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Talking inclusive business: MDF and Ceylon Chamber hold joint workshop

MDF Sri Lanka and the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce joined forces to engage the private sector and development organisations to discuss the ‘Role of Business in Inclusive Growth’ at a workshop on September 7. The half-day event was designed to explore and raise awareness of the role business can play in supporting and ensuring sustainable human development. The Ceylon Chamber of Commerce (CCC), Sri Lanka’s oldest business chamber, is highly recognized by the local business community and, therefore, was an obvious channel through which to engage the private sector.

Through the event, the argument for inclusivity in business was approached from several angles. MDF Sri Lanka’s Country Representative, Shahroz Jalil, set the scene with an overview of the Sri Lankan context. The context is underpinned by Sri Lanka’s ambition, and progress, in terms of transitioning into a middle-income economy, yet despite considerable progress, a portion of the population remains vulnerable to poverty.  The private sector – despite its post-conflict burst of growth – ed_DSC_0428continues to stagnate to some extent. Growth is stable, but is urban-centric and enjoyed by only a small group. Shahroz then touched on private sector development, explaining how programmes like MDF can work with businesses to support business objectives while also benefiting social groups that have been traditionally ‘left behind’ – women, the rural poor and people with disabilities, to name a few.

Australian Government Counsellor for Development Cooperation (Sri Lanka and Maldives), Charlotte Blundell, gave a presentation on the rise of the private sector in aid. Drawing from her experience in Sri Lanka and also Papua New Guinea, Charlotte explained how the Australian Government was increasingly looking to work with the private sector within the development cooperation programme. This is based on the principle of ‘Shared Value’, or the approach of working on commercially sustainable solutions for development challenges. In these partnerships, DFAT brings to the table its strategic influence and catalytic funding, while the business brings its sectoral expertise and resources. The result is a portfolio of investment priorities in key areas. In Sri Lanka, this includes ed_DSC_0442seafood and agriculture.

But how do actual businesses feel about this inclusivity angle, and what’s in it for them? The topic was tackled by Rajendra Theagarajah, a veteran banker and the current CCC Chairman.  Theagarajah identified three key areas with vast potential that the private sector could explore: value chains, skills development and ICT. Stressing on simple mechanisms like locally sourcing supply chains, or investing in training to cater to the growing need for elderly care in Sri Lanka, or investing in easy-to-use mobile payment platforms. Theagarajah outlined the various ways in which businesses could make big gains, but also draw large sections of society into the net of sustainable paid work.

After the speakers set the scene, the panel discussion took off with strong audience engagement. Deftly moderated by Shamindra Kulamannage, Editor-in-Chief of prominent business magazine Echelon, the conversation looked at what had already worked in Sri Lanka and what more could be done. Dr. Tim DeJager contributed to this with his experience in exporting giant freshed_DSC_0498water prawns with MDF partner Divron. Merrilene Peramune, a value chain expert and development consultant, was also able to add to the topic.

Interestingly, audience questions drove much of the discussion, and tourism emerged as an area that many viewed as having room to grow, but also facing roadblocks. The audience emphasised the challenges faced by smaller business players when it comes to, for example, reaching out to rural youth – low internetpenetration, the lack of access to basic services and the absence of a payment platform that would make it easier to work with foreign entities. The importance of diversifying the industry, while also regulating it in an unrestrictive way, was agreed on by everyone.

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Overall, the event hosted some good ideas and constructive conversation. The message that emerged was clear: the business case for inclusivity is real, and the onus is on the private sector to capitalise on the potential gains.

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