How does Lanka fare?

We can give ourselves a pat on the back while also taking note of areas that need urgent attention, especially gender equality, says UNDP country head Douglas Keh following the recently released Human Development Report (HDR)
By Smriti Daniel, Pic by Saman Kariyawasam.

How do you measure your quality of life? Or how empowered are women in your community? What does it mean to be truly poor? For those who look to statistical analysis, the data can be gathered, the answers tabulated. These in turn become potent advocacy tools, key elements in forming and deploying national policies.

The release of the Human Development Report (HDR) by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is an annual event, and the report itself is nothing if not an ambitious undertaking. This year, the introduction of three new indices will tackle inequality, gender inequality and the concept of multidimensional poverty. The good news is that, though it falls solidly into the Middle Development Group on nearly every one of the indices that compare 169 countries, Sri Lanka still finds itself sometimes outstripping giants like China and India.

Sri Lanka’s Human Development Index (HDI) ranking has remained a stable 91, not changing since the last report. The news globally, however, is decidedly optimistic, with many societies having made significant strides towards improving the quality of individual lives. You can trace some of these journeys by following the hundreds of distinct threads that make up the colourful cover of the 20th Anniversary edition of the HDR. Not all are moving in the same direction – many go upwards, a few down, while others meander – but each represents the progress of a specific country’s human index over time. Somewhere in there is the line that charts Sri Lanka’s development. The report that follows, despite its inevitable failings, strives to come to grips with some aspects that at first glance would appear difficult to quantify – a sense of security for instance or happiness. But over the course of 20 years, researchers have found some interesting ways to measure even these.

“They [HDI statistics] have gone through several refinements. For instance, the first one looked at literacy as the proxy for education, this one looks at number of years that a child could expect schooling,” says Douglas Keh, Country Head UNDP. From his workspace inside the shady premises of the UNDP office, Mr. Keh has been fielding the press all week. Explaining that the theme for this year is ‘Pathways to Human Development,’ Mr. Keh said that the theme was an acknowledgment of the fact that “there is no fixed, cookie cutter model that can be applied across the board to different countries.” However, he went on to add that “sustainability, equity and empowerment were kept enshrined in the first human development report as fundamental principles in development and twenty years later they have been reaffirmed.”

Some of these key concepts were unveiled with the publication of the first report in 1990, when Mahbub ul-Haq of Pakistan and Amartya Sen of India stated succinctly in their introduction that “People are the real wealth of a nation.” It’s that ideal that continues to guide the formulation of the report. “The ground breaking concept of human development as opposed to economic development has really taken root,” said Mr. Keh. So much so, that the newest of the reports indices looks past the poverty line that places those who earn less than $1.25 a day below it, to other factors that determine an individual’s quality of life. “The Multidimensional Poverty Index has taken income out of the equation,” he said.

This part of the report’s finding sheds a favourable light on Sri Lanka. This despite the fact that a significant majority of the world’s population of multidimensionally poor live in South Asia (51% as compared to 28% in sub-Saharan Africa). In Sri Lanka, 14% of the country’s population subsists on less than $1.25 a day, but only 5% are considered to live in multidimensional poverty – with little or no access to health and education services or basics like running water and electricity. This is not the case with other countries who find their HDI ranking dropping dramatically when the multidimensional poverty is taken into consideration, notes Mr. Keh. Compare it to India’s loss in HDI, for instance: 41% in education and 31% in health. “In Sri Lanka, it’s the other way around...because of all the investments that Sri Lanka has made in health and education over the last 20 years, it is cited as a kind of a success story in the report,” he said.

The Inequality-adjusted Human Development index brings the yawning gap between our society’s richest and its poorest denizens into sharp focus. People in developed countries typically experience the least inequality in human development, notes the report. “In the case of Sri Lanka, looking strictly at equality in income and adjusting the score, the score or value for Sri Lanka goes down by 20%, so there are some income distribution issues here,” says Mr.Keh. There is speculation that this number will be dramatically affected in coming years as data pours out of the North and East – an area that has so far been something of a “data vacuum.” It’s worth noting that despite this drop, Sri Lanka still does better than either China (23%) or Egypt (27.5%), both countries that fall into the same Medium Development Category.

It is in the Gender Equality index, however that the country fares the poorest. Maternal and infant mortality are low, and serve as an indication of the good quality of the health services being provided to women. However, “there’s a contradiction and I think it’s a significant one, between the provision of services and how that translates into real opportunity and real human development of women,” said Mr. Keh.

He points out that despite some of highest numbers of women enrolled in colleges (as high as 57%), only 38.5% of women in Sri Lanka who could be involved in the labour force are actually involved. Of these, many are forced to retire five years earlier than their male counterparts. In addition, the participation of women in Sri Lanka’s parliament stands at 6% - one of the lowest figures not only in the region but in the world. “This means that Sri Lanka could be achieving a lot more with greater gender empowerment...” suggests Mr.Keh.

There is much information of interest to be found in the sprawling report, from an analysis to the state of the environment to an analysis of how we stand on each of the elements of happiness. (Interesting fact: a staggering 86% of Sri Lankans polled say they have job satisfaction.) Of particular interest is the report’s focus on community space, democratic dissent and human rights. An entire index is devoted to human security analysis focusing on the number of refugees, fatalities of the civil war, and limitations to freedom from want among other factors. (it’s no surprise that Sri Lanka scores a 2 on 2 for the intensity of its civil war.)

The entire report is available online and its release this year will be followed by a National Development Report in 2011 – only the second to come out of Sri Lanka since it’s first in 1998. The theme of this one will be ‘Inequality,’ as was its predecessors. Dr. Fredrick Abeyratne, a poverty analyst with the UNDP, says this will be the organisation’s chance to go back and do a more thorough job. The report will examine data at a district level, employing much of the same methodology that was applied to the global report. The report’s findings are sure to profoundly influence government policies and how resources are allocated, he explained.

In the end, we can both congratulate ourselves, and be considered forewarned. “The war is over and if Sri Lanka has been able to make such achievements through nearly three decades of a conflict that absorbed a lot of resources, imagine what can happen now with peace,” said Mr. Keh, adding that true progress can be made only if it is equally powered by greater empowerment and human security for all Sri Lanka’s people.

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