Poverty Alleviation: Caring People Who Don’t Have Caretakers – Part 5

Sri Lanka has sacrificed much of its resources for almost a century for poverty alleviation under different taglines such as colonisation schemes, universal food subsidies, universal free health and education, rural/urban housing, land alienation, village expansion schemes, rural development programs, Janasaviya, Samurdhi and now moving towards a new program call Aswasuma. 

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Photo Credit: Faculty of Medical Sciences, University of Sri Jayewardenepura

Click here to read the fourth part of this series

Some people in the vulnerable group, such as neglected or abundant older adults, disabled, beggars, street children, drug addicts, street dwellers, etc., are at a high risk and helpless situation without caretakers. Financial assistance would not resolve their problem. They need caretakers to provide food, clothes, medicine, and shelter. The government must design a scheme encouraging the non-governmental sector to use its best endeavours to look after such people through elderly homes, childcare centres, camps for street dwellers, etc. Along with this program, begging should be banned.

Sri Lanka has sacrificed much of its resources for almost a century for poverty alleviation under different taglines such as colonisation schemes, universal food subsidies, universal free health and education, rural/urban housing, land alienation, village expansion schemes, rural development programs, Janasaviya, Samurdhi and now moving towards a new program call Aswasuma.  Some programs like free education and health have produced positive results. However, continuing those programs without changing and responding to the evolving local and global situations is now creating a new set of social and economic problems leading to the wastage of resources. Other programs have contributed to increasing food production and preventing large-scale rural-urban migration.  However, the dependency on handouts has increased, and now, many people expect handouts from the government to satisfy basic needs without contributing to the economy. People are rapidly losing self-confidence. We have neither achieved growth nor poverty alleviation.  Poverty alleviation should not be merely an income distribution through handouts. Income transfer to low-income groups should be built into development programs, enabling poverty reduction through economic growth. Rather than growth or poverty alleviation, the policy should be growth with equity.    

With the restructuring of the poverty alleviation program, various illusive, vote-luring programs such as Maganeguma, Gamaneguma, Weda Lakshayak, One Hundred Thousand Kilometers Roads, Samurdhi, etc., should be shelved, and those resources diverted to the new programs. Also, there must be an agreement among the main political parties not to change the essential features of the poverty alleviation programs without proper analysis. The basic principle of poverty alleviation should be mainstreaming the poor, facilitating them to earn a decent income and contribute to the national economy. They should not be outcasted or labelled as a separate social group forever. Only the vulnerable, who don’t have a breadwinner in the family, should depend on free grants and subsidies.

Annexure: Implementation Modalities of the Employment for Everybody

In place of the Samurdhi allowance, as discussed in in this series, a nationwide public work program shall be launched to provide wage employment for everybody in the labour force to guarantee a reasonable income until they find full-time gainful employment. Proposed operational modalities of the employment guarantee scheme are discussed below:

Relative advantages of the program

  • Guaranteed employment for everybody in the labour force
  • Everybody in the workforce contributes to economic growth and national income.
  • No selection process is required, and no leakage of benefits to the ineligible. Exit/entry or re-exit/ re-entry criteria are unnecessary; it is an automatic process. Only the poor, looking for a primary income/supplementary income, will participate in the employment guarantee scheme. Therefore, the number below the official poverty line may decrease considerably.

(d) At present, most of the public assets are not properly maintained. Proper maintenance under the employment guarantee scheme will improve the life span of those assets.

(e) As this expenditure adds value to the economy, it may not contribute much to inflation.

(f) Cultivate positive attitudes among the poor for self-reliance development instead of dependency on handouts.

(g) If the program is implemented successfully, with the right fiscal, monetary and sectoral policies, the Employment Guarantee Program will find its natural death or become lean in several years. If the number of people attending work camps decreases, it indicates the program’s success and the economy’s overall performance.

(h) Encourage people to look for employment with high wage rates and ensure a job with a minimum wage when they do not have such jobs.

Selection of Project Activities                          

Public Works Camps may be established in each GN division as the initial step for the employment guarantee scheme.

  1. In a GN Division, a Basket of projects can be selected by a village committee comprising the GN, a member of the local government institution, and field officers of the GN Division. Projects from this basket can be selected for implementation in the order of priority for the village economy. As discussed above, many community-level activities are eligible for the program. This project basket may also include most local government functions, which are neglected due to insufficient funds. Over time, many more activities will be included in the project list.
  2. Income-generating activities such as cultivating abandoned government-owned farmlands and revitalising abandoned cottage industries may also be selected. Revenue generation from such projects should be paid to the consolidated fund or a special fund. Most of the farms owned by the Department of Agriculture, LRC, and NLDB can also be cultivated under this program.
  3. According to the needs of the area and the beneficiaries, multiple work sites in a GN division can exist simultaneously. Also, it is not compulsory to establish work camps in every GN division if there are no needy people to work with or projects to be implemented.
  4. Labor requirements of government agencies’ infrastructure projects can also be obtained under this scheme. In such events, the labour cost should be paid to the consolidated fund or a special fund by the relevant institution.
  5. Priority should be given to labour-intensive projects.

Preparation of Estimates

Preparation of estimates is a must for any project selected for implementation. The labour component of selected projects should be more than 75% of the total cost estimate. Estimates shall be prepared based on the wage rate and working hours discussed below. It should be prepared according to input breakdowns, such as unskilled labour, material, transport, and skilled labour. Technical Officers serving in DS Divisions under any department should render their services to prepare estimates and technical supervision.

Working Time and Wages

Males and females shall be paid equal wages. The daily wage shall be substantially below the average wage rate in the district to prevent the transfer of labour from the private sector and more productive activities of the economy and encourage the workers to look for higher remunerating jobs outside the employment guarantee scheme. As most of these people are daily wage/income earners, payment should be made at least twice a month.

The working period should be 5.30 hours a day; starting and closing times could differ from one site to another according to the needs of the area and the beneficiaries. Preferably, the working time would be from 08.00 am to 01.30 pm. The afternoon is free for workers to attend to their personnel matters, farming, self-employment activities, etc., without a tradeoff between the public work program and their usual income-generating activities. Payment will be made only for the days attended for work. Regular attendance is optional.  The objective is to back up their income and encourage them to leave for more remunerative work without sticking to the public work program forever.

In most advanced countries, grown school children and university students work to earn their expenses. By doing so, they are self-supported for education, gain work experience, and understand the real world, where they will have to live and work on completing their education.   Sri Lankan students have no such opportunities. Hence, after leaving school or the university, they are like a fish out of water. Also, the children of vulnerable families may wish to support the family income. Therefore, the operation of work sites on weekends and holidays must be encouraged.

The number of people attending those work camps is expected to decrease gradually. The number of work camps may also reduce accordingly. Many work camps will go to their natural deaths once the economic recovery commences.  It is an indication of the success of the program and the satisfactory performance of the overall economy.

Selection of Beneficiaries

Anybody above 16 (excluding vulnerable such as disabled and older adults, female-headed households with small children, etc.) can participate in this program. This opportunity will be attractive only to poor people. As such, it will be an automatic selection process of beneficiaries. Since the option is given to all poor people, there is no need to follow strict selection criteria or a selection process. There is no room for politicising the selection of beneficiaries or leakage of benefits to the ineligible. However, the number of participants and the number of days entitled for a family must be limited to prevent misuse of the scheme.

Project Implementation

  1. Divisional Secretary will be the focal point for the program at the Divisional level. The institutional mechanism in place for the Samurdi program shall also be used for this program. There are Samurdhi officers and many development officers in Divisional secretariats. A cluster of GN divisions can be allocated to each of these officers to supervise the program’s implementation at the village level.
  2. At each work site, one literate person from the worker team should be selected as the work supervisor to guide the group and maintain the check role.  Overloading check roles with absentees is a common practice in programs of this nature. As a preventive measure, the supervising and guiding role should be rotated among all literate persons in the worker group. One selected person should play the supervisory role only for one month at a stretch. After marking the check role, another person (not the same person every day) from the working group should also certify the accuracy of the number of workers in attendance.
  3. The Government Agent will attend district-level coordination and approval of projects for GN divisions with the assistance of his planning unit.

Project Financing

  1. A separate trust fund may be established to finance the Employment Guarantee Scheme (Employment for Everybody).
  2. With the commencement of the program, the ongoing cash grants to beneficiaries should terminate.
  3. Benefits of this program will automatically be limited to the neediest people. As such, considerable savings can be expected from the Samurdhi program.
  4. As maintenance of public assets is to be done under this program, considerable savings can be expected from the maintenance budget of various agencies.
  5. Since this is a poverty alleviation program, some donors may agree to finance its labour component. Also, it may be possible for donors to select different districts to finance. If donors agree to participate, all donors should follow the national scheme without modifications. Any modification should embrace the entire program without limiting it to a district.
  6. With the implementation of this scheme, all kinds of illusive poverty alleviation programs such as home garden support, plant distributions, and food basket distribution, Gama-Neguma (Village Uplifting), one hundred-thousand-kilometres road project, one hindered thousand village project (Weda Lakshayak), filling the government institution with unwanted cadres, and employing graduates without vacancies shall stop. All those resources shall be diverted to the employment guarantee program. Most of them can be combined with the Employment Guarantee Scheme as appropriate. Perhaps graduates can temporarily join the program as work supervisors.
  7. If this program is implemented island-wide, there is no room for complaining about unemployment. Still, the underemployment will remain for several years until the economy takes a rapid growth path. The number attending the employment guarantee scheme may decrease with the economic recovery. Then, it can be continued on a limited scale, only to support people who would fall into temporary unemployment from time to time due to various social and economic reasons.

 As we have experienced in many programs, politicians and bureaucrats, without attempting to understand the economic, social, and political logic behind the employment guarantee scheme, may propose giving permanent jobs with higher salaries, extended working hours and privileges like government servants. Everybody should understand that this is not a program to provide full-time permanent employment for individuals. It is only an assurance that no one will fall into extreme poverty. As a program, it continues, but for the individuals, it is a temporary relief without falling into extreme poverty until gainful employment is found.  Even the educated unemployed can participate in this until they get a suitable job. Therefore, the basic features of the employment guarantee scheme should remain the same under all circumstances.


Sirisena Amarasekara

Sirisena Amarasekara is a Sri Lankan public servant and diplomat. He is the former Sri Lankan High Commissioner to South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Angola, Botswana, and Eswatin. He had functioned as the secretary to the Prime Minister on two occasions, and as the secretary to the Cabinet of Sri Lanka. Having completed more than 50 years of public service, Amarasekara is one of the most senior Sri Lankan public servants.

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