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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. 

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Critical Thresholds for Escaping Poverty Traps and Millennium Development Goals

The Island: 20/02/2007" By Dr. S. B. Ekanayake, Consultant UNHCR, Geneva

MDG goals and globalisation

The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) set by the UN in 2000 (UNDP Report 2003) and the commitments of the rich and poor countries to achieve them were later affirmed in the Monetary Consensus that emerged from the March 2002 UN Financing for Development Forum, the September 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development and the launch of the Doha Round on International trade. The MDG committed the nations to reduce poverty and promote peace and human rights and environmental sustainability. The MDG are laudable efforts of the member states of the UN set to the reduction of extreme poverty by 2015.
However, during the last few decades though globalisation has systematically benefited some of the world’s regions, it has bypassed others as well as many groups within countries. ‘Even large and growing economies such as India, Brazil, China, Mexico contain regions of intense poverty’ and there remain large pockets of poverty unaffected by the overall national growth. The social progress and economic benefits do also by-pass ethnic and other minorities and majorities. These include services like health, education, employment and economic opportunities to some sections of the community. Access to quality learning, achievements in public examinations, power blocks remaining within the traditional regions are visible even in countries like Sri Lanka which enjoys a high level of social facilities, in both education and health. Globally, although there has been a high level of increasing living standards in large parts of the world, millions of people have experienced economic and social reversals.

Constraints in achieving goals

There are many reasons for this. One common reason is ‘poor performance’. Corruption, incompetency, and unaccountability are causes of this anomaly. In some countries officialdom is resisting some crucial suggestions, from the UN to strengthen efforts to battle waste, mismanagement and unbridled corruption. The rich and the powerful gain more leaving the traditional deprived groups to remain in the same status. The latter has only a voting right but not a vociferous voice in gaining what they really need. The voting right is either robbed and or manipulated by the well to do for gaining power.

The smaller countries have little options for development in a world of globalisation, specially so when these counties depend on a few primary products. Added to these are the exacerbating structural problems such as population growth and other impediments such as diseases and geographical barriers. All these leave such countries in poverty traps.

Policy clusters to escape poverty traps

The UNDP Human Development Report as far back as 2003 has suggested ‘policy clusters’ to escape the poverty traps resulting from poor growth. Even those countries with high literacy and health statistics may fail in the long run to sustain the levels if their economies fail to provide the needed funds for these sectors. Of the many faceted clusters to break the poverty trap investing in human resource development, which includes health, nutrition, and education, is a critical need for the developing nations. This will help to foster a productive labour force that can face the world economy. It is in this context this article is written specially focusing on the Sri Lankan scenario. Thus the key question that should be raised against this backdrop is to what extent has the literacy levels that have gone up to almost 96% helped to strengthen the capacities of the quality of labour to compete in the world economy? If not what are the causes for the gaps? What type of strategies should be adopted to overcome these deficiencies?

Changes in educational objectives

One would see that the objectives of education have changed from that of mere learning for knowledge sake to an out put that is more practical and measurable in economic terms. Of course still the cultural and social elements remain as significant as ever before but there are new demands from education. Even in the traditional subjects the emphasis is on the practices than knowledge per se. These new demands are results of fast growing desires of the world economy and a part of the culture of globalisation. Hence why the emergence of new subjects at school level and disciplines at higher educational institutions are part of this repertoire readily responding to these changes. Thus environmental education, human rights, HIV AIDS etc. have become important in the curriculum as well as in state policies.

Changes are also seen in relation to the modalities of delivery of information. The formal approach, although important still, is now only one of the many processes through which knowledge and information is provided to an insatiable set of beneficiaries. It is therefore necessary to look into these aspects in a world of information. These mechanisms have to be set aright and realigned to get the maximum results as well as reach the beneficiaries at a lower cost and at higher efficiency modes. It is through such non-formal approaches that a larger number of beneficiaries would benefit. The large scale globalisation processes have to be broken down into smaller versions providing opportunities for the rural areas to escape from the poverty trap through a national level (.micro globalisation strategies’. The message here is that a country like Sri Lanka which has reached the critical threshold of education (including health and services) should be able to take off to sustained economic growth. But has that happened in the case of the people in rural areas of the country? The people in the peripheral areas still live at a level of ‘hand to mouth’ existence. The services they receive are inadequate, and reach them at odd times when the need is gone. The quality of the services are questionable. They are still not the masters of their destiny but mere cogs in a corrupt and exploited world. This is the true picture of the rural society.

For areas that are stuck in this poverty traps, growth will not be automatic. A few more buildings to the schools and additional materials alone will not be of any significance to improve the life styles of the poor farmers. Investments in human development alone may not be of use. Additional investments of the services in an integrated manner would be the right approach to break the poverty trap of the rural masses. Hence the importance of ,.emphasizing human rights and social equity to promote the well being of all people and to ensure the poor and marginalized people have the freedom and voice to influence decisions that affect their lives’. Capacity building of these aspects form the quality of life of the people. How can these aspects be promoted and lead to sustainable development process in the rural areas?

Sometimes disasters such as earthquakes or tsunamis too bring relief to the communities at a later stage but at a high cost of human life and resources. The donors come out with magical support for relief work with tremendous undercurrents taking a greater part of relief support back to where it started. These areas become highly developed almost overnight and modem and well equipped services become the order of the day. But should governments wait for natural disasters to occur to commence development? Does that also mean that those not affected by disasters will not be developed to that level of sophistication through normal procedures? On the other hand have the people of the disaster group been provided opportunities for sustainability through growth investments? These are the dilemmas of the communities in the developing world.

New forms of learning

Now let us look at the new forms of education that have arisen over the last few decades to find out whether these could provide the needed opportunities for sustainability. Learning which was considered as time and place bound, meaning childhood to adulthood and located in institutions, has now taken a different conceptual path. It has been replaced by life long learning taking place every where without a center any where and includes formal and non-formal / informal periods of learning. Increasing value is added to learning outside academic disciplines that society recognizes as knowledge.

These new ideas of thinking have been a result of market forces, social and cultural changes which are transforming societies. The impact of globalisation and rapid technological changes has made it imperative that new forms of learning and opportunities emerge to gather knowledge. This aspect is seen and operational mostly at the national levels of the developing countries. But at the local level where the poverty trap prevails (refer to chart attached) there, is visibly a lack of articulation between the formal institutions of the State and the realities of the people at the village ‘level and the needs. Those living in the poverty trap need additional boosts to break through the barrier to enter the safety area and to emerge as partners in the globalisation process. The factors that could provide such impetus should arrive through NFE programmes and strategies.

It is why that in spite of the efforts of the States focus on MDG and EFA goals national education programmes have come under heavy criticism. Particularly, the failure to address the needs of the marginalized groups in the poverty trap. The system prevailing has not played a constructive role in mitigating poverty, marginalisation and unemployment. Hence the demand for realignment of the education systems in these countries is becoming the crying need of the day. In Sri Lanka all Education Commissions since 1940 commencing from Kanangara Reforms have been focusing on the need for re-examination of the purpose of education. These include the Jayasuriya Reforms and Bogoda Premaratne Reforms. Since the establishment of a permanent body for changes in education in Sri Lanka in the 90s the latest report of this body focuses on the need for reforms in the field of education. All these have attempted to re-examine the purpose of education, their management and delivery mechanisms as well as infusion of different socio-cultural perspectives into education. However, one could see that most of the recommendations of the reform committees since 1940s have never been implemented fully at any stage of time. These have carried, very forward looking positive changes taking into consideration the economic necessities of the nation.

NFE and market needs

‘In several countries, the drive to improve the quality of education within a broader labour market and poverty reduction perspective has opened the way for a more innovative use of both formal and non-formal (NFE) streams and providers and the creation of mechanisms through which they can interact more’ (UNESCO, 2006). Nonformal education is today a key provider in the educational systems. NFE focuses more on those socially excluded populations. These providers have also developed appropriate instructional methodologies. Several types of ‘synergies’ between these two, FE and NFE, are arising at the moment with various degrees of dominance of one or the other. In fact, in the early 1990s the NFE and Technical Education Department at the National Institute of Education developed an action research -project on synergy between FE and NFE. These were located in 6 centres attached to schools on an experimental basis. Unfortunately the educationists of the late 1990s thought otherwise and dismantled the whole department, in a similar fashion to what happened to pre-vocational studies in the 1970s!! These are tragedies which Sri Lanka cannot afford.

In some countries as a result of management being devolved to the local level ‘Community Schools’ and ‘Community Learning Centres’ are being established.

In addition methodologies of these two systems are used for enrichment of each other. At the same time NFE providers are being invited to assist formal systems in some countries. Status of NFE has been increased. In Sri Lanka since literacy rates have reached a high level the focus of NFE should be more developing human resources of the people at the village level to enable the community to upgrade themselves in many aspects of life which would lead to HRD.

Changes needed in NFE providers

The NEC of Sri Lanka in their report 2003 has recommended that ‘the Division (NFE, MOE) should avoid initiating a multiplicity of programmes but should develop model Community Learning Centres that will provide functional literacy, skills training, English Language and other relevant programmes for children, youth and adults, and liase with other ministries, private enterprise, NGOs and community based organizations to provide the necessary services and support’. Although the suggested activities do not provide a vision for NFE and its future. A suggestion to have NFE Commission would have been an appropriate step in the present circumstances. So long as NFE stays around FE the former would be treated as second class and the real benefits of NFE will rarely emerge. This psyche has to be taken out of the hearts and minds of those who practice NFE in Sri Lanka. NFE should have a life of its own and live separately but coalesce for mutual benefits. Then only NFE could provide a safety escape from the poverty trap and assist development at the village level.

The NFE providers should understand the wide range of contexts in which learning is taking place and the variety of different ways ‘in which learning is being organized informally to suit the learners needs in terms of time. The importance of this wide spectrum should be understood and practiced, by the NFE providers. Thus NFE has evolved from a mere supporter of access, to education to provide services to a host of other needs of the community which cannot be accommodated within the formal system. It is this driving force that would set the community at large to escape from the poverty trap and be partners of the globalisation process. NFE drives forward the agenda as to the purpose of education in concrete local contexts.


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