Sustainable Development Goals for Social Development: What’s Sri Lanka’s Score?

The International Day for the Eradication of Poverty is observed on 17 October 2017, under the theme “Answering the call of October 17 to end poverty: A path toward peaceful and inclusive societies.” The Sustainable Development Goals Framework is a transformative agenda which affirms that poverty is the greatest global challenge which must be overcome in order to realize sustainable development. Hence, this article reviews the relevance of the SDG Agenda to Sri Lanka’s national policy outlook, specifically in terms of reducing inequalities and attaining social development.


The SDGs outline a transformative agenda which urges the world towards a more resilient path and underscore the importance of unifying economic, social, and environmental interests – the three pillars of sustainability – when formulating national policies and strategies. As a result of the global consensus on the necessity to adhere to the principles of sustainability, the world leaders have committed to achieving 17 SDGs and 169 targets upon reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) finish line in 2015.




The SDG Framework affirms that poverty is the greatest global challenge which must be overcome in order to achieve sustainable development. The Framework emphasizes the intricate interconnections between the recommended development objectives, along with the resulting need to harmonize among economic development, social development, and environmental protection to attain the goals. The result is a complex and overarching development agenda; no country could fully attain all the targets by the deadline. As such, countries have the freedom to prioritize among the goals and targets according to national requirements and overall vision.


Brief Overview of the Social Dimension of the SDG Framework


The SDG 1 (no poverty), SDG 3 (good health and wellbeing), SDG 4 (quality education), SDG 5 (gender equality), SDG 10 (reduced inequalities), and SDG 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions) can be broadly identified as SDGs that promote social development. These goals identify an array of inequalities, addressing poverty and vulnerability in a holistic manner. Accordingly, it is necessary to improve the resilience of vulnerable groups via effective social safety nets and to ensure universal access to resources as well as to services such as health and education. It is also important to ensure gender equality; all discriminatory practices and laws must be eliminated, leading to universal social, political, and economic inclusion. Sri Lanka must have a strong foundation of effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels. National Relevance of the Social Dimension of the SDGs. 


Sri Lanka has declared 2017 as the ‘Year of Poverty Alleviation’, signalling the national vision to address the issue of inequality. National statistics attest that Sri Lanka has made considerable progress in reducing poverty: the poverty headcount ratio was 6.7% in 2012/13; the incidence of extreme poverty as per the World Bank’s US$ 1.90 per day (2011 PPP) is low in Sri Lanka, accounting for only 1.9% of the population. However, the incidence of moderate poverty (i.e., the percentage of the population living below US$ 3.10 per day) is considerably higher at 14.6% in 2012/13. This signifies the presence of highly vulnerable segments of the population. Additionally, income inequality remains a persistent concern in Sri Lanka.


With regard to access to essential services, Sri Lanka has performed commendably in terms of health under the MDGs. Notwithstanding Sri Lanka’s success in mitigating certain communicable diseases, it is imperative to focus on Non-communicable Diseases (NCDs), considering that 71% of all annual deaths in government hospitals are due to chronic Non-communicable Diseases. Despite the availability of free healthcare services, private healthcare expenditure accounts for more than a half of total health expenditure. Evidently, there is a need to improve access to quality and affordable healthcare, while also reducing vulnerability to financial risks. Sri Lanka must also address the health implications arising from the increasing elderly population. Adhering to the SDG Framework – which presents a comprehensive approach to achieve universal health coverage – propels Sri Lanka to address these needs and paves the way to improve the overall healthcare system in the country.


Education is another theme under the MDGs where Sri Lanka performed satisfactorily, achieving milestones such as universal primary education and gender parity in school enrolment. However, the SDG Framework identifies several areas where Sri Lanka’s performance is lagging, especially in terms of the quality of education and effective learning outcomes. The quality of education is essentially linked to the quality of life; fair access to quality education can alleviate poverty and inequality, especially via improved employability.


The Public Investment Programme (PIP) 2017-2020 has identified several key strategies to provide health and educational services, which are in-line with the SDGs. With regard to healthcare, these strategies include increasing investment, developing the indigenous medicine sector and primary healthcare institutions, introducing a national health insurance plan, and improving facilities to prevent and treat both communicable and non-communicable diseases. Having recognized the importance of improving the quality of education, the PIP (2017-2020) outlines national strategies aimed at formulating a new National Education Policy and to gradually increase investment on education to 6% of GDP: among some of the key strategies proposed for developing the education sector in the medium-term include reforming the student assessment systems to measure competencies and establishing a school quality assurance system. In terms of higher education, these strategies include improving access, quality assurance, and introducing public-private partnerships.


The gendered face of inequality is also a key component in the discourse of poverty. The SDG Framework has identified gender equality as a cross-cutting issue, which is fundamental for its overall success. Although Sri Lanka has achieved gender parity in access to education, there are many SDG targets where the country is lagging behind: improving female labour force participation, eliminating violence against women, and recognizing the value of unpaid care work, can be identified as national priorities under this theme. It is essential to ensure women’s full and effective participation at all levels of decision-making, particularly considering the low levels of female participation in the political sphere, evinced by low levels of female representation of only 6.8% in the Parliament of 2010-2014. The PIP (2017-2020) identifies a range of policies to improve the condition of women. These include improving female labour force participation by boosting childcare facilities and campaigning to change attitudes towards women’s participation in the labour force, business development programmes for female household heads, and enacting the Bill of Rights of Women.


The elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence is vital for eradication of inequality. Inclusive decision-making must be ensured at all levels to guarantee that the interests of marginalized groups are served. In this regard, the SDGs call for the establishment of an effective and accountable institutional structure which facilitates participatory and representative decision-making. The PIP (2017-2020) proposes several relevant plans, including ensuring the accountability and transparency in the provision of a quality public service, and promoting social integration among all communities in the country by establishing harmony in political, economic, and social spheres.


Way Forward


It is evident that that current national policy outlook vis-à-vis social development is on a par with the social development approach advocated by the SDG Framework. A number of existing policies and strategies are in-line with the SDGs, but it is necessary for them to be reviewed systematically to identify any gaps and overlaps. Considering that multiple government bodies are involved in the policy-making and implementation, adherence to SDGs as a guideline in national strategy formation could be a step towards improving policy coherence.



*This blog is based on a chapter written for the recently launched Sri-Lanka: State of the Economy 2017 report, IPS’ annual flagship publication.