A plan to combat poverty
REAMS of Working Papers and reports have been written about rolling
back the many harmful forms of poverty ranging from begging on the
streets to criminality to prostitution.
Then, Sri Lanka has had 12 governments and nine national leaders
since independence in 1948 all coming forward on platforms that pledged
and promised to wipe out poverty and want from our midst.
Billions of Rupees have been spent in a veritable plethora of
programmes designed to tackle various aspects or the worst effects of
poverty. But what, if anything at all has been done to strike at the
root causes of poverty and deprivation? Nothing really effective has
Therefore, the poor are still with us and their numbers have grown.
Many speeches have been delivered at seminars, colloquiums, and
what-have-you, all to no avail when you consider the statistics vis-...-vis
the growth of population.
What they do reveal is the alarming growth of poverty, crime and vice
at an ever-increasing rate. The form and content of socio-economic
development has also brought in its train certain forms of
impoverishment and dependence that are wholly unacceptable.
This writing is not meant to add to those mountainous reams of unread
papers and reports. It is meant to suggest to the caring and concerned
(including those who are fearful in their own enlightened self interest)
a viable and sustainable solution that could be applied immediately with
the human and financial resources we now possess within the borders of
Any viable solution needs to consider two, simultaneous courses of
action: Attacking the worst aspects of poverty and a strong focus on
eradicating the core causes of poverty, especially a radical change of
structures that perpetuate poverty.
The solution proffered stated simply means, implies and entails
substantial and sustained giving to create and establish a major
prosperity generating trust fund that would finance practical, hands-on
programmes designed to reduce the effects of poverty to the irreducible
This needs the unstinted and unqualified support of the private
sector as the most important and major stakeholder in rolling back the
effects of poverty. The other major stakeholder in this would be the
public sector through funds voted by Parliament for line ministries.
It does not involve the establishment of another governmental agency
but rather a drastic rationalization and merging of several agencies and
departments into one wholly independent multi-faceted organization
answerable directly only to Parliament and free of:
1. political direction or interference,
2. multilateral financial institutions, and
3. non-governmental organizations
The private sector's nominated representative should ideally be the
Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry of Sri Lanka, FCCISL, as
it is the appropriate apex body representing the entire private sector
with the Organization of Professional Associations providing both
support and intellectual input in strategizing a holistic approach to
confronting and combating poverty in all its manifestations.
This also means and implies a consensual, co-operative effort by both
Government and the leading organizations of civil society to work
together without hang ups about the past and past efforts to work
together that did not work out because of either political prejudices or
misperceptions by either side. Politics has to be laid aside; the
antipathy of the private sector towards Government, too, has to be laid
In any event, widespread and ever-increasing poverty weakens the
entire country and a weak country could easily fall prey to radical
solutions claiming to change the situation for the better. The effects
of poverty as manifested across the continuum throughout society are
becoming unmanageable because of increasing complexity.
The solutions now demand not only a multi-disciplinary thrust but a
coherent, coordinated focal point to come to grips with its most serious
manifestations and the main meeting point should be in rehabilitating
the human beings affected.
Recent surveys conducted by the Police have revealed that 706
children in the city of Colombo do not receive any education at all; 325
of them are girl-children and of this number, 163 are to be found in the
Modera-Mutwal-Mattakkuliya area; thousands of other children are
sexually exploited by foreign paedophiles along the coastal tourist
HIV/AIDS infections have been growing steadily and are now numbered
in the thousands; Drug trafficking and drug abuse is now rampant
throughout the country and have become endemic amongst the poor who have
been inducted into addiction and now support their habit through crime
Thousands of beggars and prostitutes (male and female) swarm the
streets of both the conurbation as well as every other urban centre
throughout the country.
The total is staggering and the numbers are not mere ciphers but
living, breathing human beings-from infants suckling at the breast to
men and women bent with age and infirmity.
Seen another, human way, these are mothers and fathers, brothers and
sisters, grandparents, nephews and nieces, and so on with similar
aspirations to those in the middle and upper classes of society, with
need of food, clothing, shelter, health care, protection from
exploitation and all the other evil under the sun that human beings are
Most, if not all the social and economic ills that society suffers
from are directly traceable to deprivation and marginalization--poverty,
which is the catchall, blanket phrase that hides more than it reveals of
the dark, macabre and ugly face of our society.
Those comfortable members of the upper strata of the social and
economic pyramid, inhabiting their well-constructed cocoons would do
well to consider what history teaches us: For one thing society moves in
two directions simultaneously--the rich get richer as their wealth
generates more wealth whilst the disadvantaged sectors become ever more
The poor are not only subject to greater exploitation and oppression
by the rich and powerful but to highly sophisticated forms of corruption
in high places that deny the marginalized equal access to available
Russia was a modernizing country in 1917 when the revolution erupted
during the last but one year of World War I; Cuba is another country
that began the process of its own modernization in the aftermath of the
Spanish-American War of 1898, and which had its own bloody revolution in
The history of both the 19th and 20th centuries are littered with
many forceful examples where the wealthy elites refused to acknowledge
their social responsibilities in a human way and themselves ended on the
dung-heap of history. Let it not be said in a sad if not tragic requiem
that: "Few save the Poor, feel for the Poor." (Letitia Landon).
Therefore, of primary concern now is the establishment of a trust
fund that could effectively spearhead viable initiatives to roll back
poverty in the urban, rural and plantation sectors of the economy. Such
a spearhead could transform poverty into prosperity, changing lives and
lifestyles, vastly increasing the buying power of consumers because of
the vibrant impetus it has the potential to generate.
If some doubters would attempt to contradict all this then a viable
option would be a pilot project that could be launched and within an
year, on the impartial evaluation of results obtained, the project could
be expanded into a multi-faceted programme that would tackle several
areas at once, for example, in training school dropouts in skills and
trades required by the construction industry; in schooling the
unschooled or providing them with livelihood training; in the training
of girl-children in occupations that would guarantee gainful
self-employment, and so on.
In the rural and plantation areas, the focus would be on reviving the
much-abused co-operative system, revamping and strengthening it through
information and communications technology to serve both producer and
consumer. Places to locate training facilities are available; trainers,
too, are available.
If anything, courage and a strong political will are required on the
side of Government to affect a turnaround. On the part of the private
sector it would require both sacrifice and generosity of both spirit and
purse to build up a substantial trust fund and the investment of time to
demonstrate concern by shepherding this initiative until it becomes
As stated, it will take courage, lots of courage and perseverance, to
transform the poor into socially useful and productive workers who would
be too embarrassed to beg.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can
change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." (Margaret
Mead, world renowned anthropologist).
(The writer is Founder, Prime Facilitator, Governor and Executive
Director of The English Language Foundation and is associated with Dame
Lorna Wright, Founder/President of MOM Foundation and long-time social
activist in the promotion of skills training for school drop-outs, the
unschooled and the poorest of the Poor.)