Sustainable Regional Development of Sri Lanka — Part 1

Building on Sri Lanka’s Rural Development and Poverty Reduction: Make Success Story Sustainable Through a Regional Development Model that Emphasizes Balanced, Complementary and Equitable Rural and Urban Development

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A farmer takes a break from working in a rice paddy on the outskirts of Ambanpola, Sri Lanka [Photo: Indika Sriyan/ Unsplash]

Introduction – The Concepts of Urban Development and Rural Development   

1.1 Background

The concept of rural development as a primary means of alleviating poverty in developing countries has been enthusiastically adopted and put into practice by economists, sociologists, regional planners, politicians, bureaucrats, non-government organisations (NGOs) and the donor community. In fact, some are obsessively sentimental about the concept and forget the need for economic growth. However, history shows that no country has ever escaped from the poverty trap through rural development alone. Rural development can be necessary, but more is needed for poverty reduction or the overall development of a country or even a region. Sri Lanka is a country that is particularly proud of its high level of achievements in rural development, which discouraged rural-urban migration. Nevertheless, despite the success story, the country has become bankrupt and in a state of arrested development. It is in danger of deterioration in many of its achievements, for which causes are much beyond the purview of rural development. 

In the Western and the newly developed countries (particularly the so-called Asian Tigers),  poverty reduction and overall development were mainly achieved by economic growth generated through concurrent processes of accelerated industrialisation, urbanisation and expansion of the service sector. These processes created more gainful employment opportunities in urban agglomerates than in rural regions. The processes stimulated forces that pulled labour from rural to urban, encouraging rural-urban migration. Urban areas became growth centres, functioning as hubs of trade and commerce, employment and decent income, administration, transportation, education, health, leisure, shelter, and convenient living. Meanwhile, land augmentation facilitated by out-migration and the advancement of science and technology-induced modern farming and increased productivity. Industrialisation and high city income increased the demand for agriculture-based industrial raw materials and food, creating a win-win situation for both villages and cities.

1.2 Pertinent Issues of Urbanization in Newly Emerging Middle and Upper-income Countries 

After World War 2, the then-advanced nations, the World Bank, the UN, and other multilateral and bilateral development assistance agencies launched programs to develop economies of underdeveloped countries. All these initiatives supported and followed the West’s Euro-centric development model of increasing the nation’s total wealth and per capita GDP. Thus, in recent decades, most countries that have achieved middle-income countries (MIC) or developed country status have increased national income and wealth while shifting more than 50% of the population to urban areas.

While the per capita GDP of the newly emerging middle and upper-income countries have grown, many are also faced with problems of unplanned rapid urbanisation and urban sprawl, slum shelters, environmental pollution, poor sanitation, disease outbreaks and complicated social issues such as political unrest, rapid dissemination of misinformation, drug menace, prostitution, underworld gangs, etc. Meanwhile, rural areas in these countries were neglected by government authorities, the private sector and civil society. This has made rural life and livelihoods difficult, increasing rural unemployment and dissatisfaction and setting a pushing force from the village to the big cities.In contrast to advanced nations, increasing demand for goods and services in the newly emerging middle and upper-income countries did not improve the linkages with the rural economy. Mostly, the increased purchasing power of newly emerging countries diverted to import from advanced countries. Also, these latecomer countries could not expand the opportunities in cities to match the rising expectations of the local community. These deficiencies created problems in rural and urban areas, widened the urban-rural disparity, made poor people and regions poorer, and have become a significant socioeconomic and political issue in Asian, African, and South American countries.

1.3 An Alternative to Rural-Urban Migration

An alternative to urbanisation through rural-urban migration and the development of metropolises, “In-situ Urbanisation” is a new concept wherein rural populations and settlements transform into urban settlements without moving from rural to urban regions. In-situ urbanizationwill simultaneously address urban, rural and migration problems, minimising urban sprawl in metropolises and providing opportunities within rural regions. This concept is being applied in coastal areas of Southeast China to prevent large-scale rural-urban migration. “The emergence and development of in-situ urbanisation has been one of the major characteristics of China’s urbanisation process since the 1980s. As opposed to the conventional city-based urbanisation dominated by rural-urban migration, in-situ urbanisation is a phenomenon where rural settlements and their populations transform themselves into urban or quasi-urban settlements without much geographical relocation of the residents” (The Extent of In Situ Urbanization in China’s Country Areas- by Yu Zhu, Min Lin, Liyue Lin and Jinmei Chen). This program establishes large and medium-scale cities in rural regions to provide urban facilities and services, reducing the need for geographical relocation.

1.4 Rural Development as a Complementary and Supportive Strategy to Urban Development

Toward the 1970s, after realising the ill effects of the urban bias, purely growth-oriented development strategies, development partners began revisiting and re-engineering their overseas development assistance programmes and introducing new development concepts. In 1975, the World Bank produced a rural development policy paper recommending corrective measures for national development. This policy defines rural development as “a strategy to improve economic and social living conditions, focusing on a specific group of poor in a rural area. It assists the poorest group among the people living in rural areas to benefit from development”. There is no universally accepted definition of rural development. Robert Chamber defines rural development “as a strategy to enable a specific group of people (small-scale farmers, the tenants, the landless, the poor men and women) to gain what they want and need for themselves and their children” (cite reference). JICA states, “Rural development aims to improve livelihoods by implementing comprehensive development for rural areas where most impoverished people live. Rural development can also reduce poverty in urban areas by reducing excessive population influx from rural areas”.  (cite reference). According to these statements and definitions, rural development is not a stand-alone growth strategy. Instead, rural development is a complementarity and corrective measure to national development strategies. In general, rural development is a process that aims to improve the standard of living of people living in rural areas and reduce the disparity between urban and rural living.  It does not discuss economic growth.

However, with these new perceptions and initiatives, ‘growth with equity’ and ‘poverty alleviation’ became a new concept of donor-assisted development programmes. Along with these new concepts, regional and rural development became the central theme, as most poor people live in rural regions. Meanwhile, instead of bureaucratic orientation, new concepts such as target group orientation, bottom-up planning, people’s participation, beneficiary participation, participatory rural appraisal, and rapid rural etc., became popular among rural development theoreticians and practitioners.

Different countries and programmes have adopted various strategies for rural development depending on the specific situation of the nation, region, or community groups and the mandates of donors. The usual approaches are to increase livelihood opportunities, provide infrastructure facilities, basic amenities such as housing, sanitation, meeting places, credit facilities, awareness building, technology transfer, irrigation facilities, enhanced agriculture and ago-processing facilities, marketing arrangements, etc. In addition to the above, under poverty alleviation, China has followed more innovative strategies, such as relocating unviable villages/hamlets, creating wage employment, and linking rural producers with large companies by outsourcing, subcontracting, supplying raw materials and intermediate goods to businesses conglomerates, etc.

To be continued

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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