By Lloyd F Yapa The major goal of the leaders of the majority community in Sri Lanka (SL) should be the alleviation of poverty among the people particularly among its own, while establishing an integrated nation. The percentage of people living below the poverty line of US$1.25 per person per day was about 7.0 in [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Ethnic conflict and economic development


By Lloyd F Yapa

The major goal of the leaders of the majority community in Sri Lanka (SL) should be the alleviation of poverty among the people particularly among its own, while establishing an integrated nation. The percentage of people living below the poverty line of US$1.25 per person per day was about 7.0 in SL compared to 0.0 in Malaysia and 0.4 in Thailand (2000-2007, Wikipedia). The percentage of those living below the poverty line of $2 per person per day in SL was 29.1 in SL compared to 2.3 in Malaysia and 4.6 in Thailand in 2007 according to the World Bank (upto date data not available).

According to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2009/10 of the Department of Census and Statistics, the provinces registering the highest head count of poverty on the basis of the official poverty line (of about Rs 2900 per person per month) are Eastern (14.8 per cent), Uva (13.7 per cent), Northern (12.8 per cent), North Western (11.3 per cent), Sabaragamuwa (10.6 per cent), Southern (9.8 per cent) and Central (9.7 per cent).

In terms of the energy intake which is the basis of the official poverty line it was an average of 2094 kilo calories (kc.) per person per day for all households in SL compared to nearly 3000 kc. for Malaysia, over 3000 kc. in China and 3480-3720 kc. in North America; as for the energy intake in the households in the provinces, it was lowest in the Western Province (1936 kc.), and in the urban areas (1881 kc.),compared to the average level indicated above. The energy intake by the poor (those below the official poverty line) in SL was still lower- an average of 1472 kc.; for the poor in the Western Province it was1209 kc.; the poor in the other provinces, especially the North Western, Southern and North Central, received much less than the national average of 2094 kc. per person per day (Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2009/10 of the DCS).

The conclusions that can be derived from these figures is that not only is SL a very poor country in Asia but that poverty is present in areas of the country that are populated by the majority community as well as by the minority communities. As for the energy intake, it must be stated that the average level is quite low for the entire country and could affect the health and productivity of the people unfavourably. These are the more important matters that should receive the attention of the leaders and the experts in the country and not race or religion and not trifling matters (which are distractions from the main path of economic development) like the issue of Halal certificates that could be disposed of quickly after negotiation.

Such unimportant disagreements probably arise because most of the people in this country still do not feel that they are all Sri Lankans first and belong to the different communities next, even after 60 odd years of independence. There has been no attempt at building an integrated SL, (while providing for devolution of power and preserving the cultures of the various communities) – a very poor reflection on the leaders!

Speeding up economic growth

The next question is how can poverty be alleviated? The obvious answer is by speeding up economic growth. In order to do this the leaders have to create an environment of good governance with separation of powers among the executive, legislature and the judiciary, social, political and economic (budgetary and monetary) stability for attraction of the required physical capital/investment and development of human capital/skills.

Main constraint: Ethnic conflict

In this connection it has now been proved that one of the main constraints against faster economic growth in this country has been the ethnic conflict (with the Tamil community) particularly the destructive 30 year civil war. In fact according to N. Arunatilake, S. Santhirasegaram and others SL would have lost about 5-6 percentage points of economic growth during the period 1978 to 2005 mainly due to various conflicts of this nature. It is therefore estimated that during this period SL would have achieved a growth rate of over 10 per cent per annum, instead of the actual rate of 4.5 per cent if not for conflicts among the communities.

Another way of looking at it is to compare the per capita incomes of SL during the period with those of a country such as South Korea, which had a similar level of income at the beginning. In 1962 the per capita income of SL was $160 and that of South Korea was $110. The per capita income of South Korea in 2011, however, was reported to be over $22,000, while that of SL in 2011 was only $2836.
In other words the people of SL remain poor due mainly to the communal conflicts that they have created among themselves particularly the 30 year civil war. It can be safely stated that the majority of the poor are among the majority community in SL; in a sense therefore it is the majority community which has suffered the most from ethnic conflicts; sections of the majority community are therefore wasting the hard won peace after defeating terrorism, by creating communal tensions again.


So the question that can be raised is should not the leaders of the majority community including the clergy take the initiative immediately in reaching conciliation with minority communities to resolve any grievances speedily, instead of subjecting their people to continued poverty and hardship by creating unnecessary conflicts? A (permanent) high level, all party parliamentary committee may have to identify the specific strategies and actions including policies and legislation that are necessary for this purpose quickly in consultation with the stakeholders and using whatever discussions that have already taken place on the subject.
The government will have to indicate the period during which this programme will be formulated and implemented as the people (and the rest of the world) have lost trust in the endless discussions which have been held so far. The immediate actions necessary may include creating awareness among the people regarding the dangers of ethnic conflict, ensuring equal rights for all irrespective of race or religion and laws to bring persons creating communal tensions/clashes to justice.


A genuine effort to implement such a programme speedily, will not only result in a halt to external interference in the affairs of the country but also the attraction of the SL diaspora back to the country with their capital as well as skills and of course other investments, especially the Foreign Direct Investments with global market access and scarce skills, to create adequate employment opportunities for the young people who are now engaged in unproductive jobs or the unemployed, some of whom are trying desperately to leave the country in search of better opportunities. If this happens the communities will no doubt stop worrying about sharing the scarce resources that are currently available.
(The writer is an economist).

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