Page last updated at 04:10 Asia/Manila, Tuesday, 17 July 2012 PH
Sri Lanka truly deserves the monicker of the Wonder of Asia. This is what a small group of Filipino business people discovered in a trade and investment mission to Colombo which I headed last May 24 to 28, 2012. Thanks to the assistance of the very pro-active Sri Lankan Ambassador to the Philippines, His Excellency Nawalage Bennet Cooray, our group was able to meet some of the highest government officials and top executives of the private sector in such a short period of time. As an economist, I was especially struck by the information that immediately after the civil war of thirty years ended in 2009, the economy of Sri Lanka started to grow at 8% per annum and is expected to grow at close to that rate for the coming years, despite the global economic crisis. Even more impressive was the fact that even during the worst years of the civil war that pitted the minority Tamil Tigers, who were using terrorist acts to create an independent Tamil state in the northern and eastern parts of the island, against the government and the Singhalese (about 75% of the population), the Sri Lankan economy continued to grow at a rate of 5.9%, significantly higher than our measly 4% during the same period. Even in a politically unstable environment, Sri Lanka reached a literacy rate of 94.2% which almost matches our own 95.7%.
It was also a surprise to me to learn that Sri Lanka has the highest per capita income in South Asia, the region to which it belongs geographically. Its per capita income of $2,877 in 2011 outshines those of India ($1,389), Pakistan ($1,201) and Bangladesh ($678). The Philippine GDP per capita during the same year is $2,223. What is more significant, however, is that Sri Lanka has brought down its poverty incidence (population living on less than $1.25 per day) to only 7.0% in 2007, compared to 26% in the Philippines. Its unemployment rate is only 4.3% compared to our 8%.
I am glad we traveled for some five hours from Colombo deep into the rural areas (where 85% of the population live) on our way to one of the eight UNESCO World Heritage sites, Sigiriya, a magnificent village curved out of a rock mountain by an ancient kingdom. Sigiriya is considered by some to be one of the oldest tourist attractions in the world with early visitors recording their impressions as graffiti on a wall described as the world's first interactive book. Located some 169 km from Colombo, the site consists of a sheer rock that rises over 200 meters with the ruins of a palace on the top and a vast pleasure garden complex at the foot.
During the trip, our guide left the main highways and took us to the inner countryside. There we saw the main reason why, despite political turbulence, the Sri Lankan government was more successful than the Philippines in combatting mass poverty. Everywhere we went, we saw well maintained farm to market roads, irrigation facilities, post-harvest machines and other rural infrastructures that help the small farmers to be more productive. Sri Lanka, which has a population of a little over 20 million people, is a small replica of Thailand where there is no small farm that is not within one kilometer from a good road. No wonder that among its top exports to the world are tea packets, tea in bulk, rice and cereals, desiccated coconut, cinnamon, processed food and fish fresh or chilled.