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Saturday, February 4, 2023

Tackling poverty with competent policies – The Morning

Must read

  • Inflation is public enemy number one
  • Poor people cannot stay hungry for long
  • Cash transfer system is a must

I learnt poverty through two sources. Firstly, I myself have experienced poverty. 

At university, a basic lunch was served for Rs. 20. It was just three curries, and often the only source of protein was a watery fish curry or half an egg. A watery chicken curry with saffron rice was only served on Fridays. It was a very basic meal. There was an option to get a re-serving for Rs. 5.

The re-serving provided only the curries (not the protein source) on the condition that you went with the unfinished plate. Students who couldn’t afford Rs. 20 for the full meal would wait until a friend finished their first round, borrow their unwashed plate, and join the line for just the Rs. 5 re-serving. At one point in my life I was one of those students. 

That’s why this column has alerted the reader many times to the possibility of rising inflation due to Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Money matters, and when inflation starts skyrocketing, basic essentials will be in short supply and the poor will suffer. 

Secondly, I learnt about poverty through my volunteer experience at CandleAid Lanka (1). CandleAid is a Government-approved humanitarian organisation founded by Captain Elmo Jayawardena. I have seen and heard so many stories of poverty and overcoming poverty from around the country during my interactions with CandleAid and Capt. Jayawardena. Out of all the stories, the story of Pahalagedara Jayathilaka is simply inspiring and reshaped my understanding of what poverty means for the poor.

Pahalagedara Jayathilaka was a crippled child who started his education in a borrowed wheelchair. His father had passed away from cancer when he was 10. Once, when narrating Jayathilaka’s story, Capt. Jayawardena said: “Jayathilaka’s best meals at university had been a cream bun or a fish bun.”

To cut a long story short, from the bottom of the poverty barrel, with the sheer determination and pure courage of his mother, Jayathilaka successfully entered the University of Moratuwa. He had come to Moratuwa with just his crutches and Rs. 1,000 in hand. Then CandleAid had provided him with an education sponsorship, through which he obtained superb results and a first class in Mechanical Engineering, and subsequently received a scholarship to the National University of Singapore (NUS). Today he is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Oncology of the University of Oxford (2).

In the terminology of economic research, there are many definitions of poverty, such as urban poverty and rural poverty, but the jargon of researchers is not sufficiently descriptive of the circumstances people find themselves in. When you are actually facing poverty, your decision-making processes, consequences, and outcomes in life are very different. 

For people in poverty, what matters the most is a fair opportunity to have a chance to succeed in life. It is an evolving process and it will never be an overnight miracle. 

They can overcome their circumstances if we establish the proper macroeconomic environment. That is what most of us forget; we forget the basics and try to target poverty without realising that macroeconomic instability causes poverty. 

I believe Pahalagedara Jayathilaka was unstoppable because he got a fair chance to compete as well as  support from a private charitable organisation. He was upskilled, an opportunity was created, and his fate was changed. 

The question during these unprecedented times is: how can we save our poor, and how can we support more people like Jayathilaka to create outstanding success stories? Of course, most people may not have stories as outstanding as Jayathilaka did, but they will at least gradually move above the poverty line and acquire a higher standard of living.

Before any suggestions are made, we need to understand that bringing down the inflation rate is the best way to help the poor. We created this problem of high inflation through bad monetary and fiscal policy, so bringing down inflation and creating stability through competent policy has to be the first priority. 

Furthermore, this column has often suggested the establishment of an efficient cash transfer system through the Government mechanism. While that is still an option, we all know how inefficient our Government apparatus is. 

The other option is to encourage private charitable organisations to help the poor. These organisations have good targeting systems and they have the capacity to reach people like Pahalagedara Jayathilaka and identify those who are truly in need. They are already doing a commendable service at a grassroots level, managing highly agile and impactful charitable projects to look after the poor. 

It would of course be the best case scenario if the Government can manage this, but our experience is that the Government’s management of all affairs is far below even our most basic expectations. 

Most charitable organisations have a far better reputation than the Government, and it is likely that expatriates will be more open to the idea of donating to these organisations than to the State to manage relief for the poor. This will bring in foreign exchange inflows, which will add further relief to our State coffers to manage essential imports.  

The best way to eradicate poverty is by creating wealth. To create wealth we need to first create opportunities, because the easiest tradeable good that the poor have is labour and human capital. We need to set up competitive processes to upskill our labour; poor people will gradually emerge from the poverty trap through the dignity of labour, and not by just becoming henchmen for a political party or by waiting in long queues to get a small cash subsidy or a handout.

A cash transfer system is a must. We should move as fast as possible on this matter. However, looking at how slowly things move with Government bureaucracy, it’s reasonable to assume that this will take time. 

Regardless, poor people cannot stay hungry for long. That is why we have to tackle inflation as public enemy number one and stop adding further inflationary pressures to our economy. Until we get the cash transfer system up and running, private charitable organisations should at least be approached or requested to come forward to utilise their network. They will be able to work faster than the Government and find and support many other Pahalagedara Jayathilakas who can excel. 

I still remember how Captain Jayawardena concluded his long story with a lot of emotion all those years ago. 

Every word I wrote about Jayathilaka is the absolute truth. Jayathilaka does not need colouring.


  • https://www.ft.lk/News/some-call-it-courage-e28093-the-definition-is-inadequate/56-39233
  •  https://www.oncology.ox.ac.uk/team/jayathilake-pahala-gedara

(The writer is the Chief Operating Officer of Advocata Institute. He can be contacted via dhananath@advocata.org. The opinions expressed are the author’s own views. They may not necessarily reflect the views of the Advocata Institute or anyone affiliated with the institute)

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