November 4, 2022
President Jones, Founding President de Silva, honorable members of the board, and friends at WISTA – thank you for the invitation to speak with you this evening.
A special thanks to Shehara de Silva for your support of the USDA McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition Program. This five-year $26 million program in Sri Lanka is aimed at providing immediate emergency assistance to the food insecure to improve literacy and attendance by reducing hunger.
Shehara, you and I first met at the handover ceremony for a shipment of 320 metric tons of American split beans under the McGovern-Dole program. Our hard work together will help improve the health of hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan school children. The U.S. Embassy is happy that McLarens Group could partner on the project as we work to lessen the impact of the ongoing economic crisis on the most vulnerable populations.
The next time I met you, Shehara, was at a cycling class here in Colombo. That time, we were working hard to improve our own health, vigorously spinning those bicycle pedals. Now, let us take that same vigor and put it into recruiting more women into the shipping industry and the broader Sri Lankan economy.
We all know that Sri Lanka is facing one of the most challenging moments in its history, but the Sri Lankan people showed the world just how resilient they are in overcoming the peak of the crisis this summer. Fuel queues no longer clog the streets, power cuts are shorter, and people are returning to normal activities. While we are all hopeful of continued improvement, now is not the time to become complacent. Much more hard work lies ahead.
We are very pleased that Sri Lanka and the IMF reached a staff level agreement. The $2.9 billion program, if approved by the IMF board, would help restore macroeconomic stability, safeguard financial stability, protect the vulnerable, implement structural reforms, and most importantly address corruption, all to encourage Sri Lanka’s economy to grow at its full potential.
Work must start immediately to introduce critical reforms to loss-making government-run companies. Good governance and transparency must be incorporated in financial management and public expenditure processes. And barriers must be removed to create opportunities for desperately needed private investment. President Wickremesinghe committed his administration to addressing the root causes of this crisis so that the country can implement international standards for the benefit of all Sri Lankans. We support these efforts.
President Wickremesinghe also highlighted the importance of trade and investment and his desire to tap into foreign direct investment. For this to be successful, the business environment and investment framework environment need to improve. Concerns about consistency and transparency in government decision-making, and above all, a lack of predictability, are the primary reasons American firms tell us why FDI has not grown faster. This is an area where organizations like WISTA Sri Lanka can leverage its relationships with policy makers and companies already connected to the international markets that the president wants to tap into, including ours in the United States.
With its serendipitous location on the main east-west Indian Ocean shipping lanes, Sri Lanka is poised to become a major maritime hub. From my office at the Embassy, I have a view of the Port of Colombo. I can see the many ships coming from all over the world; I watch the port cranes hard at work generating revenue for the country. From that vantage point, it is easy to see the potential opportunities that further development can bring. With good governance and a more open market, Sri Lanka’s maritime sector stands to gain from hundreds of millions of dollars in long-term investment. Sri Lanka stands at the heart of the most economically dynamic region in the world, and your industry will be critical to the country’s recovery and future prosperity.
But to truly prosper, Sri Lanka must invest in its people and create a more inclusive and sustainable economy. For Sri Lanka to not only survive this economic crisis, but thrive, becoming stronger and better, it will need more than just one half of the population to drive the economy. It is vital to have a workforce with gender parity, with women literally at the table and in leadership roles.
At the U.S. embassy, besides myself, we have women heading sections on security, public diplomacy, political and economic affairs, Peace Corps, consular, and the construction of our new building. Women should enjoy equal access to funding for their small and medium-sized enterprises that operate in so many villages and towns across the island. It is imperative that all Sri Lankans have access to quality public primary, secondary, and tertiary education, and training so that Sri Lanka retains and builds on the rightly earned reputation of having a highly educated, creative, and skilled workforce. This is why I am so happy to be here together with so many Sri Lankan businesswomen today.
Of the roughly 125 million people employed in logistics and supply chain globally, only 2 percent are female. And only 1 percent of sailors are women. Although the United States has one of the highest industry participation rates for women, I am sad to say that even the best estimates put it at only about 30 percent. The maritime industry is male dominated, and has been so for ages, but that could be about to change. There is a huge opportunity for women in the sector and I know that WISTA Sri Lanka has been hard at work over the last eight years to promote women in the industry.
I understand the challenges that the absence of gender parity and inclusion have on the workplace. When women comprise the majority of a population, as is the case in Sri Lanka, the inequality of representation at all levels of private and public sectors creates knowledge gaps and ignores entire populations of employees and markets. Studies demonstrate over and over again that inclusion of women in the workforce and policy planning increases peace, economic stability, and security for our world. As a female diplomat, it has not always been easy. One estimate I read put the global average of women ambassadors at about 25 percent. Myself, as a woman born in South Korea, I never imagined that I would be here in front of you today as the Ambassador representing the United States of America. I made it, but it was not easy! Because of explicit and implicit biases that still exist, I often feel I need to work twice as hard as my male counterparts to prove myself. Unfortunately, I know that many of you had to do the same. It should not be this way and the work that you do through WISTA is critical to creating change for the next generation of leaders.
This is a defining moment in Sri Lankan history, and a time when inclusive economic growth is more important than ever. The U.S. stands by Sri Lanka during these challenging times. Recently, we brought two key women leaders from the United States to show our support. USAID Administrator Samantha Power and Ambassador Cindy McCain were in Sri Lanka in September and visited schools, agricultural research and community centers to hear first-hand from recipients and implementors of humanitarian assistance. They announced $40 million in aid to help farmers buy fertilizer and other key agricultural inputs and another $20 million in humanitarian assistance. This comes on top of $120 million in financing for Sri Lankan small and medium-sized businesses (many for women owned businesses), $27 million for the Sri Lankan dairy industry, and over $30 million in new humanitarian, technical, and food security assistance to benefit Sri Lanka’s most vulnerable communities. Much of the money distributed through these programs goes to women-owned companies.
For seventy years, the United States has provided foreign assistance, loans, trade opportunities, and two-way educational exchange programs to help grow the Sri Lankan economy, increase domestic capacity, and support the prosperity and wellbeing of the Sri Lankan people. Just last week, President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Under Secretary of State for Management John Bass, and I officially opened the new U.S. embassy building on Galle Road. The embassy building project itself injected about $90 million into the Sri Lankan economy and stands as a strong symbol of our enduring partnership.
The building houses our beautiful new American Center in Colombo, expanded to providing information on scholarships, exchanges, and high-tech resources like 3D printers and virtual reality goggles! Decorating the hallways are dozens of pieces of artwork created by both Sri Lankan and American artists celebrating our long-lasting relationship. Shehara, we also have exercise bicycles in our beautiful new staff gym. Maybe I will invite you over sometime for a workout.
The United States remains a friend and partner for Sri Lanka’s prosperity, and I look forward to watching and supporting Sri Lanka surpass this economic crisis, grow, and thrive. I know all the women in this room will be an integral part of that partnership. Thank you.