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Siglien Burleson, Former President - Suriname Business Forum

Interview - October 13, 2011
Suriname is seeing growth, as well as witnessing a very large enthusiasm both in the government and the private sector to develop the country further

Could you please give your opinion to our American readers on the state of the economy in Suriname and what your evaluation is about the objectives achieved up to now? How would you evaluate the way the objectives were achieved?

Thank you for, I am pleased to welcome you to Suriname. We’ve been seeing growth, and we’ve been seeing a very large enthusiasm both in the government and the private sector to develop the country further. I think it gives the feeling that it is very sustainable because, between the last year, we had the transformation from government development aid to a period of non formal development aid; and we had a successful year. There was no collapse and the trust stayed, so we think that it gives a very good feeling that we have overcome a large fear and that people will be very strong in supporting the development growth. I further think that, given our various opportunities of the country, the first options around the mining sectors, but also new growth sectors are prompting to be developed and the awareness is already there that we need to diversify . The government has strengthened that in their free speech, the private sector sees now the opportunity to get into those other sectors and get support also from the government. We think that the opportunities are various and that, given the better awareness of the diversification that, especially the very successful mining activities, can lead to enhanced growth in the other sectors.

What are the main activities and action axes of SBF in order to achieve these goals, and what have the major achievements and contribution to the country been since SBF was founded? What are the action initiatives that SBF is going to focus on for the following years?

The Suriname Business Forum consists of ten organizations. It is a public/private dialogue platform; we have ten ministerial departments, we have the three large private sector organizations, and the civil society, plus the university in business and the boards of the trade unions.  So, given that composition, we work together to strengthen the ties between the stakeholders with the goal of getting better policies and with getting better business climate.

What we’ve been doing is not only through dialogue, but also with activities that come up with each and every stakeholder. Our main activities after the setting up of our project that was used to do basic studies and baseline studies and the setting up of the forum. It took three years, but we are now in the last year. It was like digging in the mud, so we have now to establish to get down to business. We’ve been really measuring our strategy for the development of the private sector, which is a legal obligation that was established by law, and we are obliged to write the national strategy. We did that for the 2010-2020 period, and also we drew up a national strategic action plan for five years. It is now in the phase that we identify key areas, sub sectors, sectors and activities for which we then have to draw activity plans together with the stakeholders. So, the main activity will now be to develop and to implement the strategic action plan together with the stakeholders.

To give you an idea about the strategic action plan, we have identified six focus areas among which we are attracting direct investment and developing new economic growth sectors. We have identified seven sectors, among which are the agro industry, the tourism industry, forestry services and cultural industries. We are enhancing the competitiveness of the businesses as well, then our forecast will be mainly to monitor. Since we are talking about trying to transform the country towards more productivity and getting into new sectors, we think it must be done in a very integrated way and we should start off the monitoring process, and that’s how we see ourselves, of course dialogue will have to continue.

Another important task is that we are strengthening the legal framework. We have identified legislation that needs to be reformed, and we think we can play a role therein.  We have a priority list out of the national strategy, because it also contains all the tasks that are not really of business forum tasks, but of course will have the stakeholders. We have identified all those activities on our priority list; we have the approach to doing business, the business climate reform, and we work closely with the World Bank indicators, and we think that we have a good start up. If we look at the start up of a business where we were able to give advice to the government: one was to take most of the business licenses that were required, and the second advice was for the procedure to start to create a company. We are now in the process that the government is able to reduce the time from the approximate 600 days to less than ten.

We are now on top of the investment law where we were able to give advice on the import taxes. Those who were taken away for industrial goods from 90% to reduce to 10%, so we are totally free from computers. We think that it is good for doing business and it is good for both national and international business.  We are working on several aspects of the business plan, we have a specific work group with the forum that has that task and we will now tackle things like building permits, and to go through the list and clean it up and activities for trade facilitation, etc.  On the other hand, we want to strengthen the competitiveness of the business and the business support organizations. We think that especially innovation into all the sectors could help, not to just export the raw products, but to get the products more developed and of course it is after that we will meet good capital and assist with knowledge, which we want to have in our school system and with groups, corporations and with other international businesses.

How would you consider the importance of creating alliances and collaboration with international organizations, and how would you value the relationship with them?

Well, very good; we think that we can draw a lot from the experience and get technical assistance. We think that we, on the other hand, have examples to offer to the world. By the collaboration between the international organizations we learn from their experience, the experience they have in other societies, and we can offer ours. So we think it is very enriching. It is about funds, it is about technical assistance. It is also about sharing and getting yourself in the international society, positioning yourself in a way that you are a learning society and that you are a sharing society, so we think we found it very fruitful up to now.  Also the stakeholders that we identified to cooperate in those activities, they learn a lot, they grow a lot and their experience is very, very positive.

How do you evaluate the importance of creating a country brad, and what could the role of SBF be in contributing to enhance Suriname’s products at an international level?

We think it is very important because the country has a lot to offer, and that means that a very good all around brand, that we will agree to expose all the good elements in the country.  We think we are very green, we think we are relatively educated, we are very democratic, we share and we have lots and lots of opportunities, and we have an abundance of natural resources. We’re not a very large country, but we would like to invite everybody to come and live because we have more than enough space.  I think that the brand will be able to promote the products better, it is cost efficient for the exporters and entrepreneurs and it is a way to see more than just the quality of the product you’re branded in the county. That’s what we would all like to do because we have so much to offer.

How would you evaluate the overall state of Suriname-U.S. relations today and what role does the U.S. play in Suriname’s economy? Could you give the readers of USA Today a few examples of companies that have trusted Suriname and have invested in the country and have succeeded?

I think it is a very positive relationship and, if you look at the cultural side, we are sharing a lot in the sense that you can find very much of the American aspirations here. If you are at the bilateral relationship in the sense of the countries between the countries as nations I think it is very respectful and very open. I have been part of some small cooperation agreements were I met with people. I call it a partnership agreement. I like it very much, I find the people they are very warm, but I would say that even though the United States is one of the main partners the potential is not fully used, is not fully developed, there is a lot more potential. I would hope that both economic departments of both countries would grow more together and put some more in-depth information, especially for the business society and the American business society so that the potential can be used. I think we have a lot more that we can offer, that we can learn and share. Although it is a very small population, the potential is very large and the United States market could be a very good market to go for it. If we want to, we cannot just develop for our own market, it has very small the economies of scale, it is a disadvantage, and so we need big brothers with markets and willingness to help. Also the fact that we are definitely in need to offer work investments, soft investments, I think it will be very good to promote the economic opportunities for both sides of the private sector for both countries.
Given that all these opportunities are near, we think we have a competitive advantage because we are very green; we are not so large as the United States, but large enough; we have sectors that are waiting to be developed, sub sectors. We can tap out of experiences of foreign direct investors and business will invest themselves here, and we think we have people who are very well educated, though we lack some specific skills. But we think the society, given the cultural diversity, we are a very open and positive towards foreigners.  I guess it’s a good thing because we are like that, and we think that we are a democratic society, we value the goods and properties and rights of others and ourselves very high, and we think the way that the American does. Bilateral relations have given us space to do that, I think they respect us and we respect them.  So we think that the American society is one with lots of successes, and we think that the businesses there are well experienced, lots of success stories, and we have lots of opportunities. I think it is a very good partnership.

Can you evaluate the relationship between the public and private sector in Suriname and how are they achieving their objectives?

I must say it took ten years before the forum was established, and I think it was out of a need of too much talking and nothing happening together, but we have developed and I think the forum was successful in pulling the ties together.  The development on the side of the government for now for us is tremendous because the first president is one of the founders and a former member of the business forum. As soon as he got into office, he said I am here, I am heading, are you coming, the door’s open, I am not waiting, I am moving upwards, so the opportunities to have very close ties, very coordinated policies are clear. I think the sense of urgency now that we have more choices is here and the sense of urgency that now is the time. I have to go forward, I want to start a business, I want to do something with my life, I want to develop, people are talking more businesslike, and the government is talking more in the direction of supporting development and it was very prominent in the speeches of the president and vice president that entrepreneurship should be and will be promoted and that the business sector should be facilitated. We are seeing the sign that phases have been enacted up until now, that the rules are there, it is getting in the process, it is already leading to more registration of businesses in the Chamber of Commerce, so it is working, it has started now and I think the proof is that it will show off and pay off.

Why do you think that the Fitch Ratings have decided to improve the ratings at this particular moment in time, and how would you value the importance of Suriname in increasing it’s credibility towards the international community?

Well, I think that it’s very much at the crossroads, but I think we just choose from our path. I think the timing may have something to do with the fact that you have now to go on without development aid what is going to happen with your economy. You have a new government, you have bills to pay, and we have fewer earnings from the mining sector, more from the private sector. Luckily for us, after a year we were still able to be in control, we have more businesses and we have more energetic people, we have more foreign investors interested, we have the old ones, like the Netherlands and the United States, we have new ones. The government is setting clear policies to integrate more in the new year, in the Latin American region and in the Caribbean region. I think both sides are working so the policies, the ties with Europe were broadened to include France also, very specifically, and I think it is a good sign if the government is signing or promoting diversification of the external organization and, on the other hand, the business sector is getting better facilitated and the awareness is there among the people, then I think it can only grow.

Final question. Act as an ambassador of Suriname, how would you like your country to be perceived in the U.S. and internationally?

I think we are the country of opportunities, that you can really realize and that you can be part of your own and other success. This is a country is where you can create; there are a lot of opportunities. This is a country where you can eat your vegetables, you can pick the leaves of your own vegetables, like in the former history books, you put in the earth and it will grow.  The sign of the old history books was that some former planter would sit in the yard on a wooden chair and the legs of the chair will grow. We are fruitful; things grow, so I think that we are very diverse, we value that very hard.  We have a very open, ambitious way to connect with all other nationalities because we do it on a daily basis so we think that everybody in the world will feel very at home.  I think that maybe the very best way.  Wherever you come from some part of you will really be here.