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Strong cultural ties behind growth in outsourcing between Britain and Sri Lanka

by James Bruce, Outsourcing Consultant, Envoy Holdings

Lee Kuan Yew, founding father of modern Singapore, first visited Sri Lanka in 1956 in search of a blueprint for post-colonial success.  Both were small south Asian nations previously under British rule; however the fate of the two since those days could not have been more different.  Singapore has arguably become the most successful post-colonial nation on earth, establishing itself as a global financial hub and growing its GDP per capita from $515 in 1965 to around $55,000 today.  Sri Lanka went on to suffer decades of ethnic conflict, corruption, and backward economic policy, losing many of its brightest citizens in the process as they went abroad in search of greater opportunity and stability. 

Now six years on from the end of the war that ended in 2009, Sri Lanka is finally seeing its fortunes on the rise, posting GDP growth of 7.4 per cent in 2014 and forecasted to at least match that this year and next despite a certain degree of political uncertainty that would usually leave foreign investors nervously holding back.

Amongst its traditional exports such as tea and garments, outsourcing is becoming one of the largest foreign exchange earners in the country and Sri Lanka is leveraging its British connection to create new opportunities for its people.  It is not just the English language, ubiquitous in key cities like Colombo, which stands out.  Free education all the way up to university level ensures a well-educated talent pool, and the CIMA, the professional body for management accountants, has more Sri Lankan members than any other country outside of Britain.  In contrast to the Philippines for example which is very US focused, Sri Lanka’s background means it can provide F&A, legal, and medical services to clients from the UK with far less cultural adjustments needed. 

The forward momentum is such that Sri Lanka won ‘offshoring destination of the year’ in the NOA’s 2014 awards ceremony.  It is not the first time that the country of 21 million is punching above its weight amongst its much larger neighbours such as India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.  In the face of ethical concerns engulfing the apparel industry it launched its ‘garments without guilt’ initiative in 2008; improving the credibility of its textile industry that counts Victoria’s Secret and Marks and Spencer on the list of global names that choose to source large amounts of garments from Sri Lanka.  When the London Stock Exchange launched a global RFP for a faster trading platform in 2009, many were surprised to see that it was a small Sri Lankan software company that won the bid.  MillenniumIT is now a fully owned subsidiary of the London Stock Exchange Group and is attracting top talent from the financial technology sector to its Malabe headquarters, such as CEO Mack Gill, a Canadian with a Master’s from Yale who was formerly president of SunGard Technology Services.

At the other end of the scale entrepreneurs are getting in on the act too, such as Prasad Hettiarachchi of Agaya Holdings, a small KPO operation based out of Colombo that offer document extraction services to clients as far afield as Australia and the USA.  “I wanted to be my own boss by the age of 40 and the outsourcing industry will grow at double the pace of GDP here in Sri Lanka for the foreseeable future.” he says.  In the long term the company hopes to move into big data analytics and sees the UK as a key market both for new clients and potential business partnerships.

As Sri Lanka continues to develop and grow, so too does its relationship with Britain, from colonial history to a future of partnership and commercial opportunity which both nations can benefit from greatly. Outsourcing forms just a small part of this complex new relationship but it should be recognised as a force for good in developing better global relations and helping a country move on from its troubled past.

James Bruce is an outsourcing consultant for Envoy Holdings, and Managing Director of First Shore Limited.

View James’ LinkedIn profile.

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