Marshall-like plan for whole country
Sri Lanka this week steps out of the eternal cycle of violence and goes into peace talks with the LTTE for the fourth time since 1983 with a marginal difference - overwhelming support from the business community.

The private sector, which has stayed aloof of the peace process for years, last year came into the picture with the creation of SriLankaFirst, a business-peace initiative driven by personalities like Ranjit Fernando, then Director/General Manager at NDB, John Keells Holdings' Deputy Chairman Jagath Fernando and Neela Marikkar of Grant McCann Ltd.

Battered by the media for not responding earlier to the ethnic conflict, SriLankaFirst conceded that the business community was late in coming in but notes that "its better late than never" to show its support for the peace process.

Apart from the peace talks which most corporate leaders believe will take months to show some ground results, Sri Lanka is buzzing with activity with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe leading a top government cum business delegation to New York for a series of pro-business meetings starting on Monday.

It is by far the biggest joint tour undertaken by the government and the private sector and is coordinated by UNDP after the premier appealed to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in March for help to move the international community into investing in Sri Lanka. The "Invest in Peace" tour brings together Wickremesinghe, other government leaders and Sri Lankan corporate leaders with world leaders and US corporate leaders in a series of high profile meetings.

Add to that the cricket carnival that's taking place in Colombo with the ICC Champion's trophy on, and its one of those rare occasions when Sri Lanka has been thrown into the global limelight for the right, positive reasons. All this while - at least during the warring years since 1983 - Sri Lanka got a lot of publicity because of the bombs, mayhem and killings.

While all this is nice for a country trying to end a 19-year-old conflict and rebuild its ravaged economy, experts warn that one shouldn't expect too much in terms of investment from the New York exercise and also that any major development effort should include the drought-battered south apart from the north and the east. The New York exposure will put Sri Lanka back on the map and tell the world the country is ready for business but investors are unlikely to rush in.

No one is going to put money into a country where the future is still uncertain particularly since peace talks have failed in the past. Though there is more optimism now that this process would succeed given the global fight against terrorism, no one is sure whether the war would end - once and for all.

Also while the north and the east have been devastated by the effects of the conflict one must not lose sight of the fact that the south has for long been short of development funds in addition to the shortage of water.

Take the drought in the south last year. This drew a lot of public sympathy with private groups including private television channels joining the bandwagon to provide support to affected families in Hambantota and nearby districts.

Government agencies got together with non-governmental organisations and discussed ways of fighting any future drought. But what has happened since then? A proposed cabinet paper listing out the problems and providing some short and long-term solutions has been held up as the government has other priorities. Meanwhile, there are reports that the people in Hambantota are facing another drought, though not as serious as last year. No one is talking about it now because the government's and the people's priorities have shifted.

The need of the hour - while peace talks are on - is to prepare a development plan that would encompass the entire country - not only the north and the east.

The proposal Marshall-type plan driven by Economic Reforms Minister Milinda Moragoda is very clear on this issue. "We must not ignore the south or other areas outside the north and the east in the development phase that is planned. The entire country has to be developed as the whole of Sri Lanka has suffered in terms of war, development and a whole range of war-related issues," says Moragoda.

That's the way to go in meeting the aspirations of youth across the country. If we ignore this reality, we would be staring in the face of another JVP-type revolt.

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