By Neeliya De Silva
Although great strides have been taken to address this issue, the problem of poverty persists in society to this day. The history of post-independence Sri Lanka has been characterised by its substantial provision of social protection programs, particularly through free education, healthcare and food subsidies.
The Samurdhi scheme – the main social welfare program run by the Government today – was introduced in 1995 and has contributed towards achievements in poverty alleviation through its provision of consumption grants, a micro-finance strategy under Samurdhi Bank Unions, and the rehabilitation and development of community infrastructure through social development.
President Maithripala Sirisena has reaffirmed his commitment to the continuation of Samurdhi, currently a contentious issue of discussion within Parliament. The President has assured that the government will not remove or reduce benefits granted for existing low-income Samurdhi beneficiaries, whilst new applicants will be provided for, stating that ‘the current Government always takes policy decisions for the betterment of the people’.
The scheme is necessary for the State to alleviate the plight of poverty-stricken villagers—many of them land labourers who are contingent upon erratic weather patterns and other unforeseen changes for their income—and must continue to subsidise those who are most in need.
Indeed, since its inception, Samurdhi has contributed to the reduction of poverty, which now stands at below 7% of the population. Nevertheless, as a recent World Bank report shows, low standards of living prevail for the poorest 40% of the population – a significant segment of which live on less than $5 a day – creating a state of mounting social unrest in an already divided society, as they struggle to make ends meet in providing for the necessities of food, shelter, education and healthcare. It is how we seek to raise this standard that we must consider here.
The Samurdhi program, although a commendable and necessary undertaking, presents some notable difficulties in its implementation: firstly, its effectivity has been hindered by systemic failures in management, monitoring and poor targeting, with no clearly defined eligibility criteria having led to a lack of benefits reaching their intended beneficiaries. A 2007 study by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) found that the Samurdhi food stamp program, “which constitutes 80% of the total program budget, misses about 40% of the households in the poorest quintile while almost 44% of the budget goes to households in the top three quintiles”.
Secondly, there has been widespread dissatisfaction about the politicisation and discrimination within the program, with abuse of authority by public officials often influencing the allocation of resources and causing benefits to reach non-poor recipients based on their political affiliations. This type of favouritism has also led to the curtailing of the freedom of political choice amongst poor people, which is detrimental to their effective participation in the political process and their ability to seek representation within it.
Thirdly, some have also blamed the design weaknesses within the welfare program for creating a culture of dependency, with no clear exit mechanism and incentives in place for recipients to graduate out of the program in a sustainable method and pursue processes that lead to their autonomous socioeconomic development.
All this considered, the Government must realign its thinking towards more long-term sustainable development goals as it seeks to eradicate poverty and inequality. This can be done through training individuals at the grassroots level, by instilling qualities of motivation, commitment, responsibility and leadership. This can be done particularly by empowering women to freely participate in the public sphere, as ingrained attitudes and social stigmatisation often discourages their voices from being heard in decision making processes.
Development can also occur more effectively from fostering entire communities towards collective social action and self-help through collaborative participatory processes, skills development and building a sense of solidarity amongst more marginalised identities through this collective engagement.
The north and east, still scarred by the wounds of war, remain disproportionately mired in poverty and poorly developed, with high youth unemployment compared to the rest of the country, and must be invested in more through the provision of good quality housing, education, the creation of more job opportunities and equality of access these, and affirmative action programs for the past marginalised communities to progress to be on par with the more advanced regions, as stated on the National Action Plan on Reconciliation and Coexistence.
The Government’s long-term vision should be to eradicate poverty and create prosperity by seeking the autonomous and sustainable development of the most vulnerable, marginalised and disadvantaged in society. This is done both through building individual agency, and through addressing the deeper structural problems that remain entrenched in society. We must ask the political question of why inequality remains so rampant, and why profligate city elites live unencumbered by taxation whilst entire rural societies stagnate. There must also be further investment in the improvement of education, healthcare and vocational training to allow for greater social mobility amongst the working class, creating a broader middle class which in turn leads to the regeneration of the economy.
The path to overcoming poverty may be made more effective through new Government policies introduced this year such as the Grama Shakthi program – a movement to mobilise Government, private and public sectors to support reaching the national goal of making Sri Lanka poverty free by 2030. This inclusive and accountable movement seeks to strengthen, empower and formally organise communities to become active in their path to overcoming poverty. This is done through modernising the agricultural sector, reducing imports and boosting local industries and entrepreneurship by increasing the foreign market for local vegetables and fruits. This people-driven, rights-based movement seems to be the more sustainable vision to adhere to if we are to progress towards a poverty-free future, raise standards of living, strengthen the national economy and create an equal and inclusive society.
(Neeliya de Silva holds a Masters from London School of Economics & Political Science. She is currently on an internship in Sri Lanka.)