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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, October 26, 2006

Sri Lanka Has Lost one of its Greatests Sons: Memorial For Prof. W. P. Dayawansa

The country lost one of its greatest sons on the 18th of October 2006. One of the founder members of this site, Horn Prof. W. P. Dayawansa is no longer with us. He met with an untimely death due to illeness. He is survived by his wife Samanmalle, daughters Samantha and Tammy, sons Nuwan and Seth and brother Jayantha.

A memorial page is hosted by the Dept. of Mathematics and Statistics at Texas Tech University where Daya, for all who knew him, made his services available untill his sudden death. He cared deeply about the people of Sri Lanka. He was always thinking of how best to serve the country. The service he has done to Sri Lankan education is multi faceted. The number of Sri Lankan students to whom he made available the opportunity, either directly or indirectly, for furthering their education would number into the hundreds. Daya is one of the past early Directors of LAcNet and they too are carrying a colomn on him. For those who wish to share their thoughts on Daya there is a Wiki hosted by the Dept. of Mathematics and Statistics, Texas Tech University.

He dedicated his life to service, simplicity and education. May we have the strength to continue his dream.

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Tsunami children revisited: the need for professionals in child protection

Daily News: 26/10/2006" By Dr D. CHANDRARATHNA

CHILD PROTECTION: Two years after the tsunami we need to take stock of the efforts taken to rehabilitate the children who lost parents and siblings in the most tragic manner. Both State and non State organisations have expended large sums of money and many man hours to attend to the plethora of problems that the children are facing and likely to face in the future if no action is taken now.

In 2004 when tsunami struck it was abundantly clear that the country had no professionally qualified workforce in the social welfare sector to handle the clinical needs of the children. It is true that those currently in the child protection field are graduate officers without tertiary level professional training.

Though they are committed and motivated they have not been afforded the competencies needed by today's international standards to attend to these problems that have come to our attention in various gatherings of the child protection workers.

Let us examine a few of the serious issues that have recently cropped up which are of concern. The tsunami atmosphere has now virtually dissipated in the minds of the general populace and hence the correct attitudes of concern, compassion, non judgmental reactions which were manifest everywhere in 2004 are all but gone.

The compassion has turned into ridicule in some places. My interest here is about children and they have become objects of ridicule. Children are subject to stereotypical labeling with serious consequences in the young minds.

We have known for decades that it is one thing to commit a deviant act such as lying or stealing but to label someone as a thief or a liar has more potent consequences on the individual.

The label evokes a characteristic imagery, that suggests a person who is given to certain kinds of behaviour as a matter of habit. There are a whole host of sinister and odious implications in the application of this label. I am told that the labels are far too many to recount.

But they activate sentiments and call out responses in other children and adults: rejection, contempt, suspicion, withdrawal, fear and hatred. The acceptance of the label obviously is not inevitable.

We have all experiences when our classmates and parents have at times called us various things, ugly, black, white, short, long: the list is long. These definitions are not real and do not mean that we act them out always. But certain definitions when applies are real in their consequences.

But these labels, as we have come to know them are real because they happen in the immediate social self of the victims.

Our Tsunami children have no escape from these social interactions and they are subject to them far too frequently. What we fear most is that these children may drop out of the education system if nothing is done about it.

If the labels engender the wrong psychological perceptions in the victims it might hasten them on a deviant career. The self is a delicate construct in young children and the way we act as adults is determined mostly by the manner in which we are seen by others.

If others begin to see these kids as somewhat different and strange from them those children may conceive them as strange and different. Studies have demonstrated overwhelmingly in the past that when we treat people as different because of our ignorance.

The result is that the person may act in the way we perceive. Studies have also shown that schoolchildren seen as liable to be educationally backward or vice versa turn out to confirm our presuppositions. If we define ourselves as incapable as a result of others' definitions we begin to act as if we are incapable.

We are certainly worried whether the lack of treatment for the children who are victims of labeling will jeopardize their life chances by being victims to the process. That definitely we would label as double jeopardy.

It will be apparent to many that some of the children who were caught up in the tsunami were or are now becoming teenagers. The sudden loss of the mother and the father has put them at terrible risk in search for love and affection.

They tend to turn to anyone who shows affection. For some it has been forthcoming from the grandparents or other good natured relatives. But for a few that we know, this has turned out to be a nightmare.

There are many who are becoming victims to the predatory hawks. The child protection workers have been informed of instances where teenagers have been duped by young and old and seduced and dumped.

The psychology of the teenager can be understood by a professionally trained worker, a resource that we are lacking. In a country where a psychiatric service of note is sadly lacking these young people have no recourse. Even to identify the presence of psychological problems we have no trained staff.

This is a sad indictment on all of us because these are vulnerable children who will suffer the worst if they are preyed on by unscrupulous persons. Prostitution, rape, HIV and suicides can be round the corner lurking at the young.

The relatives who rushed to look after the children who lost both parents are not guaranteed of the protection promised in the courthouses. Some tsunami children are treated as servants in the household. The step mothers have found a ready made servant for housework.

The children have no option but to continue the drudgery of menial labour. To properly interview a child and get the truth out of a friendly interview demands an expert like training which we have not given to any of our officers.

The child protection scene is advanced to prevent such abuses in other countries and we have to provide similar training to our child protection cadre but cost is not the prohibitive factor.

It is the lack of awareness of the need for such services that is rather unfortunate in Sri Lanka. 'Fit person orders' under the Sri Lankan law are not the end of a child protection issue but it has to be seen as the beginning.

Social workers are sorely missed in this tragic event and efforts are urgently needed to rectify this glaring void. Imagine the social problems in the country, child abuse, street children, displaced children, tsunami orphans, child soldiers, child trafficking and child servants, but why are we not preparing for the future.

Sri Lanka, in my estimation needs about 40 to 50000 social workers with tertiary qualifications. It is a fine vocation for graduates in the arts and humanities who follow courses in the universities which are not vocationally oriented.

The developed countries do not follow this pattern. We must learn from the good practices of other countries and offer our young people a meaningful career.

I have only listed a few issues out of a multitude of instances that has come to our attention. While some areas of child protection work are functioning well there are many that we need to revamp for the sake of the poor, vulnerable children.

They will not be able to enjoy full citizenship rights in this nation if their childhood is destroyed either wittingly or unwittingly by us. What needs to be done is to deliver a competent work force like in other countries.

Child protection is a specialization that warrants training and educational competence which cannot be equated to life experiences or custom and folklore. There is a bewildering array of knowledge bases that we have to impart.

There are so many that it is difficult to describe in this short paper. But certainly the world knows pretty well the value of family therapy, behaviour modification techniques, counselling, psychotherapy, cognitive therapy, and others.

A professional only can help these young people by mobilizing human resources for emotional support, social companionship, affirmation and social regulation.

They only can direct these teenagers in the pro-social behaviours. Preparing the child for life in difficult circumstances is the role of professionally trained persons.

Strengthening good behaviour patterns through operant learning, and modeling and eliminating the bad are important in work with these children.

These are techniques now used by psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and others trained in these approaches.

These behaviours are not 'sick' behaviours but problematic ones that can be modified by behavioral treatment. The post tsunami problems can satisfactorily be solved through modern psycho-social methods and we should equip our child protection staff on these lines.

Finally I must congratulate the Ministry of Social Services and Social welfare for planning for a diploma as the first response to this tragic situation. In Sri Lanka that Ministry is the lead Ministry in welfare education.

Experimenting with a diploma level program is the right approach for it can be improved in the fullness of time. It is heartening to note that they are preparing to fill a void that should not have been there in the first place.

The writer is Professor, Curtin University Perth, Australia.

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Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Upcoming 2007 Budget: Poverty, Agriculture and Rural Development

The Island: 22/10/2006" By By Mahoshada

When the government presents Parliament with its 2007 budget next month, it is likely that one of the main areas of focus will be on the very large regional disparities in incomes that persist between Colombo and the Western Province on one hand, and much of the rest of the country, especially in rural areas. It has long been recognized that major differences in terms of economic opportunities exist within the country. However, several years ago when the Central Bank and the Department of Census and Statistic quantified the extent of the gap the regional disparities in poverty and levels of income, the issue seems to have taken on a greater urgency.

Most people would agree that no country is likely to remain politically stable or to prosper economically while allowing excessively large differences in economic conditions to continue unchecked. Indeed, there are many who would argue that addressing these disparities is (or ought to be) the most pressing economic issue facing Sri Lanka. It is therefore the case that the government’s budget and their proposed economic policies and programs are going to be judged in large part by their expected impact on creating an environment where those areas still largely untouched by economic development are able to begin to catch up.

The Nature of the Problem

When presenting the current year’s (2006) budget, the government recognized the problem. Their approach was largely focused on "the development of provincial and community level infrastructure facilities" – as part of what was termed a pro-poor budgetary framework. The proposed regional development infrastructure expenditures included programs for improved provincial roads, rural electrification and irrigation. About one-third of the regional development budget was to be aimed at the tsunami affected areas. It is, however, not clear how much progress has been made in any of these areas during the course of this year.

Significantly improving infrastructure throughout the country is undoubtedly an essential part of any solution. But it is only one part. The fact is that the country’s investment in basic infrastructure, including necessary maintenance, has been inadequate for many years. Massive sustained investments over years are going to be required to build a foundation capable of sustaining high rates of economic growth throughout the country. This will require a major change in priorities and in the ways in which such projects are implemented as well as substantial additional resources, particularly from the international community.

But the economic challenge facing the country goes far beyond overcoming shortcomings in infrastructure. The enormous disparities in economic conditions have not arisen by accident. They are to a very great degree a result of policies that have been pursued for many years; policies that have facilitated the growth and development in the Western Province while leaving much of the rest of the country behind.

It has to be recognized, however, that in almost all countries and at almost all times, major cities tend to grow and develop more rapidly than rural areas. There are important economic forces that bring people and resources together in cities and that make urban centers more productive and economically dynamic than rural areas. The process of economic development is very much a process of economic opportunities spreading outward to surrounding regions from rapidly growing cities. As Jane Jacobs, the highly respected urban planner argued, cities, not nations are the primary sources of economic development; nations are in many respects only "political and military entities" comprised of a number of very different types of economies. This is a picture that reflects very well the situation that prevails in Sri Lanka today.

But it is also the case that the economic policies that have been followed for many years have done much to exacerbate the income disparities between the more prosperous Western Province and the rest of the country. A central thrust of these policies has been to encourage many types of commercial activities that can only operate in or around Colombo, with its major port and its large local market. Businesses must locate where they can minimize their costs of production if they are to remain profitable and survive.

When trade policies seek to encourage activities intended to replace imported consumer goods, the businesses that emerge almost always find it necessary to be located near to the port through which imported raw materials arrive. They also find it necessary to be located relatively close to their largest market if they are to adequately control their transportation costs. And it continues to be the case that infrastructure services, such as electricity and water, tend to be much more readily available and reliable in the greater Colombo area than in rural areas.

In contrast to the policies that have generally favoured the types of activities with strong commercial reasons for operating in the Western Province, the policies that have determined the economic environment in rural areas have done much to limit the growth and development of agriculture and related activities that can prosper in rural areas. While actively helping urban oriented activities, the government has actually done much to impede the growth of rural oriented activities.

Agriculture is the essential foundation on which rural economic growth and development needed to raise rural incomes will depend. For this sector to begin to prosper there must be much greater opportunities for it to use the resources that are available in these areas more productively and more profitably. This means that farmers need to have the ability to more freely choose to produce crops with higher real value. It also means that greater scope for forming larger, more commercially viable farms that can better meet the demands of both local and export markets.

Longstanding government policies for agriculture have largely been based on trying to artificially increase farmers’ incomes by raising prices above market prices, whether through restrictions on imports or government purchasing schemes. Promises of higher farm-gate prices are often made, but rarely if ever fulfilled. These policies have also sought to reduce farmers’ costs through fertilizer subsidies, which also rarely have much of an impact on incomes. While these subsidies may be politically attractive, fertilizer is typically such a small part of a farmer’s total production costs that even if fertilizer were given at no cost, it would not substantially increase farm profitability.

But government policies aiming at achieving self-sufficiency in rice have probably done more to suppress rural incomes than any other factor. This has led to restrictions that make it very difficult for farmers to shift production to more profitable crops which could increase incomes. In pursuing these policies, the discipline of market forces has been disrupted, to the detriment of the sector. (For example, farmers are able to sell paddy to government buyers at fixed prices regardless of the quality.) The result has been an agricultural sector that is largely oriented to a highly protected, captive domestic market which has meant that there are limited incentives to improve quality and productivity, such as with better handling methods. It has also meant little is done to actively develop higher value export opportunities for which there is considerable untapped potential.

It should be evident after years of government attempts to fix higher prices and increase fertilizer subsidies that these are not long term solutions to the problem. Successful sustained agricultural development will require substantial restructuring of the sector, including removing restrictions on crops and land ownership that limit formation of larger, more productive and more profitable farms. In virtually all countries, economic growth and development has entailed a substantial transformation away from small, high cost farms to larger more competitive commercial farms. This transformation also inevitably means that far fewer people are engaged in agriculture, even as total agricultural production increases, which is why it is often politically sensitive.

Options for Raising Rural Incomes

The key to raising rural incomes and reducing the excessive disparities between the rural and urban areas lies in less not more government interference in farmers’ production decisions and the functioning of agricultural markets. Increasing prosperity in rural areas can come about only if the real value of what is produced increases substantially, (as opposed to artificially manipulated values).

Although politically difficult, there is a need to begin to move away from self-sufficiency in rice as the central pillar of the country’s agricultural policy. Now that this goal has nearly been reached, continuing with these policies will only make it more difficult for farmers to pursue other more profitable opportunities. If this means that more rice is imported while farmers expand production of more profitable crops, then consumers will be better off and rural incomes will increase.

The government does need to invest far more in infrastructure in rural areas, but this should be done in ways that are more consistent with a longer term vision of a more market oriented, more export oriented agricultural sector.

The upcoming budget offers an opportunity to provide indications of a genuine commitment to reduce poverty and address the issues arising from the sharp disparity in incomes. But this can be achieved only of usual promises concerning farm-gate prices, fertilizer subsidies and infrastructure plans are to a large extent replaced with fundamentally different policies and programs.

(Mahoshada@gmail.com – comments and earlier articles can also be obtained at www.mahoshada.com)

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