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REF's create private - public synergy at grassroots level

Small business owners in Sri Lanka, particularly those who reside in provincial areas, face numerous constraints and obstacles as they struggle to make their businesses successful. These include problems that relate to marketing and packaging, business registration, trade name registration, and other issues related complicated regulatory, licensing and taxation requirements. The Regional Chamber Advocacy Forum (RCAF), an informal grouping of the provincial and district chambers in Sri Lanka, identified this lacuna in their numerous deliberations over the past 3 years, and set out to find a solution.

There was previously no organized platform for marginalized local businesses to raise their issues and find solutions at the local level. With this in mind, the member chambers of the RCAF designed a new form of local level private public dialogue, called the "Rural Enterprise Forum" or REFs, and have been working to introduce these forums around the country, with support from The Asia Foundation, under its Local Economic Governance (LEG) Project.

The Rural Enterprise Forums are a structured and organized mechanism which provides a platform where issues related to small businesses can be discussed, shared and resolved with support from local level government officials. The composition of the REF is intended to facilitate the resolution of business related issues at Divisional Secretariat level. The REF meetings are co-chaired by the Divisional Secretary and the Chairman of the Pradhesiya Sabha, while the local trade association serves as the secretariat, providing logistical and administrative assistance. Managers of State and Commercial Banks, Administrative Grama Niladhari, Forest & Environmental Officers, representatives from Vocational Training and micro finance institutes and representative from local NGOs providing business development services, as relevant, form the rest of the committee, and are invited depending on the issues on the agenda.

Local journalists who are able to draw the attention of Central Government to local issues through news articles are also included from time to time, as required.

Coordinated by the Anuradhapura District Chamber of Commerce & Industry (ADCCIA), which serves as the secretariat for the RCAF, Rural Enterprise Forums are being established in all districts except Colombo, Gampaha and Kalutara. In the first phase, 2011-12, the REFs will be established in 128 divisional secretariats in 11 districts. Ampara, Batticaloa, Vauvniya, Jaffna, Mannar, Anuradhapura, Matale, Kandy, Ratnapura, Badulla and Hambantota. The Anuradhapura Chamber is very pleased that they have already set up 22 REFs in five districts - Ampara, Badulla, Mannar, Anuradhapura and Ratnapura. Mr. P.B.Dissanayake, Director General/Executive Officer, Anuradhapura Chamber proudly states "we have already been able to resolve some of the issues which were faced by the Pottery makers and Bakery owners regarding access to credit, market and the quality of the product, benefiting a number of vulnerable business groups at local level".

In reality, most of the issues faced by small businesses are those which do not require intervention at national level, but rather, could be resolved at Divisional Secretariat and Pradhesiya Sabha levels.

For example issues related to business registration, trade name registration, environmental licenses, access to credit facilities and other business development services. The objective of the REF is to try to resolve these small issues within the purview of local level officials.

The Regional Chamber Advocacy Forum is supported by The Asia Foundation under its Australian International Agency for Development (AusAID) Local Economic Governance (LEG) program, which is working side by side with local and provincial governments to facilitate balanced economic growth in the regions. As Dinesha deSilva Wikramanayake, Team Leader of the LEG project notes, "one of the objectives of the Asia Foundation is to engage sub national stakeholders in the policy reform process for improved business climate". The Asia Foundation provides financial and technical support for the establishment of REFs to create a unique opportunity for the integration of district Chambers, local Trade Associations, key grass root level bureaucracies and elected local government officials in a meaningful dialogue.

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