Geography matters

Thursday, 3 March 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


By Janani Balasubramaniam

Someone once told me that where you’re born determines how successful you become. Unfortunately, as much as I am inclined to dismiss this entirely as being too extreme or rant on about what “success” means; geography matters. 

Where is everyone working?

Let’s look at employment – as noted in the National Human Development Report (NHDR) 2014, regional disparities mean that some youth have more job opportunities than others. Jobs are heavily clustered around the Western Province, followed by the Central Province. Thousands commute to Colombo on a daily basis, from cities as far out as Untitled-3Matara and this is set to increase. Coupled with increased vehicle ownership, this means that congestion is an unfortunate reality that we will all face more regularly on a daily basis. This does not bode well for sustainable growth. Therefore transport demand management and infrastructure development are not the only aspects to consider when planning urban development. What may be more effective is to look at ways of dealing with the roots of the issue rather than its result. 

The National Youth Survey 2013 reveals that youth employment is highest in the North Western Province, and lowest in the Eastern Province. Youth unemployment, as per the Sri Lanka Labour Force Survey (Quarter 3, 2015) stands at a staggering 22.9%. This is specifically of concern as it is youth who are meant to be spearheading development in years to come.  

As per the Labour Force Survey 2014, the highest rates of unemployment (among the total population) are in the Southern, Northern provinces and Sabaragamuwa provinces; the lowest rates of unemployment are in the Western, North Central and Uva provinces. Statistics on underemployment (which are probably more telling of job opportunities and skills mismatches) paint a similar, yet more drastic, picture – here, the North Central, Northern and Southern provinces emerge as losers. Drilling down to the district level, Mullaitivu has the highest rate of underemployment, at 13.1%, followed by Vavuniya at 9.4%, and Anuradhapura at 7.1%. 

Creating opportunities outside traditional commercial hubs and outside the ambits of conventional jobs, is a necessary step to level the playing field across the provinces. In addition, a stronger focus on education and training is needed to ensure that our human capital is more productive and, further, willing and able to find employment in Sri Lanka. 

The SLBFE’s statistics on departures for foreign employment indicate that between 2009 and 2013, the highest number of migrants has consistently been recorded from the Colombo District and this is expected, given its total population; however, more interestingly, there are significant variations in the growth of migration between districts. 

The largest growth in migration for foreign employment during this period is recorded in the Batticaloa District, followed by Ampara and Puttalam. This is particularly relevant as the majority of migrant workers are youth. While remittances may contribute to regional growth by giving poorer households greater access to finance and all the knock-on effects that result from this, this outward migration also reflects a loss of productive labour. This can then have a longer-term impact on the development of specific regions.  

The blanket that is economic growth

Yes, when our GDP sailed past the existing national income thresholds, we graduated into middle income status. However, meeting a certain threshold of GDP at the national level masks internal variations in GDP contribution. Taking a look at statistics computed by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka for 2014, it is evident that provincial GDP contribution is heavily skewed towards the Western province (which contributed 42% of GDP in 2014). On the other end of the spectrum are the North Central, Uva and Northern provinces (which contributed 5.1%, 5.0% and 3.6% respectively). 

In addition, pockets of significant poverty are found within the cities of Colombo, Kandy and Galle/Matara – despite these cities being in more affluent provinces. Economic growth matters powerfully for the individual, as Dambisa Moyo said during a TED talk. It is not only a buzzword which surfaces in the media when a Central Bank report is published, an IMF delegation visits, or computational issues in national accounts are identified. It is something which has a deep-rooted effect on social mobility, living standards and arguably… happiness.

The reasons for regional disparities in growth in this country are many and varied; ranging from the effects of the ethnic conflict, language and cultural barriers, physical remoteness and barriers to mobility, politicisation and discrimination, poor education standards, skills mismatches and attitudes towards employment. 

On the last point, there is a tendency for youth to prefer a certain kind of job, and this is a result of societal attitudes and cultural forces, which position some jobs as more attractive than others. As noted in the NHDR (2014) for example, many young people consider vocational education unattractive, and voice a preference for higher skilled, professional employment, which means that there is a gap between labour market needs and what youth seek. 

In addition, there is a preference among many youth for public sector jobs, because of the benefits and prestige that comes with them. This limits career choices (in addition to preferences for a few categories of jobs such as in medicine, engineering, accounting and IT) and, unless there is a change in attitudes coupled with measures to make other career choices as attractive, there is unlikely to be much movement in employment trends across regions. 

In an age of innovation, we should work towards a state where geography ceases to influence development. Entrepreneurship must be encouraged, and youth must be made more aware of the labour market and encouraged to veer away from norms imposed by cultural perceptions and peer groups. Yes, a public sector job offers security, but it does not have to be seen as a fundamental life choice. 

At a higher level, the State must focus developmental efforts in peripheral regions as well, promoting vocational education, increasing job opportunities through encouraging private investment, and ensuring that these are catered to regional contexts but allowing for flexibility of choice. 

In sum, youth must be given the opportunity to stay in the regions in which they live (if they so desire) and pursue careers that they are passionate about – i.e. migrating to the city for work should not be seen as the only option; freedom of choice, after all, does help one change their circumstances. 

(UNLOCKED is a space for Sri Lankan youth to express their views and opinions on development with the aim of creating positive change in the world. The views expressed in the blogs are solely those of the authors. UNDP Sri Lanka and Daily FT does not represent or endorse the views expressed in these blogs. Read more about the UNLOCKED initiative