Interview: President Maithripala Sirisen

In what ways is the government spurring private sector development in Sri Lanka?

MAITHRIPALA SIRISENA: The government has been proactive about encouraging private participation in Sri Lanka’s financial sector. In 2016 the new public-private partnership division of the Ministry of Finance took steps to secure investment from private players, engaging the sector in the planning, implementation, financing and maintenance of infrastructure assets owned by state agencies. There are a number of projects that aim to alleviate poverty by creating a platform for successful partnerships between small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and the private sector. The government has the responsibility to improve the economic prospects of low-income groups by providing them with assistance and guidance. For example, there is the village empowerment programme (Gramshakthi), which is targeted at strengthening the rural economy. The private sector stands to play a major role in catalysing this movement.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is another key project that is enlisting private sector leadership. Over the course of 2017 we were able to gather the country’s top academics and professionals to independently develop the first draft of the agenda, which will soon be released to the public for feedback. With the input and support of all citizens, especially those within the private sector, we hope to create a national vision that establishes a sustainable development path to 2030. I believe this will be a cornerstone of stronger private sector trust in the government, as it will establish a shared mutual vision.

What emerging sectors have the potential to invigorate different areas of the economy?

SIRISENA: SMEs are the backbone of our economy. Most SME projects are located in rural areas, and the entrepreneurs behind them often lack technical and marketing know-how. I strongly believe that if this can be addressed, the SME sector will make a more vibrant contribution to the overall economy. Gramshakthi is working to remedy these issues. Knowledge-intensive and technology-driven foreign direct investment will play a large role in scaling Sri Lanka’s economy up.

Some 60% of our GNI comes from the services sector, which is driven by technology. The Ministry of Telecommunication and Digital Infrastructure has been doing good work to make Sri Lanka’s tech sector favourable to foreign investors. We are also working to improve our ranking in the World Bank’s “Doing Business” report.

How can Sri Lanka effectively balance its debt obligations while developing an advanced economy?

SIRISENA: Debt servicing is one of the biggest challenges that my government faces. For instance, in 2015 some 90.6% of the government’s total revenue was spent on debt servicing. This amounted to 80% in 2016. Nevertheless, public finances over these two years were strengthened and revenue increased. Looking ahead, we expect to keep the budget deficit below 3.5% of GDP, as revenue continues on an upward trajectory.

How do you perceive the role of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)?

SIRISENA: South Asia is home to over 2bn of the 7bn people on the planet. We live in a geopolitically strategic location, and organisations such as the SAARC provide us with the platform to maintain healthy relations with all our neighbours. Regional economic cooperation and integration are seen as routes to economic prosperity. Present data on South Asia show so much untapped economic opportunity; a large portion of the region’s total trade volume was intra-regional trade. We have much in common with other SAARC countries, such as the focus on agriculture, similar production structures and levels of technology, and familiarity of cultures. Therefore, more intra-regional trade and investment will likely accrue more benefits. The SAARC will continue to be our partner in fulfilling Sri Lanka’s economic goals.