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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. 

Monday, August 28, 2006

Revamping Rural Sri Lanka

Daily Mirror: 28/08/2006" By By Oscar E V Fernando

The rural sector can make or break a government: at present the rural vote base has preserved the sharp division between the two major parties, but this pattern may change if there is no radical shift of the rural economy in their favor.

Politicians make good use of them during election times; perhaps it is to their short lived advantage to keep the villages in the same—yes master status; but the rural sector is getting wiser and there are those interested in stirring up the melting pot.

Is justice meted out to these peoples, and how far is society interested in their development? The low roofed mud huts that were prevalent several decades back yet remain so. Is this the aristocratic desire to perpetuate the pre-colonial Rajakariya system that was replaced by the colonial mercantile system?

The rural youth, witnessing this simmering struggle and the ever increasing suicide rate, is fast breaking the umbilical chord from the old to a better but yet unknown system; the politicians had better make good note of the emerging situation.

Many rural folk live in conditions of extreme poverty and uncertain future; reportedly rural folk in the world are estimated at 900 million, representing 75 % of the worlds poor; they certainly need intervention by the respective individual countries and affluent international organizations; the latter incidentally are made taboo to our rural folk, knowing the important part they play in the development of the rural economy: this seems a concerted plan.

Development is what the World Bank is all about, in spite of their fumbling procedures up to now: The Millennium Goal is one such attempt, although perhaps done with the selfish motive of arresting terrorism that irks the affluent world; but altruistic motives cannot be discounted altogether!

Most in the urban world are blessed with various securities, especially food security, in comparison to the rural sector; how many of the rural folk have food security, being uncertain of the very next meal contrary to the common belief that they can pluck a coconut and dig out a yam for a meal? It is correct they are blessed with natural resources, but ironically their inbred lethargy and stupor, perhaps after the colonial breakaway from the ‘granary of the east’ period, have prevented them from venturing into profitable cultivation, unless a radical revamping of the rural sector takes place—Gam Udawa (re-awakening of the village out of its stupor) was a far sighted step in the right direction.

Malnutrition is catching on among our rural children with a vicious cycle of poverty and unemployment: a short stay in some of our villages will bring out this stark fact. This situation can get worse with a callously decided war that may propel us to a fast failing state that will bring about more malnutrition and its abhorrent cycle of poverty and unemployment.

In our rural sector many families are stranded with the women of the household trying to eke out an existence overseas, and the man taking to drinks. Many are the victims of smuggled migrations—all because of poverty and unemployment. The rural base consists of cultivators, laborers small holders, craftsmen and their families who are as human as urban dwellers and who look forward to a good life, the absence of which can lead to frustrated revolts in due course.

Modern technology enjoyed by the urban sector must reach the rural sector fast to relieve their sufferings, resulting in a trek to urban areas: The crack will come when the urban world cannot accommodate them any further. This is an aspect of good governance, that in this country seems to have been forgotten in the melee for power struggles at the top for several decades past—but soon the bell will toll and the politicians with the complaisant society will be taken unawares by those on the sidelines waiting for this to happen!

The affluent world at large must realize the fact that nature or the universal intelligence should have intended that the goods of the earth are for all peoples and all nations—if they want to continue enjoying the affluence without breeding terrorism.

There are many reasons contributing to disparity between the urban and the rural, and these are;

Absence of land tenure for those who till the land thus causing deprivation, exploitation by middle men, lack of access to markets and other social exclusions, unlike in the urban areas where there is protection of the workers through unions and other welfare measures. Also, rural people who depend on the land face adverse climatic and natural factors together with their inability to cope with scarcities and loss of harvest, for which rural agricultural insurance was commenced but never got going with the political bureaucracy.

There must be well planned out land reforms, unlike the political and haphazard land reforms that Sri Lanka experienced in the past, where the end result was cannibalization of the small plots owned by the small- holders who lacked the resources, funds, know- how and equipment to sustain the plantations: this contributed to the detriment of the country’s national product and still continues to do so.

Land reform should be considered a more complex project than a mere political exercise; it is not a simple re-division and redistribution of land: shouldn’t it be accompanied with well planned rural development programs and investments in infrastructure such as roads, communications and water resources and other social services that go with it, such as;Rising of income levels, improvement of working conditions, security in employment, personal incentives to work, promoting enterprise especially family agricultural enterprise, access to credit, education in the use of modern technologies and business methods, all of which were lacking in the previous land reforms exercise undertaken by the bureaucrats?

It is time to give a radical and revolutionary facelift to the rural sector to meet the new aspirations of its youth who together with land tenure, must be trained to till the land with sophisticated equipment—even go to the extent of revamping and uplifting the life styles of the new look farmers with cinema halls and other youthful enterprises that the youth drift to the urban in search of, in keeping with global trends—India is a fine example of such happenings—and all this must be done whilst attempting to preserve the rural touch.

Batches of rural youth so far drilled into believing that the private sector is anathema to the working class must be sent to certain parts of China to see the rural sector working within parameters of the private sector: parts of China have become a roaring success of private farmlands over their communistic collective farms.

The very concept of land tenure is a private sector exercise and necessarily needs private sector inputs of technologies, economies etc: it must not be left to our politicized bureaucrats; a modus operandi must be worked, as in China for commercial enterprises to venture out, with the land tenure being held by the cultivator—such as commercially viable storing and marketing facilities including exports, such that seasonal excesses of produce will not perish or be sold at uneconomical prices, causing suicides.

This writer speaks of a private sector basis of revamping the rural sector that may be given attention by the Board of Investment (BOI) which together with the stock exchange are very much encouraged by the present government: however the outcome depends on another part of the governments manifesto that discourages de-nationalization and private enterprise: much therefore depends on the cart of the economy that today is pulled by the donkey/bull duo, one animal going the way of the BOI and the other animal going in another direction!

In such a situation governments may be made or broken by the rural sector often blinded by politicians of various hues, but obviously the cart of the economy will be stagnant as it has been for the past decade—with a slight break in between: the President with his stable power must decide as to which two animals should pull the cart of the economy—at least now!

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Improved working conditions create a win-win story in Asia’s factories

The Island: 28/08/2006"

Asia’s ability to sustain its impressive economic growth and competitive edge will depend greatly on the ability of governments and companies to ensure the benefits are shared by employers, the workforce and the wider population. This is the conclusion of a new report 1/ on the region’s economic and social trends, prepared for the Asian Regional Meeting of the International Labour Organization. ILO Online reports on one new approach which, by linking productivity with improved working conditions, is ensuring that the benefits of globalization are felt from the shop floor to the boardroom.

The Chien Thang Garment Company in Hanoi, Vietnam may not be a household name, but it produces clothing for labels such as Gap, JC Penny, C&A, Yessica, and Zara. About 95 per cent of the company’s production is exported. Almost 40 years of experience in making clothes and leather goods and a network of 10 factories employing 3,200 people, put this state owned enterprise in a good position to make the most of the opening up and growth of Vietnam’s economy.

But when the buyers from Hong Kong (China), United States, the Republic of Korea and the European Union initially came calling, Chien Thang hit problems. Inefficiencies in the established production processes brought frequent stoppages. Although suitable for simple garments like trousers and shirts, the structure of the production lines could not cope with the complex garments that the foreign buyers demanded for their customers, some of which need 80 or 90 separate processes to complete. In 2004, the management and workers at Chien Thang got a lucky break. The company was selected to join the pilot scheme of the Factory Improvement Programme (FIP), a programme designed and developed by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN agency dealing with work and workplace issues.

The FIP was developed following an extensive study into codes of conduct and the supply chains of multinational companies 2/. The research highlighted the need to integrate the competitive and business goals of a factory with the social priorities of its workers, as well as the importance of systems for feedback, making improvements and remedying problems.

The FIP was developed in 2002, with the support of the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs and the United States Department of Labor. The programme was specifically designed to assist factories producing goods for global supply chains. A particular strength of FIP is that it links quality and productivity with labour practices and health and safety, thereby ensuring that improvements made in a factory are felt all the way down to the shop floor.

The programme was first implemented in Sri Lanka in 2002. The initial phases focused on the garment industry, an important export sector, and particular emphasis was placed on upgrading the working environment to reduce the physical strain on workers and other associated health risks. The results were impressive, and quantifiable. An external review of the programme found that, on average, in-line quality rejects were cut by over 40 per cent, while turnover and absenteeism fell by 26 per cent and 34 per cent respectively.

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Sunday, August 27, 2006

The great INGO tsunami money-grab

Sunday Observer: 27/08/2006" by Ranga Jayasuriya

International NGOs which pledged to build over 70,000 houses and signed agreements for 19,600 houses, have built only a meagre 2,900 houses in 18 months after the 2004 Boxing day catastrophe.

Following this inordinate delay by the INGOs, the head of the Reconstruction and Development Agency this week urged the INGOs to transfer tsunami donor monies lying in their bank accounts to the Treasury to enable the government to fund tsunami victims to build their own houses.

CARITAS pledged to build 26,000, of which only 72 houses have been completed. World Vision Lanka pledged to build 10,000 houses, but a meagre 198 houses have been completed.

Red Cross pledged 15,000 houses, but has completed only 169 houses. Care International pledged 6,800 houses, but has completed only 125 houses.

"We urged the INGOs to transfer the moneies immediately to meet the urgent housing needs of tsunami victims," said Ms Shanthi Fernando, the Chief Operational Officer of RADA, the country's tsunami reconstruction agency.

"Some children in the western countries went without a meal to donate a few dollars to tsunami victims in Asia. Their generosity should reach the recipients," said Ms Fernando.

Majority of the INGOs, barring one had adopted a lethargic attitude over the request to transfer funds. Red Cross being the only exception, had complied to cooperate with the government and had provided 25 million US dollars to an owner-driven housing reconstruction programme.

The delay of the INGOs in tsunami housing reconstruction has left 35,000 families still languishing in temporary shelters as at the first week of August.

Under the new owner driven program, the government will provide Rs. 250,000 to buy a land and another Rs. 250,000 to begin the construction of the house.

The reconstruction agency, RADA has urged the INGOs to provide an additional Rs.250,000 to the victims to complete the construction.

Meanwhile, a top official, associated with tsunami housing reconstruction charged the INGOs of trying to "prolong" their work here thus to extend their luxury living in this country.

Most INGOs which have deposited tsunami funds in their respective bank accounts are reported to be drawing the interests accrued in such accounts.

Ms.Fernando said beginning first week of August, 11,551 houses have been built with the cooperation of local and international donors, most of them small time organisations. That is only 38 per cent of the total housing requirement.

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