holding the politicians and officials they talk to and work with to the same high standards.  I’ve been here long enough to have a good idea how hard this can often be.  But I do have confidence that when enough people take a stand, big hurdles can be overcome and big changes achieved.

The second, that the business community needs companies that are leading in their fields to help take forward these changes and support the government with efforts to liberalise the market and make it easier to do business.  As senior business managers and leaders, you have key roles to play in holding the government and others to account.  Hand in hand with this responsibility goes a responsibility for supporting the government, for sharing the good advice you can give that will inform wise decision-making, for standing with the government when it wants to take sensible steps but is meeting opposition.

And my third thought is this.  During my time in Sri Lanka I have seen some fantastic examples of big companies doing great things.  But rather often businessmen have also shared their concerns with me about anti-competitive behaviours of companies and businessmen that are big enough to make a difference but that either aren’t helping or are actively blocking progress.  Monopolies and oligopolies are jealously guarded by businesses that have them around the world.  They are lucrative, of course, but they rarely serve the interests of the consumer well.  Whatever the field, in business as in sport, a lack of competition pulls standards down.  Competition stimulates innovation and efficiencies, it feeds ideas, it encourages product innovation and higher customer service standards.  You need these companies and these people to help move free trade forward, not hold it back.

And the third of my three questions: What steps ought the Ceylon Chamber, its member chambers and similar organisations to take?

The voice of business and your collective voice as business leaders matter. I see the Chambers having both the authority and the responsibility to speak up for the changes that are needed to move the country up the Ease of Doing Business Index. Acting together they have the power to be a formidable force for good practice and for change. I’d encourage them to use their public authority and influence with the government to help press down on permit mentalities and to support the liberalisation of laws and regulations that hold business development back. This won’t always be easy or most effective for small chambers to do by themselves. But the structure of the Ceylon Chamber, and the nature of its relationship with all of its affiliated chambers, does, I suggest, put a special responsibility on the CCC to lead. And it puts a special responsibility on the members of the CCC’s board, as and when the occasion demands, to put their own and their companies’ immediate interests to one side in order to support and advance the important cause of free trade in a friendly business environment in Sri