Poverty and MDGs in Sri Lanka: What More Needs to be Done?

Special article marking International Day of Eradicating Poverty (17th October)

Poverty – a condition where people’s basic needs for wellbeing are not being met – is a multidimensional issue that affects most, if not all, nations. Despite huge success in reducing poverty in many parts of the world, poverty remains a major development challenge and a multidimensional issue that affects many nations, In fact, in South Asia alone, 31% of the population is still living in poverty.


Poverty is one dimension of development and is interlinked with many other dimensions. As such, it is important to look at the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In Sri Lanka, many of the MDGs are within sight. The national poverty head count ratio – the percentage of population who live below the national poverty line – has decreased from 8.9% in 2009/2010 to 6.7% in 2012/2013 in Sri Lanka. Compared to the same in neighbouring South Asian Countries, Sri Lanka’s progress in poverty reduction is remarkable. However, it is time to look beyond the MDGs.


Sri Lanka’s success in achieving the MDGs is partly due to the social protection policies that the country has implemented since Independence. Also programmes such as free universal health care and education that is provide by the government has contributed towards the goals of universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and combating HIV, malaria and other diseases. However, sustaining these achievements has become a challenge.


Continued poverty reduction depends on maintaining and updating free healthcare and education in Sri Lanka. The challenge is that on one hand, there is a need to maintain the growing demands for free health and education in a market-oriented economy while on the other hand, expectations of these services are evolving. Literacy should not only be about the ability to read and write any more, it should also include a component of computer literacy which is what matters now. Similarly, improvement of health care standards is required to match that of modern Sri Lankan Society. The public sectors alone cannot expand services while maintaining required quality is evident. It is important to involve the private sector in the provision of healthcare. At the same time, equitable services that have reach to ensure inclusiveness is needed. Availability of healthcare services is not enough, ensuring inclusive accessibility of health services for everyone is important.


Sri Lanka has been a success story in poverty reduction, but the challenges are not over yet. Although the number of people living below the national poverty line has declined, extreme hunger is still an issue. The prevalence of undernourishment in Sri Lanka was approximately 24% in 2012[i]. Poverty and hunger are interlinked, but it appears that decreased poverty does not necessarily ensure decreased hunger. Why does such a high level of undernourishment exist in a country where income poverty has been reduced significantly? Is it a food affordability issues or misallocation of household incomes? As such it is important to understand food insecurity. Food security can be enhanced by reduction of food price volatility. Food price increases have reduced calorie intake by 8.5% and protein intake by 6% for poor households[ii]. Also, increased use of health care and improved sanitation and water facilities — as of 2010, 91% of the population had access to sanitation facilities — would help towards decreasing undernourishment and help solve this specific poverty issue in Sri Lanka [iii].


There are other issues that still need to be addressed, however. Foremost among these issues is environmental sustainability. Poverty issues are interlinked with environmental issues as sustainability cannot be achieved without ensuring that natural resources management underpins the development process. In Sri Lanka, the forest cover has decreased from 36.4% in 1990 to 28.8% in 2010[iv]. The forests need to sustainably managed as a part of poverty reduction effort because poor are the first to adversely affected by environmental degradation.


As people are vulnerable to external shocks, natural disaster can push people who were out of poverty back into poverty. Climate related natural disasters such as droughts and floods affect agriculture and fisheries sectors[v]. Livelihoods that depend on these sectors face a major risk factor that could bring back the non-poor people to poverty. Thus, a sound climate adaptation policy should be an integral part of poverty reduction strategy of any country. In the case of Sri Lanka, the Climate Change Secretariat has been established to address the issues of adaptations to climate change.


Poverty is linked to many other aspects of development. Although the MDGs look at various aspects of development, it is not exhaustive. The MDGs have not looked at inclusive growth and inequality. It is also important to identify a new set of goals after 2015 as the MDGs are due to expire. There is dialogue underway to develop post-2015 agenda with new goals. Significant progress has been made regarding poverty reduction, but continuing work needs to be done to ensure further development. In the case of Sri Lanka, the issues are not necessarily with facilities with regards to MDGs, but the accessibility and inclusiveness of facilities. As such, it is also important to look beyond the MDGs and incorporate missing dimensions in the poverty reduction agenda.



(Image courtesy Anushka Wijesinha)


[i] Asia Pacific Aspirations: Perspectives for a Post-2015Development Agenda Asia-Pacific Regional MDGs Report 2012/13 http://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/pub/2013/asia-pacific-regional-mdgs-report.pdf

[ii] Food price spikes, increasing volatility and global economic shocks: coping with challenges to food security in Asia http://www.fao.org/docrep/016/i3031e/i3031e00.pdf

[iii] FAO Country Programming Framework 2013 – 2017 Sri Lanka.


[iv] Asia Pacific Aspirations: Perspectives for a Post-2015Development Agenda Asia-Pacific Regional MDGs Report 2012/13 http://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/pub/2013/asia-pacific-regional-mdgs-report.pdf

[v]Climate Change Vulnerability Data Book http://www.climatechange.lk/adaptation/Files/Final_Climate_Change_Vulnerability_Databook.pdf