While social security can provide the political framework for communities to come together in times of crisis, democratic structures at all levels need to be strengthened to pool resources and ensure smooth delivery.
Feminist Collective for Economic Justice
The humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka is visible in the daily struggles of people to access basic food and medicine. A few days ago, the UN launched an appeal for humanitarian aid in Sri Lanka, noting that 70% of households are skipping meals or have reduced their food consumption. Over the past two years, food prices have increased by 73%, while local production has dropped drastically. Heightened concerns about gender-based violence and the protection of children due to the stress of painful economic hardship were also noted. In addition, UNICEF pointed out that one in two children needs humanitarian assistance.
As heartbreaking stories of struggles for survival multiply daily, the government’s apathy to meet immediate needs through price controls and the distribution system has added to people’s sense of hopelessness. We recently witnessed the use of live ammunition on mobs in fuel lines, killing one person in Rambukkana and injuring two people in Vishvamadu. With the state unresponsive, women have to make hard choices – which child can eat an egg in their meal or go to school, drop out of higher education and vocational training to find work that can supplement income housework or stop working because travel and accommodation are unaffordable.
A famine is imminent. Yet distorted notions of reality continue to circulate among elites who are far removed from the harshest conditions the crisis has inflicted on the urban poor, workers in the rural informal sector, plantations and factories, and those who unpaid work. 80% of the poor in Sri Lanka live in the rural sector. However, the fictionalized claims that people can eat Kos and Kanji to survive signal an ignorance of the vast rural population and how their lives are and will be affected and the structures that fuel and maintain inequality in this small island. .
The Purpose of Social Security: Then and Now
The Covid-19 pandemic and the economic crisis have revealed the importance of social security programs in protecting people against the adverse effects of a sudden loss of income. Earning abilities are affected by reasons such as old age, illness, maternity, unemployment, disability, work injury and illness. Thus, social security is recognized as a human right. Universal social security is a long-standing demand of feminists, as women are pushed into working in precarious conditions and women’s unpaid work in social reproduction is neither paid nor valued. However, in recent discussions around the economic crisis, the vision and scope of social security has been distorted – reducing it to a handout as opposed to a rescue measure and stimulation of economic recovery.
Historically, Sri Lanka has benefited from an extensive social welfare system. The provision of universal and free health and education have been the twin pillars of Sri Lanka’s post-independence development, contributing to a high Human Development Index (the highest in South Asia and ranked at 72 out of 189 countries in the world). Retirement benefits with Old Age Pensions and Widows and Orphans Pension Schemes for the public sector and Employees Provident Fund and Employees Trust Fund for the private sector are provided. Voluntary contributory pension schemes are available for workers in the informal economy, including farmers and fishermen, although the amounts are insufficient. In addition, schemes provide coverage for disability and health care and the Samurdhi scheme, which targets the poor. These programs have been systematically underfunded and weakened over the decades.
Neoliberal thinkers argue that a targeted social safety net for the “most vulnerable” can mitigate the painful consequences of austerity measures. Our previous statement stressed that austerity “will undermine productivity improvements and deter inclusive economic growth and strong social infrastructure”. That safety nets can somehow offset the profound impacts of austerity on people’s livelihoods is misleading. For example, the removal of fertilizer subsidies will leave farmers unable to pay prices which have risen dramatically, by 1000% and forced out of farming. Fishermen have lost two months of income due to fuel shortages. Rising kerosene prices this year alone have pushed up the cost of taking a small fishing boat out to sea from Rs. 6,000 to Rs. 8,000. In this context, targeted social security measures under the form of a monthly cash transfer of Rs. 3,000 to Rs. 7,000, as suggested, makes no difference, after their livelihoods and national food supply chains have been destroyed by austerity measures.
Cash transfers provided through Samurdhi make a significant difference for those on precariously low or no incomes. Families rely on this meager contribution to sustain life. A savings plan and a small loans program are provided by Samurdhi. In recent years, governments have focused on expanding the Samurdhi loan scheme with an interest rate of 8% to 10%. There is a general lack of clarity about how savings are used to benefit people’s lives. In addition, investigations into embezzlement, corruption and fraud of the Samurdhi Savings Fund have been reported over the years. Samurdhi excluded many younger members from cash transfer benefits while encouraging them to participate in loan schemes.
The ‘targeting’ of Samurdhi beneficiaries has led to widespread abuse of the system whereby people are made to feel extremely insecure about their limited rights. Registration on the “list” is more a matter of political clientelism and corrupt practices than real needs assessments. More households are in need in each divisional area than the number allocated by the government, creating space for Samurdhi officers to pick and drop members arbitrarily. Possession of a gas cylinder or a motorbike, child marriage or migration to another region in search of employment are grounds deemed sufficient to remove members from the list. Power dynamics result in additional hardships for the poor and vulnerable, such as long waits to collect Samurdhi payments, forced participation in community service (shramadana), community political activities, and delisting for lack of support. social acceptance or lack of respect towards the local population. Officer Samurdhi, his fellow administrative officers or politicians. Samurdhi members have little space to ask questions or make requests regarding rights.
Universal social security in times of crisis
Economists have suggested developing sophisticated statistical models to better target and “identify the most vulnerable” to expand support. Given the large-scale impact of the economic crisis, it is expected that 70% of Sri Lankan households (those earning Rs. 65,000/month and below) will not be able to reach the two ends, while currently Samurdhi only reaches 1.8 million households. Any attempt to target households during this deep crisis is counterproductive, misguided and will lead to social unrest. Therefore, a universally applied social security program is the need of the hour if we are to use it as an effective mechanism during a crisis. Otherwise, it will just be throwing good money after bad.
Poverty lines, in addition to their arbitrary nature, fail to capture the multiple, cyclical and complex processes that lead people to economic deprivation. This is especially true for women. The crisis has also revealed that policies at the macro level are pushing large sections of the population into poverty. It is high time that the gaze turned away from the search for the “poor” to set these policies. With the existing program, there is a need to move from conceptualizing Samurdhi as a poverty alleviation tool to conceptualizing it as a social security benefit. Social security is a right and should not be seen as a charity to be selectively distributed or as a disciplinary mechanism. Interestingly, in 2017 the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reforms recommended that in the new Bill of Rights, along with the right to food (food security and food sovereignty), water, housing and social security are also included. .
In an economic depression, public investment to stimulate the economy should be a central response to government plans. However, we have seen that the lowest amount in the region, of less than 1% of GDP, has been allocated to support the economy during the Covid-19 pandemic. The current public spending freeze has stifled the meager aid that has flowed into the country as administrative costs are not allocated to transporting and distributing supplies like rice and other basic necessities. In the short term, given the impending famine, it is essential that humanitarian aid be prioritized for the supply and distribution of food.
The impact of a famine is long term, even intergenerational. In order to avoid these negative results, a system of basic food items, taking into account the basic nutritional needs of households, as well as cash transfers are necessary. Nutritious midday meals in all schools can ensure that children and their families are supported and nutritional counseling for the food choices families will be forced to make is also needed. In addition, medium and long-term food security measures in terms of support and investment in agriculture, livestock and fisheries must be activated without further delay.
Given the depth of the crisis, it is clear that without mobilizing the full support of all sections of society, an economic recovery is not possible. In this context, a broad social security program must be seriously considered as part of the solution. Universal social security is an important solution to deal with the economic crisis because it can reduce the severity of depression for the country. Universal social security also contributes to recovery and long-term development, as recognized under the development agenda, and can contribute to productivity, address inequality, and strengthen inclusive growth and social peace.
While social security can provide the political framework for communities to come together in times of crisis, democratic structures at all levels need to be strengthened to pool resources and ensure smooth delivery. Only a political leadership capable of developing such a vision and having the legitimacy in the eyes of the people to mobilize it, can lead us towards economic recovery and ensure political stability.