Lankans abroad to work for a while in motherland

by Namini Wijedasa in New York
A specialist inter-governmental organisation headquartered in Geneva is conducting a survey to determine whether qualified professional Sri Lankans abroad would return home for brief periods of service.

If the survey yields positive results, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) will collaborate with the Sri Lankan government in finding temporary work placements — throughout the country — for volunteers. IOM has also been exploring options within the private sector, institutions of higher learning and non-governmental outfits.

An IOM spokesman said his organisation will fund travel expenses for willing candidates, facilitate visa arrangements and provide a small stipend for the duration of placement. Meanwhile, local employers will be provided with basic equipment needed to help absorb the qualified national. Donor support will be sought for successful implementation. Candidates are likely to take leave of absence from their current jobs and placement could last between three and twelve months.

The organisation is now circulating a questionnaire requesting information from Sri Lankan emigres about their fields of expertise and levels of education. It also asks candidates what their preferred lengths of placement would be and how soon they could leave for Sri Lanka.

The categories mentioned under fields of expertise include construction and engineering, education and training, telecommunications and media, health, administration or management, finance or banking, manufacturing and production, agriculture and information technology.

"The general idea is to match human resource needs in Sri Lanka with expertise available from Sri Lankans living overseas," Tommy Gelbman, the Colombo-based programme manager, told the ‘Sunday Island’. He said the project would be called Return of Qualified Nationals — Sri Lanka (RQN-SL) and will be multi-year.

"What is most important is that RQN-SL will employ a demand-based approach," Gelbman elaborated. "That is, RQN will only seek to fill human resource needs in Sri Lanka in areas where labour demand is not met through local supply, or in those areas where additional technical expertise is needed."

"In other words, returning Sri Lankan expatriates will not be taking local jobs," he stressed. "Rather, they will be filling jobs that would otherwise go unfilled."

Gelbman said it was not possible to accurately analyse the immediate response of Sri Lankans to the scheme as preparatory work wasn’t finished. He specified, however, that the concept had been well received both locally and by Lankans abroad.

"IOM has received constructive feedback from a range of stakeholders, including the government, and is working to integrate that feedback into the project design," he explained.

At the end of the preparatory phase, IOM will have a better idea of human resource needs in Sri Lanka and some feedback from the Sri Lankan expatriate community on how to fill them. The programme will ultimately be fashioned to support reconstruction in war-affected areas as well as development throughout the island, by filling immediate human resource needs and countering the effects of ‘brain-drain’. It also aims at facilitating the progressive transfer of knowledge, skills and expertise of qualified Sri Lankan emigres to members of the workforce in sectors vital to Sri Lanka’s development.

Successive governments have been trying constantly to entice qualified Sri Lankans home. However, their efforts have not been fruitful, mostly because of the war and also due to perceived (or real) lack of opportunity.

IOM set up an office in Sri Lanka only last year but the country has been a member since the first Gulf war. Gelbman stressed that the government was key partner in all IOM projects. He also observed that IOM had been conducting RQN programmes around the world for the past thirty years. Beneficiaries include Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chile, East Timor, the Great Lakes region of Africa and Thailand.