LIRNEasia’s Senior Research Manager, Gayani Hurulle, recently spoke at a symposium organised by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) titled “Poverty Alleviation in an Era of Economic Crisis.” The symposium, held in November last year, aimed at revisiting poverty-related issues, focusing on addressing the escalating poverty and vulnerability in the present crisis and beyond.
Gayani, heading LIRNEasia’s work on poverty and social safety nets in Sri Lanka participated as a discussant in a panel on building a comprehensive social protection system. The panel, moderated by Karin Fernando from CEPA, included experts such as Shalika Subasinghe of the World Bank, Mira Bierbaum of the UNICEF, and Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne of Sarvodaya. Other discussants included R.H.W.A Kumarasiri, Director General, National Planning Department and Janitha Rukmal, Co-founder Enable Sri Lanka. The panelists addressed diverse social protection schemes, government objectives, and policy responses. Gayani outlined the aspects essential for ensuring enhanced coverage and accountability, especially with regards to maximum coverage for individuals during crises.
In her comments, Gayani stressed the need to create an effective social protection system that suits Sri Lanka’s specific needs. “First, there is the question of how many programmes do we need? How do we leverage the existing ones within the current system? What new policy changes need to be made? Many countries have a mix of universal and targeted schemes — for example, persons with disabilities may be given assistance without means testing, but other elements of the programme may be targeted. So, what kind of mix do we need in Sri Lanka?” she questioned.
She pointed out that targeting has been a subject of controversy within Sri Lanka’s policy space, particularly evident in the case of Aswesuma. This was highlighted by LIRNEasia’s national representative survey results, which revealed a significant discrepancy in the targeting of social protection schemes. “Only 32% of the people below the monetary poverty line, as defined by the Department of Census and Statistics, had received Samurdhi, and the coverage of other schemes such as disability, kidney, and senior citizens was even lower,” she disclosed.
“How do we make it better? The move to use more objective criteria is a step in the right direction.” By advocating for the adoption of objective criteria, Gayani stressed the importance of refining the targeting process to ensure that those genuinely in need receive the assistance they require.
Expressing concerns about existing social insurance schemes, particularly pensions, Gayani drew attention to the limited coverage, especially for those in the informal sectors. She highlighted the challenges faced by individuals who are not part of the labour force, emphasising the need for a radical rethink on contributory social insurance schemes.
While sharing LIRNEasia’s survey findings, she also spoke about the dynamic nature of poverty, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic crises. “LIRNEasia’s surveys showed that 4 million people – nearly 20% of our population – fell into poverty between 2019 and 2022-2023. In fact, the numbers could be even greater. So, in such situations, the social protection system needs to be adaptive, expand coverage, and be able to meet the needs of these people who have become vulnerable and make sure they are taken care of.”
Concluding her comments, Gayani highlighted the ongoing research that LIRNEasia is engaging in to explore new data sources, including satellite imagery to identify those in need promptly and precisely. “Identifying those in need quickly and precisely is the biggest challenge, especially for researchers. Many studies are being done using new data sources promising varying degrees. We at LIRNEasia are exploring these indicators.”