Sri Lanka could benefit from campaign to entice expat skills: economist

ECONOMYNEXT- Sri Lanka can make major gains from an aggressive campaign to entice professionals living abroad coupled with visa de-regulation, to bring new skills and international business links in line with other fast growing nations, an economist said.

“We have to take aggressive measures to keep migrant professionals linked to our economy,” Bilesha Weeraratne, an economist at Colombo-based Institute of Policy Studies said.

“It can become a cycle and benefit a lot of people,” Weeraratne said.

At the moment, the contribution from most migrant professionals is that they come back once a year to visit, and spend like tourists before returning to their new country of residence, she said.

Professionals living abroad could be enticed to give financial assistance and expertise for projects in Sri Lanka, find new opportunities for locals to trade and create business links and find investment partners, she said.


Nobody’s Baby

Weeraratne said a creative promotional campaign could be launched with the help of a professional advertising agency.

“There is very little done to get these professionals to contribute. There needs to be a campaign,” she said.

“Right now it’s nobody’s baby, whether it’s the Foreign Employment Ministry or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

“It’s a thorny issue. With the Tamil Diaspora, nobody wants to touch it, but there’s a lot of potential.”

The Foreign Affairs Ministry had attempted to take initiative in 2015, but had drawn criticism for it.

The migration of professionals outward has accelerated over the past decade, reaching a compounded annual growth rate of 8.4 percent.

In the 10-year period up to 2017, 46,735 professionals have migrated from Sri Lanka for foreign employment, according to official data, compared to 12,807 a decade earlier.

Around 93 percent of the professionals migrating are males.

Sri Lanka’s rupee has also depreciated rapidly in recent years, which destroys real wages making for both brain drain and brain drawn, while also killing capital needed to boost labour productivity, some analysts have said.


Weeraratne said foreign governments give family visas and overseas companies offer attractive incentives, such as accommodation allowances, in addition to high pay, to bring in professionals and their families to help their economies.

“The bait is that the whole family can come. Most often, due to assortative mating, a professional’s wife will also be a professional,” she said.

“Ultimately Sri Lanka loses two people, as well as the second generation, because it’s also likely that their children will also be highly skilled and professionals.”

Many of the professional migrants are in the financial sector, taking up jobs in the Middle East, while a number of hospitality industry persons have also been seen leaving for the Middle East and the Maldives, Weeraratne said.

Sri Lanka should regain their expertise if it is to become the regional services hub the government is aspiring it to become, she said.

Various tactics can be used to entice the migrants, she said.

“Some people value family. Then you have to find ways to entice them through that,” Weeraratne said, speaking from personal experience.

“Most often, these families don’t rely on remittances. It’s the general economy that benefits from it,” she said.

Appeals could be made to other professionals to give back to an economy which helped them through free education, she said.

“Push for the soft spot.”


Nationalist Visas

However at the moment, Sri Lanka’s visa rule makes it extremely expensive for a foreign resident Sri Lankan to come back, unless the spouse and children are also Sri Lankan passport holders.

Even if an expatriate Sri Lankan who is married to a foreign passport holder comes back for a job in the home country – usually at a lower salary – his or her spouse cannot work due to a nationalist visa system.

Weeraratne said that visa processes need to be more open to facilitate the involvement of professionals in activities in Sri Lanka.

“Our visa categories, unless they come settle down, we can’t offer them an employment situation,” she said.

“There has to be some flexibility there where they can work from offshore, or do small stints where they don’t have to fill out all these forms for work. When it’s such a hassle, they don’t want to come.”

“There has to be some conducive and inviting mechanism so that they get attached and contribute to the economy even though they’re not here.” (Colombo/Sept27/2018)


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