A Brief Inquiry Into The Continued, Widespread, Poverty Tragedy.
Posted on December 29th, 2010

Dr. Mervyn D. De Silva, former, Director/Advisor, Ministry of Plan Implementation (former SLFP National List Member of Parliament),

In the final quarter of the first decade of the 21st Century, we witnessed unprecedented extravaganzas, at huge costs, of serial celebrations. First, by the political fraternity (for the President) and next by the religious fraternity (for a Cardinal). Ironically, side by side with these contradictions was the unprecedented spectacle of the sufferings heaped on the poor, now ravaged by thunderstorms, floods, landslides, and damaged homes, caused by  furious mother-nature, angered by man’s treatment of the planet’s ecosystem.

 Many of the victims in the cities, already living in makeshift camps, ejected from their original homes of many years because of the war, or, because, they had to make room for “development” needs! The whole scenario seems food for pondering upon.

 No definition of poverty can ever hope to truly fathom with accuracy the reality of what it means to be poor – the misery, the degradation, the helplessness, the powerlessness, and the oppression. The only way of truly grasping what it actually means to people who must suffer it, is, to examine with some sensitivity the lives of the poor.

 In this era, with the slow and faltering economic recovery in the industrialized countries and, the latter’s anxious concern for the financial needs of western economies under threat of a collapse, it is hard to ever imagine any reduction in the levels of poverty in those countries, and more so, in developing countries with struggling economies and unstable governments. Do we not see before our very eyes the silent tragedy of unemployment, under employment, coupled with man-made natural disasters, which are condemning millions of human beings to grinding poverty and malnutrition?

 There is a fundamental fact that underpins the whole issue of poverty, and that is, that poverty is not the real problem. This has to be comprehended with much clarity, “The real problem is that mankind is divided into rich and poor within nations and between nations with the divide ever widening. The lowest 10% in Sri Lanka gets  1.7% of the nation’s total wealth, while the top 10% enjoys 40% of it. Leaving economic rhetoric and jargon aside, the reality and depth of the problem arises from the fact that the man who is rich has power over the man who is poor. And, like wise, the nation that is rich has power over the policies of those that are not rich. But, far more important is the truth that economic, social, political systems and their elites, both nationally and internationally support these very divisions, and even constantly increase them.(De. Silva, M. D.  1989)(a).

 Poverty alleviation projects with a plethora of names have been formulated as a response to this situation. Yet, however ambitious they may sound they are no substitute for a determined and committed effort to remove the old economic global structures that embody and promote injustice and mass poverty throughout the world. Happily, I gathered from a discussion of socio-political thinkers over the BBC, that the world is now awakening to the need for concrete action.

 When Sri Lanka became an independent state in 1948, social welfare became a major cornerstone of its economic policies. The extent to which the respective governments were committed to far reaching measures of re-distributive justice was demonstrated by the fact that the total cost of welfare programs represented 016% of the GNP. Social development remained a dominant feature in its development strategies in the first three decades after independence making it a unique example of a welfare state in the whole of South Asia. Although, criticized for adopting this approach, believed to be at the expense of economic development, Sri Lanka attracted a great deal of attention as a model country that deliberately and successfully pursued policies of growth with equity. Within the World Bank itself, the project known as “The evaluation of living standards in Sri Lanka” produced papers that examined various aspects of growth and social welfare (Burton, Henry J 1992)(b).

 Food became a very essential part in the social welfare oriented development plan in recognition of the fact that food provides the very basis for survival and, the freedom from hunger which is the most basic human right. Thus, the policies of successive Sri Lankan governments reflected this concern and ensured that food was available in sufficient supply and at affordable prices. How are the poor in Sri Lanka of 2010, 60 years later, faring?

 Even prior to 1948, the government administered a food scheme when rationing and subsides on food became necessary on account of shortages experienced during the 2nd world war. The Department of Food Supply was entrusted the task of purchasing and supplying the people with rice, wheat flour, sugar, curry stuffs and milk foods.

 The policy of providing subsidized food commodities to the entire population was changed just after the first insurgency in November 1971. Income level became the criterion of eligibility and the free measure of rice was restricted to non-income tax payers only. This scheme came to be further curtailed in 1977 when the new government under World Bank pressure changed the existing development priorities and modified the consumer subsidy and ration scheme. In 1978, the benefits of free food rations was restricted to those whose income fell below a particular cut off point and who were in critical need.

 Sri Lanka’s well fare approach pursued on the grounds of equity and social justice was strongly criticized by AID donors and the privileged ruling elites. Whatever the argument adduced, they failed to see the direct economic benefits coming from proven links between a healthy population and its productivity, and the indirect benefits of a reduced government expenditure on health. Further, viewed from certain implicit assumptions and values to the extent that they are essential, the food, health, and education subsidy programs can be seen as an investment contributing towards enhancing the equality of human resources, a vital ingredient in the economic development process. Belatedly, the World Bank and AID agencies are now pushing this strategy with missionary zeal!!

 Again, in 1979, under IMF and World Bank influence, not only was the subsidy pruned down, but, was also changed from a direct food subsidy scheme in the form of rations into a cash transfer. The worst features of such a cash transfer scheme that were anticipated, showed their effects from the very inception when the real value of the stamps began to decline. The fiscal advantages of the scheme to government is that the entitlement set in rupees would remain constant even though the price of food commodities increase The economic disadvantage to the beneficiaries on the other hand is that the real value of the income supplements gets eroded resulting in a lowered intake of food.

 At the end of 1988, poverty as measured by the prevalence of hunger and malnutrition had assumed alarming proportions. On the cause and effect basis, the second insurgency coincided at this point of time, little wonder. However, when it was found that foreign prescribed policies were having direct implications on income distribution and the welfare of the poor, the idea of introducing targeted poverty alleviation programs came in prominence. Thus, in 1988 necessarily, poverty alleviation became the main focus of attention of the then ruling political party’s manifesto for the 1988 Presidential election and, as a concomitant of that realization the Janasaviya Poverty alleviation program was started; Innovative only to the extent that it was broad in its scope and envisaged a kind of people based development.

 The Janasaviya program of late President, Ranasinghe Premadasa in its barest form involves two components of support for every family that was receiving food stamps. A basket of consumption goods worth Rs. 1,500/= a month for 24 months and, a credit collateral support up to Rs. 1,000/= a month that can be accumulated also, over a period of 24 months. The consumption component provided nutrition, while the family engages itself in some production activity using the credit support within the 2-year period so as to become self reliant by the time the whole program ends. No matter what his detractor may say, he seemed genuine in his attempts and did it with missionary zeal.

 The program was pursued after his death under different names, mutilated in content, with different methodologies, and expanded bureaucracies, dedicated to their personal interests and, the political agendas of their masters. Can poverty programs like these succeed in bringing the millions of poor people into the production process to stimulate growth in countries committed to following the dominant economic model of development? The economy is doing well, but there are 2 million people living in Sri Lanka on Rs. 42.50 per day and 40% or 8,000,000 people living on half the average income, as reported in the press.

 The world seems to be sunk in decadence, and more or less groaning in travail. Wars, rumors of wars, social upheavals, crime, domestic violence, increasing poverty and related up risings, break down of law and order, cheating and stealing by the highest and mightiest, politicians, bankers, businessmen. All of these have come as an inevitable consequence of the model of development that was imposed by the Western World on the whole world. It is a type of development that is intrinsically exploitative “”…” it exploits people who have little power and ruthlessly our planet.

 It is imperative that we commit ourselves to the search for a model of development that is fundamentally respectful of people and, of the earth. We have to also actively involve in developing a more just and, more sustainable, model of human living, to replace the present decadent and exploitative one that is killing people. Academics, Intellectuals, professionals, politicians, civil society, and religious leaders must wake up and see that our world is in anguish.

    Dr. Mervyn D. De Silva, former, Director/Advisor, Ministry of Plan Implementation  (former SLFP National List Member of Parliament),

 Torrington Avenue,

 Colombo “”…” 07.

References.

(a)    –  De Siva, M. D. 1989. “ƒ”¹…”Is Poverty The Real Problem’, Lanka Guardian. Vol-12, No. 1, 25-26.   

                                                     

(b)   –  Bruton, Henry J. 1992. “ƒ”¹…”The Political Economy Of Poverty, Equity, And Growth “”…” Sri Lanka And Malaysia’ Oxford University Press Pg. 03.          

 

One Response to “A Brief Inquiry Into The Continued, Widespread, Poverty Tragedy.”

  1. M.S.MUdali Says:

    A strict taxation program must be introduced and imposed without corruption. Poor people and rich people get the same “FREE” things from the state. RICH people must be out of any “FREE” programs.

    Population control is another tool to be mandatory. If a person cannot support his/her children, why should they produce kids?

    Will these happen in Sri Lanka?

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