The Sunday Times Economic Analysis                 By the Economist  

Children and old age: Coping with the challenges
The International Day for Children and the Elderly was observed in October. Both are of significance for the country. The children of the country are the future hope. Their health and education and values will determine the nature and pace of economic growth and social development in the country. The reduced rate of population growth provides the country with an opportunity to concentrate on the improvement of the quality of education. Till recently the high rate of population growth meant that the number of children entering schools continued to rise and the education budget was spent largely on providing more infrastructure and teachers. The quantitative expansion of education facilities absorbed the money that was available for education.

The proportion of expenditure for education too dwindled owing to growing fiscal difficulties. The quality of education declined. Now that the fertility rate has dropped even below the replacement level, the number of children entering schools would decline. This gives the country the opportunity to focus on the quality of education that is woefully inadequate in most schools in the country.

The government has indicated its commitment to spend more on education. Any increase in expenditure should go towards an improvement in education at all levels. It is through a qualitative improvement in education that we could sustain the country's economic growth at a high rate. No longer is it adequate to think in terms of high rates of literacy. What is needed among the youth is a capacity to think, analyse and possess skills that a modern society needs.

The foundation must be laid by a more intelligent approach to primary education followed by a versatile knowledge base in secondary education. Such an approach requires better training of teachers and equipment. A higher investment is needed to achieve these goals in education. An expenditure of 6 percent of GDP should be the aim in the next few years. With a GDP growth of 5 per cent per year and lesser numbers in school, such expenditure should enable a qualitative improvement. However much finance is important there are other perquisites of educational planning and administration that are vital to make the higher per capita investment in education cost-effective.

At the other end of the age spectrum is the emerging problem of an ageing population. The proportion of the population over 60 years is rising with the longevity of the population increasing. The current life expectancy of 72 years is expected to rise to about 80. The proportion of the population over 60 years is expected to increase to over 20 percent by about 2030.

This has serious implications for the economy and society at large. The retirement benefits are inadequate and in fact a large proportion of the population has no retirement benefits. These persons would have to be looke after for a longer time than before. Those getting pensions would find the real value of their pensions eroded by inflation.

Social changes that are occurring imply a need to provide larger numbers of the old aged with institutional homes. Such homes would require to be provided by the state, voluntary organisations and for the affluent by the private sector.

Unfortunately there is little action to provide such facilities adequately owing to the preoccupation of governments with political issues and the lack of adequate resources for funding such facilities. These are only a few of the problems. Though the problems are grave, the attention is inadequate. Unless there are reforms to cope with the problem they would become very serious issues in the near future.

Ageing is becoming a fairly widespread phenomenon in the world. Yet the rapidity of the process in Sri Lanka and the fact that the country is facing economic and financial problems and political instability mean that the needed directions of policy may not be embarked on till the problems become serious and their resolution more difficult.

The rhetoric of the international day for the aged must be backed by specific measures to make the life of the larger proportion of elders more endurable.

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