ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 9, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 15
Financial Times  

Fresh Perspectives: Exploring alternative dimensions of poverty in Sri Lanka - Book Review

By Anila Dias Bandaranaike, Assistant Governor, Central Bank of Sri Lanka and Director, CEPA

Quantitative information on consumption poverty, from national household income and expenditure surveys, has been available in Sri Lanka for over 50 years, while successive governments, since independence, have placed emphasis on welfare benefits to the needy. Yet, historically, evidence-based policies to address poverty have been somewhat limited. However, development of an official poverty line and regionally disaggregated poverty indicators by the DCS locally, and the introduction of the MDGs and multidimensional poverty indicators such as the HDI and HPI internationally, have changed this. During the recent past, policy discussion and debate on poverty related issues in Sri Lanka have become more focused on the available quantitative and qualitative evidence, rather than on perception. Also, poverty measures have expanded to multidimensional indicators, rather than those based only on income and expenditure. Most recently, the government has selected the 119 DS divisions with the highest incidence of poverty identified by DCS for development, as a part of its “gama naguma” programme. There is now recognition that poverty could be the result of, not only economic, but also, social, political and spatial exclusion. Therefore, we need to look at poverty from a fresh perspective of its many dimensions, if we are to truly understand why it exists and how to reduce it. Hence, this publication by CEPA is timely, as interest in the subject is currently high among policy makers and other stakeholders.

As stated in the Foreword to this book and in Chapter 1, most available information on poverty, both in Sri Lanka and globally, is quantitative, often consumption and income based, sometimes assets-based. Such information is the starting point for serious research on the WHO? WHERE? and WHAT? of poverty, i.e. who are the poor, where do they live and what are they deprived of? We need this initial knowledge to meet their immediate needs, as well as to move to the WHY? WHEN? and HOW? of poverty, i.e. why are they poor, how and when did they become poor? We need answers to the second set of questions to be able to address the root problem of reducing poverty in the country in a sustainable manner.

Quantitative findings, complemented by qualitative findings, can answer the first set of questions. The second set of questions is probably better answered in the reverse order. However, collecting quantitative data of high quality, while difficult in itself, is simpler than collecting qualitative information. Qualitative research, for the required sample sizes from which conclusions can be extrapolated, is very time consuming. This is where CEPA’s style of research, in general, and this publication by CEPA, in particular, provides significant value-addition to the existing body of knowledge on the subject. The publication provides useful and varied qualitative material on diverse poor communities. It raises issues relating to the second set of questions, the WHY? WHEN? and HOW? and discusses causes and consequences of the specific environment in which each of these identified poor communities operate.

I will not give a detailed synopsis of the book here, as it is provided for the reader in the Introduction, but briefly discuss the content, merely to substantiate my review. Chapter 1 prepares the ground work by summarising the conventional research on poverty. Chapter 2 explains the approach taken in this book. It was heavy going, but I was able to appreciate its message and content only after having read the entire book. Chapters 3 to 7 were each self-contained and provided interesting and useful insights into different dimensions of poverty among diverse poor communities – those geographically or socially isolated (estates, ethnic minorities), those isolated from economic and employment opportunities by crises (civil conflict and tsunami) or inappropriate human development (youth).

The high quality of CEPA’s research, in terms of rigorous methodology, objective focus and clear analysis in each study, was evident in the book. What was interesting was the synthesizing of findings from diverse studies into key insights on the causes of poverty. Also, the innovative presentation in different chapters of the perceptions of the poor themselves about their own situation, as quoted at interviews, provides food for thought to policy makers on what needs to be done. To the best of my knowledge, the qualitative data analysis from each of these different studies did not contradict any of the quantitative research findings in the existing literature, but rather, complemented that body of knowledge, while recognizing its limitations. Thus, the content lives up to its name of providing “Fresh Perspectives”.

It would have been a waste, if the knowledge and insights that CEPA has gained from these diverse studies was confined to within CEPA, and not made available to others. The effort made to publish this book, and present complex research in easy-to-read, non-technical language, epitomises CEPA’s commitment to communicate with that wider community. Translation of the Introduction to Sinhala and Tamil is a useful initial attempt at dissemination in all 3 languages and I commend it. However, one would need to translate the entire publication, if Sinhala and Tamil readers are to receive the benefits of the “Fresh Perspectives” on alternative dimensions of poverty in Sri Lanka. On a practical note, CEPA needs to first market this product, and, if there is adequate demand, let other organisations take on the translations to be cost-effective.

I found the book smooth reading, despite being a compendium of writing styles of several authors. I commend the editors for a job well done. Although I am conditioned, by my own training and background, to take a quantitative approach to poverty research after reading the book and listening to CEPA’s research findings in various fora, I am now ready to learn from the complementary qualitative approach. I found the research findings contained in the book and the perspectives given to those findings very perceptive. All in all, once I started reading it, despite a bad bout of ‘flu, I did not put the book down till I had finished it.

I consider this book a “must read” for all those who are interested in addressing the causes and consequences of poverty in Sri Lanka. It can help policy discussions on poverty among decision makers at the highest level. It provides insights that would be useful to both state and civil society organizations. While providing fresh perspectives for future research to academics and students, it is also interesting and informative for laymen interested in this subject. I hope that this book will become mainstream reading towards understanding and reducing poverty and raising the cultural, social and economic well-being of the poor in Sri Lanka. It’s a great book- Happy Reading!

(Copies of the book can be purchased at Barefoot bookshop or from CEPA’s office at 29 Gregory’s Road, Colombo 7.)


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