Entrepreneurship in the North

Expanded version of the speech by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the BizPact Investment Forum, Public Library Jaffna, January 6th 2010.

Let me begin by thanking the Business for Peace Alliance for allowing me to address this third panel of your Investment Forum here in Jaffna. I should note that I feel under somewhat false pretences in talking to you about investment opportunities and operational support, because I am not a businessman, and this is the area of expertise of the Board of Investment, Banks like the Sanasa Bank, the Employers Federation, and other purveyors of prosperity.

However, they have already addressed you, in very positive terms, so let me take a few moments to address an important conceptual issue in extending my thanks to all of you for being here. Yesterday you might have noticed how lively the streets of Jaffna were, even at dusk, which is a far cry from the situation we had here even a month ago. Things have however been constantly improving since my first visit here in over two decades, when I came at the end of 2008 to open the Future Minds Exhibition. My previous visit had been in August 1981, just after the burning of the Jaffna Public Library, one of the most horrendous acts committed with what seems to have been at least some ministerial complicity, though fortunately that tradition seems to have died even in the political party then in government.

I thought in 2008, seeing the new Library building, watching the enthusiasm of the youngsters who thronged the stalls at the Exhibition, in particular those devoted to modern technology, that the wheel had come full circle, and we were seeing the beginnings of the prosperity that had been circumvented over three or four decades, unlike the land of promise I had visited twice during the sixties.

Holding the Future Minds Exhibition a year ago then, when conflict still raged elsewhere in the North, was a mark of foresight on the part of the then Security Forces Commander, General Chandrasiri, who is now the Governor. He saw then that things were changing, that the people of Jaffna were ready to return to their educational excellence and entrepreneurship. This Forum will I hope help to take things further.

In this respect the word entrepreneurship is crucial. One of the major problems of the decade that saw the beginnings of conflict is that the country was dominated by a statist mentality that chained individual initiatives. Unfortunately that mindset was common all over the world, and therefore we, like many other countries, suffered from limitations on what people could do to help themselves. The world has now recognized that such statism takes a country nowhere. But for Jaffna in particular, with its economic and educational traditions, those limitations were crippling.

That does not mean that the state should not have an active role in promoting prosperity. It must work actively, and in particular in deprived areas, to improve infrastructure. This means not only physical infrastructure, but also human resources. The commitment of the state to ensuring decent communications, providing proper utilities, ensuring health and education for all, must be absolute. But this does not mean that the state must have a monopoly even in such areas, let alone in business and industry and services. Government should facilitate activity and provide opportunities rather than controlling and standardizing.

I should note in passing that that is one reason I am in Jaffna these days. In addition to attending this Forum, I am helping with the development of English Teacher Training, both for basic spoken English and also for English Skills for Employment. This last we had started in the East, at the request of Civil Society there, and we had started spoken English classes in Vavuniya for IDP children.

Yesterday, at a session with businesses hoping to expand their operations here, we were told how crucial were confidence and communication skills, and how better English would contribute to building these up. My Ministry obviously cannot do much in these areas but, based on the decision of the Cabinet, on a proposal of the President, to make Jaffna a City of Excellence for English and IT, we can try to promote a few initiatives in this regard through our Confidence Building and Stabilization Measures Project.

In Jaffna in particular we hope to institutionalize these initiatives through partners in the area, taking advantage of the excellent schools in existence here. But we are also requesting our partners to try to extend teaching to the deprived districts of the Province. Just as we need to spread such skills to Provinces apart from the Western Province, we need to move from Provincial centres to rural areas too, so that all children will at least have opportunities for better employment. Let me make a brief plea then that any of you interested in Corporate Social Responsibility will assist the institutions in Jaffna who endeavour to extend opportunities not only in the peninsula but also elsewhere in the Province.

In short, I should emphasize that one of the pillars of government policy with regard to development is empowerment. We must get over the culture of dependency that years of statism nurtured, and which has been made worse for the people controlled by the LTTE for so long. For decades those people were only permitted what is termed humanitarian assistance that did not help them to move their lives forward. Yes, humanitarian assistance is necessary in certain circumstances, but we must also provide people with the wherewithal to help themselves, to find and create productive employment, to be masters of their own resources as well as their lives. As you invest then, as you plan activities that will result in gains for the people here as well as yourselves, remember that we need also to think of those in the other parts of the Province too, an invaluable human resource that needs also to be empowered to become full, productive and prosperous citizens of this country.

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