November 29, 2012, 9:04 pm
"National-level data hides a number of regional disparities in economic growth and poverty reduction with districts such as Batticaloa, Moneragala and Badulla still
recording a relatively high prevalence of poverty. According to the Department of Census and Statistics, income inequality is also widening with the bottom 20% receiving less than 5% of total income compared to the richest 20% who receive more than 50%. Other factors such as unresolved ethnic tensions, high levels of crime and violence in society as well as extremely high levels of suicides and attempted suicides, suggest that despite our impressive economic progress and social development indicators, we may be no closer to achieving wellbeing."
By Nilakshi De Silva and Roshni Alles, Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA)
During the past 100 years, the world has changed rapidly. Many things that we now consider ‘essential’, such as the mobile phone, airplanes, antibiotics, television and the internet, were invented within this relatively short period of human history. The world has also grown exponentially, both in terms of population and economies. In 1900, the planet supported 1.6 billion people, but this number has risen to 7 billion by 2011. According to a 2008 World Bank report, Global Purchasing Power Parities and Real Expenditures, value of the global product has increased by close to 50 times since the 1900s to over US$ 60 trillion. Today, programmes are underway to provide a computer for each child, but in the 1940s when the computer was in the early stages of development, it was predicted that 15 machines would suffice for the whole world (Daybreak of the Digital Age by W. B. Maynard, 2012, in the Princeton Alumni Weekly 112(10),). Overall, many would agree that economic growth and development have been the hallmarks of the past century.
Much has been achieved in terms of improved quality of life around the world. Since the 1970s, the average global income has more than doubled and the range, amount and quality of goods and services now available to people is unprecedented. Life expectancy has increased, sometimes substantially, in almost all the countries in the world, and a child born today can expect to live longer than at any other time in history. In many developing countries, mortality rates are at about 60% of what they were just 30 years ago. More and more children have access to education and since 1960; the proportion of people who attend school has risen from 57% to 85%. Looking back over the past 40 years, the UNDP’s Human Development Report of 2010 concludes that there has been impressive progress around the world.
Increasingly, however, there are signs of tensions and underlying systemic problems with the current models of development. According to the UN’s Rethinking Poverty Report published in 2011, there are, still, 1.4 billion people living in poverty or living on less than US$ 1.25 per day. The FAO estimates that the number of hungry people worldwide is 963 million or 14% of the world population. The UNICEF estimates that poverty still claims the lives of 25,000 children a day, while many live their lives out in drudgery and social exclusion. The Human Development Report of 2010 itself, while noting human progress in the past 40 years, raises concerns about variability in such progress and widening disparities between those who have and those who do not – at both individual as well as country levels.
In Sri Lanka too we have seen substantial changes. The country has achieved three decades of sustained growth, averaging 4.9% annually since 1977, despite a prolonged and violent conflict. Thirty years of economic reforms have also transformed the economy – from one with inward-looking policies focusing on self-sufficiency, to a competitive export-oriented economy. Sustained economic growth, coupled with modest population growth, has resulted in a doubling of per capita incomes over the past three decades, to nearly US$ 2,400 by 2010. There has also been a decline in consumption poverty, particularly in the last 10 years. In 2009/10, the national poverty headcount was estimated at 9%, a sharp decline from 23% (excluding the North and East) in 2002. However, national-level data hides a number of regional disparities in economic growth and poverty reduction with districts such as Batticaloa, Moneragala and Badulla still recording a relatively high prevalence of poverty. According to the Department of Census and Statistics, income inequality is also widening with the bottom 20% receiving less than 5% of total income compared to the richest 20% who receive more than 50%. Other factors such as unresolved ethnic tensions, high levels of crime and violence in society as well as extremely high levels of suicides and attempted suicides, suggest that despite our impressive economic progress and social development indicators, we may be no closer to achieving wellbeing.
With the end of thirty years of war, Sri Lanka is embarking on a strongly economic growth lead development model. Yet, there is evidence that there may be fundamental problems with the models of development we are following. The economic systems of the world are also showing a greater propensity to crisis; from the recent food, fuel and financial crises to climate change debates. This has led some commentators, such as Kanbur to suggest that uncertainty and volatility has become ‘the new normal’ (quoted in L. Haddad, et.al, 2011, Time to Reimagine Development? IDS Bulletin, Oxford, 42(5):1-12). These events have led many to question the core ideas about what development is and how it happens. At the heart of this debate is the unresolved tension between material progress on the one hand, and the understanding of what constitutes human wellbeing on the other.
In this context, a ‘reimagining’ of development – what it is as well as how we get there, or critically assessing whether the concept is obsolete to meet current challenges – may be opportune. The Centre for Poverty Analysis hopes to provide momentum to the discourse on alternative development goals and paths at its eleventh Annual Symposium on the 11th and 12th of December. The symposium, structured as an Ideas Exchange, hopes to provide a forum to share ideas and stimulate new thinking to guide us towards finding development paradigms that are relevant for our current realities. The inaugural session, will feature eminent thinkers from Sri Lanka and the region sharing their views. A series of parallel sessions will focus on topics such as understanding and deconstructing well-being as a development goal, development and ethics, feminist perspectives on development, environmental critiques of development, urban development in the context of changing urban spaces and their implications and finally knowledge hierarchies in development. The Centre of Poverty Analysis is bringing together varied professionals to this Ideas Exchange, not just economists and policymakers, but also artists and thinkers, to encourage a cross fertilisation of ideas which can help to take development outside the current narrow purview and enrich the discourse. It is hoped that through this event there will be space created for a valid dialogue on alternative thought about development which could feed into the policy process in Sri Lanka and worldwide.
(For more information, please visit www.cepa.lk/symposium2012)