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Alleviating poverty

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Wednesday, 18 October 2017 00:00

Poverty is an issue that plagues Sri Lanka and has been the topic of much debate over the years. Successive governments have always painted rosy pictures of the country’s improving situation which it reinforces through numbers that clearly fail at painting the full picture.

National poverty statistics are usually distorted by the low levels of poverty in Colombo and other urban cities. However, surveys have shown that poverty levels were well above the national average in as many as 16 of the 25 districts of the country.

Districts such as Mannar, Mullaitivu, Batticaloa and Moneragala recorded extremely worrying levels of poverty which highlights the country’s problems with wage gaps and the inequity in wealth distribution. Poverty reduction and reduction in the inequality of wealth distribution as well as income gaps have to go hand in hand with the GDP if the Government is serious about creating a sustainable atmosphere of equality for its people.

Yesterday was the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty and this year marked the 25th anniversary of the declaration of 17 October as such by the UN General Assembly. It also marks the 30th anniversary of the Call to Action by Father Joseph Wresinski which inspired the observance. This year’s theme is ‘Answering the Call of October 17 to end poverty: A path toward peaceful and inclusive societies’.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – entitled ‘Transforming Our World’ – lists out 17 ambitious objectives of which eradicating poverty takes precedence. First on its list of goals is the lofty ambition of ‘ending poverty in all its forms everywhere’. This is followed by another goal closely linked to poverty alleviation – ‘end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture’.

Food security is a subject of particular relevance to Sri Lanka at the moment with the recent droughts debilitating agricultural output and further weakening rural communities. Furthermore, Sri Lanka’s battle with high income inequality stretches over decades. Sri Lanka’s Gini Coefficient has consistently ranged between 0.48 and 0.52 (0.4-0.6 considered high inequality) throughout most of its post-independence history and subtle shifts in these numbers have often provoked the self-congratulatory back slapping that we’ve become accustomed to from successive governments. However, the complacency regarding these numbers has further embedded into our economy what is becoming a characteristic disparity.

Social assistance programs such as Samurdhi have had a minor and decreasing impact on poverty reduction. Samurdhi transfers are too small to make a large impact on poor households’ budgets, as they contributed only 1.7% to household consumption of the poorest 20% of the population in 2012/13, according to the World Bank study. In other words subtracting the Samurdhi benefit from household consumption will increase the national poverty rate by 2.1% points in 2002. But in 2012/13, the comparable figure had declined to merely 0.6% points.

The Government must invest in studies to gather data and understand dynamics before crafting policies rather than rolling out handouts to broker more votes. The public must also understand the difference between quality and quantity, so that their representatives use public revenue to formulate and implement poverty alleviation methods that actually work.

Overcoming extreme poverty has been an important feature in many election manifestos and a routine promise at rallies but apart from short-term, reactive measures, successive governments have only managed to exacerbate the issue. It is important now for the public to demand sustainable policies instead of quick fixes even though it may take longer for us to feel the benefits.

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