This year’s observance of International Day for the Eradication of Poverty, which falls today, is a particularly special one, as it follows the recent adoption of the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
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’.
Poverty has been a burning issue in Sri Lanka over the years as well, with successive governments painting rosy pictures of the country’s improving situation backed by numbers that fail to tell the whole story. Surveys showed that 16 out of the 25 districts in the country had poverty levels well above the national average which meant that districts such as Colombo, where poverty are at extreme lows, were distorting the severity of the overall problem in the country and helping politicians hide behind misleading statistics. 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. Once a smaller percentage of income goes into the hands of the poverty stricken, a vicious cycle is created in which the poor can do little to improve their situation with limited access to education and healthcare. This sort of inequality ensures that the poor stay in permanent poverty and poverty itself becomes a permanent fixture in the country’s economic landscape. 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.
Furthermore, Sri Lanka’s Official Poverty Line, which was established in 2002 by the Department of Census and Statistics, suggested that the total basket containing both foods and non-foods believed to be essential for survival, cost Rs. 1,423 per person per month. As of September 2015, the official national poverty line is marked at Rs. 3,886 per person per month. In theory, this would mean that a Sri Lankan could meet his/her basic needs with just Rs. 129 a day, a sum still lower than the $ 1.25 outlined by the UN in its Millennium Development Goals. Meanwhile, the World Bank and IMF in 2015 reclassified the poverty line at $ 1.90 per day (Rs. 269).
Continued trimming of public spending allocations on health and education over the past decades, both in the midst of the war and after, has done little but exacerbate the situation. With the change in Government and the country’s seemingly promising opportunity to shift its eyes towards holistic development, the time has come to evaluate Sri Lanka’s poverty barometers – moving away from the traditional staple of politically-motivated programs and handouts – and strive towards creating a sustainable economy that does not alienate large portions of an already battered population.