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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Thursday, June 16, 2005

A plan to combat poverty

Daily News: 13/06/2005" BY J. B. Muller

REAMS of Working Papers and reports have been written about rolling back the many harmful forms of poverty ranging from begging on the streets to criminality to prostitution.

Then, Sri Lanka has had 12 governments and nine national leaders since independence in 1948 all coming forward on platforms that pledged and promised to wipe out poverty and want from our midst.

Billions of Rupees have been spent in a veritable plethora of programmes designed to tackle various aspects or the worst effects of poverty. But what, if anything at all has been done to strike at the root causes of poverty and deprivation? Nothing really effective has been done.

Therefore, the poor are still with us and their numbers have grown. Many speeches have been delivered at seminars, colloquiums, and what-have-you, all to no avail when you consider the statistics vis-...-vis the growth of population.

What they do reveal is the alarming growth of poverty, crime and vice at an ever-increasing rate. The form and content of socio-economic development has also brought in its train certain forms of impoverishment and dependence that are wholly unacceptable.

This writing is not meant to add to those mountainous reams of unread papers and reports. It is meant to suggest to the caring and concerned (including those who are fearful in their own enlightened self interest) a viable and sustainable solution that could be applied immediately with the human and financial resources we now possess within the borders of Sri Lanka.

Any viable solution needs to consider two, simultaneous courses of action: Attacking the worst aspects of poverty and a strong focus on eradicating the core causes of poverty, especially a radical change of structures that perpetuate poverty.

The solution proffered stated simply means, implies and entails substantial and sustained giving to create and establish a major prosperity generating trust fund that would finance practical, hands-on programmes designed to reduce the effects of poverty to the irreducible minimum.

This needs the unstinted and unqualified support of the private sector as the most important and major stakeholder in rolling back the effects of poverty. The other major stakeholder in this would be the public sector through funds voted by Parliament for line ministries.

It does not involve the establishment of another governmental agency but rather a drastic rationalization and merging of several agencies and departments into one wholly independent multi-faceted organization answerable directly only to Parliament and free of:

1. political direction or interference,

2. multilateral financial institutions, and

3. non-governmental organizations

The private sector's nominated representative should ideally be the Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Sri Lanka, FCCISL, as it is the appropriate apex body representing the entire private sector with the Organization of Professional Associations providing both support and intellectual input in strategizing a holistic approach to confronting and combating poverty in all its manifestations.

This also means and implies a consensual, co-operative effort by both Government and the leading organizations of civil society to work together without hang ups about the past and past efforts to work together that did not work out because of either political prejudices or misperceptions by either side. Politics has to be laid aside; the antipathy of the private sector towards Government, too, has to be laid aside.

In any event, widespread and ever-increasing poverty weakens the entire country and a weak country could easily fall prey to radical solutions claiming to change the situation for the better. The effects of poverty as manifested across the continuum throughout society are becoming unmanageable because of increasing complexity.

The solutions now demand not only a multi-disciplinary thrust but a coherent, coordinated focal point to come to grips with its most serious manifestations and the main meeting point should be in rehabilitating the human beings affected.

Recent surveys conducted by the Police have revealed that 706 children in the city of Colombo do not receive any education at all; 325 of them are girl-children and of this number, 163 are to be found in the Modera-Mutwal-Mattakkuliya area; thousands of other children are sexually exploited by foreign paedophiles along the coastal tourist belt.

HIV/AIDS infections have been growing steadily and are now numbered in the thousands; Drug trafficking and drug abuse is now rampant throughout the country and have become endemic amongst the poor who have been inducted into addiction and now support their habit through crime and vice.

Thousands of beggars and prostitutes (male and female) swarm the streets of both the conurbation as well as every other urban centre throughout the country.

The total is staggering and the numbers are not mere ciphers but living, breathing human beings-from infants suckling at the breast to men and women bent with age and infirmity.

Seen another, human way, these are mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, grandparents, nephews and nieces, and so on with similar aspirations to those in the middle and upper classes of society, with need of food, clothing, shelter, health care, protection from exploitation and all the other evil under the sun that human beings are subject to.

Most, if not all the social and economic ills that society suffers from are directly traceable to deprivation and marginalization--poverty, which is the catchall, blanket phrase that hides more than it reveals of the dark, macabre and ugly face of our society.

Those comfortable members of the upper strata of the social and economic pyramid, inhabiting their well-constructed cocoons would do well to consider what history teaches us: For one thing society moves in two directions simultaneously--the rich get richer as their wealth generates more wealth whilst the disadvantaged sectors become ever more desperate.

The poor are not only subject to greater exploitation and oppression by the rich and powerful but to highly sophisticated forms of corruption in high places that deny the marginalized equal access to available opportunities.

Russia was a modernizing country in 1917 when the revolution erupted during the last but one year of World War I; Cuba is another country that began the process of its own modernization in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898, and which had its own bloody revolution in 1959.

The history of both the 19th and 20th centuries are littered with many forceful examples where the wealthy elites refused to acknowledge their social responsibilities in a human way and themselves ended on the dung-heap of history. Let it not be said in a sad if not tragic requiem that: "Few save the Poor, feel for the Poor." (Letitia Landon).

Therefore, of primary concern now is the establishment of a trust fund that could effectively spearhead viable initiatives to roll back poverty in the urban, rural and plantation sectors of the economy. Such a spearhead could transform poverty into prosperity, changing lives and lifestyles, vastly increasing the buying power of consumers because of the vibrant impetus it has the potential to generate.

If some doubters would attempt to contradict all this then a viable option would be a pilot project that could be launched and within an year, on the impartial evaluation of results obtained, the project could be expanded into a multi-faceted programme that would tackle several areas at once, for example, in training school dropouts in skills and trades required by the construction industry; in schooling the unschooled or providing them with livelihood training; in the training of girl-children in occupations that would guarantee gainful self-employment, and so on.

In the rural and plantation areas, the focus would be on reviving the much-abused co-operative system, revamping and strengthening it through information and communications technology to serve both producer and consumer. Places to locate training facilities are available; trainers, too, are available.

If anything, courage and a strong political will are required on the side of Government to affect a turnaround. On the part of the private sector it would require both sacrifice and generosity of both spirit and purse to build up a substantial trust fund and the investment of time to demonstrate concern by shepherding this initiative until it becomes self-sustaining.

As stated, it will take courage, lots of courage and perseverance, to transform the poor into socially useful and productive workers who would be too embarrassed to beg.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." (Margaret Mead, world renowned anthropologist).

(The writer is Founder, Prime Facilitator, Governor and Executive Director of The English Language Foundation and is associated with Dame Lorna Wright, Founder/President of MOM Foundation and long-time social activist in the promotion of skills training for school drop-outs, the unschooled and the poorest of the Poor.)

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