October 27, 2023
Dr. Bernard, Chairman Hulangamuwa, Council President Sanji de Silva, business leaders and distinguished colleagues – good evening. It is a pleasure to address this council again.
It has been quite a journey since I spoke at this council’s annual general meeting in August last year. At that time, Sri Lanka was struggling with record inflation, extended blackouts, and long fuel queues, among many other problems. When I spoke then to this council, I shared my firm belief in the resilience of this country and its people to overcome those challenges. Slowly but steadily, the people of Sri Lanka, including business leaders such as yourselves, are doing exactly that. Inflation is slowing, shortages are subsiding, and some expect the country’s economy to start growing again in 2024. This journey speaks volumes about the tenacity and determination of Sri Lankans.
The IMF and Sri Lanka recently reached a staff level agreement, a very important step on the path to recovery. But there is more work to be done. That is why many highlight the importance of Sri Lanka’s continued commitment to long-term regulatory and economic reform. In addition to speedy and equitable debt restructuring, work must continue to improve fiscal transparency, foster a regulatory climate that attracts quality investments, and strengthen the country’s democratic good governance. History has shown time and again that these are some of the fundamental conditions necessary to ensure sustainable economic growth and strong democratic governance which are inevitably intertwined.
Everyone has had to bear the cost of this extraordinary economic crisis in different ways. The challenges that remain ahead require making difficult but essential choices. But those choices are necessary to ensure a brighter path for Sri Lanka’s next generation, whose future depends on what we do now. And in this task, your voice – the voice of Sri Lankan business leaders – is essential. Enhancing government transparency and accountability is not solely the government’s duty, but also the obligation of its citizens. Reforms are most effective when they address the genuine concerns of people and businesses directly impacted by them.
The challenge ahead remains significant, but the United States stands firmly by Sri Lanka’s side in both prosperous and challenging times. As a testament to this partnership, in 2022, USAID provided $40 million worth of fertilizers to Sri Lankan farmers as signs of nationwide food insecurity grew. This year, USAID is focusing on strengthening the country’s good governance and supporting Sri Lanka’s ability to sustain its economic recovery. Meanwhile, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation – the “DFC” – has provided support worth $128 million to Sri Lankan companies – especially small and medium enterprises and women-owned businesses – and the DFC is making more commitments here that we will be highlighting in the coming weeks. We also support large business incubator programs for Sri Lanka’s aspiring entrepreneurs, providing them with essential business management training and exposure to the global supply chain network. And this support led to some inspiring stories: one woman entrepreneur I met started an online STEM-based education program for kids with limited access to higher education; another entrepreneur has a successful business selling mushroom-based products sourced from rural women farmers. Our commitment to helping Sri Lankan entrepreneurs like these represents our firm belief that Sri Lankan SMEs are the backbone of this country. And of course, Sri Lankan children represent the future – that is why we fund a non-profit school feeding program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, providing nutritious meals to primary school children in rural Sri Lanka.
Last month, U.S. and Sri Lankan trade delegations met to formulate an action plan to strengthen trade and investment between our two countries. The visit was also a reminder of how much our trade relations have grown since we signed the bilateral Trade and Investment Framework Agreement – the “TIFA” – in 2002, the first in the South Asian region. I recently came across a photo of the signing of the original TIFA in Washington D.C. 21 years ago in which then-Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was standing among Sri Lankan and U.S. representatives to witness the moment. Our bilateral trade, which was valued just under $2 billion in 2002, has nearly doubled since then.
In August, we also welcomed U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen, whose father served in my position as the U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka from 1972 to 1976. As we mark the 75th anniversary of our bilateral relations this year, Senator Van Hollen – who witnessed the 25th anniversary of our relations when he lived in Colombo – shared some of his fond childhood memories of Sri Lanka and the remarkable ways in which the relationship has grown since then. His visit, along with the photo of our TIFA signing, was a valuable reminder to me that it is the people of our two countries who drive the progress and partnerships that give new meaning to our bilateral relations.
As business leaders, your resilience during Sri Lanka’s unprecedented economic crisis has made a significant mark in the country’s history. However, your leadership role – and the role of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and Sri Lanka – USA Business Council is far from finished. As I said last week at the Ocean Security Conference we sponsored, Sri Lanka punches above its weight as a strategic country with so much to offer – its natural resources, its people, its talents – but sometimes it just doesn’t know it. It takes ambition to go from crisis mode and just getting past an IMF program, to wanting so much more for its citizens, being bold about transforming its economy, education, innovation, concretely addressing endemic corruption, and becoming a leader in the region, and even the world. As the country steers its course through recovery and growth, I encourage you to continue shaping the journey with your voices, speaking truth to power, to ensure economic and political stability alongside transparency and good governance. This is how we can ensure that Sri Lanka’s future shines brighter than its past and provides opportunity and prosperity for generations to come. The United States has and will always stand by Sri Lanka as it aspires towards these goals.