The Colombo Plan for Cooperative Economic and Social Development in Asia and the Pacific was conceived at the Commonwealth Conference on Foreign Affairs held in Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in January 1950 and was launched on 1 July 1951 as a cooperative venture for the economic and social advancement of the peoples of South and Southeast Asia. Many prominent persons represented their respective countries at this Conference such as Percy Spender, Minister for External Affairs, Australia; Ernest Bevin, Foreign Secretary, Britain; Lester Pearson, Minister for External Affairs, Canada; Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister and Minister for External Affairs, India; Fredrick Doidge, Minister for External Affairs, New Zealand; Ghulam Mohammed, Minister of Finance, Pakistan and D.S. Senanayake, Prime Minister of Ceylon and J.R. Jayewardene, then Finance Minister and later President of Sri Lanka.
Originally it was called the Colombo Plan for Cooperative Economic Development in South and Southeast Asia. It has grown from a group of seven Commonwealth nations – Australia, Britain, Canada, Ceylon, India, New Zealand and Pakistan – into an international organisation of 26, including non-Commonwealth countries. When it adopted a new constitution in 1977, its name was changed to “The Colombo Plan for Cooperative Economic and Social Development in Asia and the Pacific” to reflect the expanded composition of its enhanced membership and the scope of its activities.
The Colombo Plan was instituted as a regional intergovernmental organisation for the furtherance of economic and social development of the region` nations. It is based on the partnership concept for self-help and mutual help in the development process with the focal areas being, human resource development and south-south cooperation. While recognising the need for physical capital to provide the lever for growth, the Colombo Plan also emphasised the need to raise the skill level to assimilate and utilise the physical capital more efficiently.
In the early years, Colombo Plan assistance from developed to developing countries comprised both transfer of physical capital and technology as well as a strong component of skills development. Hence, while infrastructure by way of airports, roads, railways, dams, hospitals, fertilizer plants, cement factories, universities, and steel mills were constructed in member countries through Colombo Plan assistance, a large number of people were simultaneously trained to manage such infrastructure and the growing economies.
Over the years, while adhering to the concept of human resource development and south-south cooperation in addressing issues of economic and social development, the programme content of the Colombo Plan has been changing to take account of the needs of member countries in a fast changing world economic environment. In the early years, the training programmes were more of a long-term nature while recent programmes have been focusing on providing advance skills and experience sharing aimed at arriving at the best practices in different fields of economic and social activities as a means of good policy making and governance.
The current programmes of the Colombo Plan are in the areas of public policy formulation in an environment of globalisation and market economy, private sector development as a prime mover for growth and in drug abuse and prevention in member countries. The Colombo Plan also provides skill development opportunities for technicians in middle level through another of its programmes the Colombo Plan Staff College for Technician Education located in Manila.