Taking Social Development Seriously: The Experience of Sri Lanka


Laksiri Jayasuriya

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  • Advanced Praise for the Book

    This is a scholarly book of singular importance. It is also a powerful statement of timely significance for a deeply conflicted society that has just endured a quarter century of bloody civil war—Sri Lanka in 2010.

    Professor Laksiri Jayasuriya has achieved that double success through a rare capacity to address social theory via a comparative lens, coupled with a deep appreciation of how past and present interact … Sri Lanka may have had no Nelson Mandela to bring a statesmanship of Reconciliation, but it still has the wise reflections of this deep thinking and humane scholar.

    Deryck Schreuder, Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney, Australia, former Challis Professor of History, University of Sydney and Vice-Chancellor, University of Western Australia

    Professor Jayasuriya offers us an intriguing excursion into the history of social policy in Sri Lanka … a revealing study in the political economy of social policy and one that emphasises the importance of the interplay of historical legacies and emerging post-colonial politics … Sri Lanka may be ‘a unique case’ but the lessons that Professor Jayasuriya draws from its welfare history are by no means unique [only for Sri Lanka].

    Roy Parker, Professor Emeritus of Social Policy, University of Bristol, the UK

    Jayasuriya's study purposively draws us back to important ideas about the interaction of states and markets in achieving relatively equitable social development … the author breaks out of the dominant economistic analysis of Sri Lanka's development experience. One of the elements of this theoretical fusion is an attention to the legacies of British colonial rule … But this is not simply a work of history, for Jayasuriya is very much focused on what he calls the ‘deteriorating contemporary human condition as a global malaise’.

    Kevin Hewison, Professor, Department of Asian Studies, Director, Carolina Asia Center, University of North Carolina, USA


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    To my father, late Walter Jayasuriya, and my wife, Rohini

    List of Abbreviations

    APPFApproved Private Provident Fund
    ARCAustralian Research Council
    CFACease Fire Agreement
    EPFEmployee Provident Fund
    ESCAPEconomic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific
    ETFEmployee Trust Fund
    GDIGender-related Development Index
    GDPGross Domestic Product
    GNPGross National Product
    GoSLGovernment of Sri Lanka
    HDIHuman Development Index
    HPIHuman Poverty Index
    ICESInternational Centre for Ethnic Studies
    IDPInternationally Displaced Persons
    ILOInternational Labour Organisation
    IMFInternational Monetary Fund
    JHUJathika Hela Urumaya
    JVPJanatha Vimukthi Peramuna
    LMSLicentiate in Medicine and Surgery
    LSSPLanka Sama Samaja Party
    LTTELiberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
    MDGsMillennium Development Goals
    MHDPMillion Houses Development Programme
    MILEXMilitary Expenditure
    NGONon-governmental Organisation
    NIEONew International Economic Order
    OECDOrganisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
    PQLIPrivate Quality of Life Index
    PSPFPublic Sector Provident Fund
    PSPSPublic Service Pension Schemes
    RDSRural Development Societies
    SAPStructural Adjustment Programme
    SLFPSri Lanka Freedom Party
    SMESocial Market Economy
    SNIASystem of National Income Accounting
    TNCsTransnational Companies
    UNUnited Nations
    UNDPUnited Nations Development Programme
    UNPUnited National Party
    UNRISDUnited Nations Research Institute for Social Development
    WOPSWidows and Orphans Pensions Scheme
    WSSDWorld Summit for Social Development


    Comparative social policy scholarship has made huge strides in recent decades. Much more information about the development of social policy, the factors that shape social policy, challenges to social policy and its likely trajectories in different countries in different parts of the world are now available. In the 1960s, when the first comparative studies were undertaken, international and comparative research focussed largely on a handful of European countries and the United States. Although there were some notable exceptions, very little research into the social policies of the developing countries or the Global South were published until the 1990s, when research of this kind became more commonplace.

    Initially, comparative studies of social policy outside Europe and North America were primarily descriptive in nature, documenting the history and key features of social welfare systems in countries such as Mauritius, Hong Kong, Nigeria and South Africa. In time, studies of this kind documented the welfare systems of groups of countries and in addition, sometimes sought to identify the key features of the ‘welfare regimes’ of these nations. The East Asian countries were among the first to be subjected to this type of analysis but despite the claim that they comprised a distinctive welfare model, careful studies suggested otherwise, reinforcing the view that social policy invariably had idiosyncratic histories, features and political implications. Nevertheless, comparative research of this kind has facilitated more incisive theoretical speculation and raised the broader question of whether Eurocentric perspectives offer useful tools for analysis. In turn, some scholars have sought to approach the study of social policy in non-Western societies from conceptual perspectives that differ from the standard ‘welfare state’ approach used in Europe and North America.

    The interdisciplinary field of development studies is one approach of this kind. Although development studies are undoubtedly rooted in Western social science and particularly in Western economics, it is sufficiently international in scope to transcend the limitations of conventional comparative social policy accounts. In addition, this approach sold social development as a syncretic approach which seeks to fuse the insights of the social policy and the developmental studies traditions and offer an appropriate paradigmatic way of approaching the study of social policy in the nations of the Global South. However, very few social policy scholars have sought to adopt this perspective when examining the social policies on these nations and undoubtedly, a rich but largely unexplored field of documentary analysis and theoretical development awaits those who are willing to venture into this terrain.

    It is in this regard that Professor Jayasuriya's new book on social development in Sri Lanka makes a major contribution. The author's personal knowledge as well as scholarly research into the evolution of social welfare, social policy and development in Sri Lanka and his analysis of its contemporary dynamics, exposure to global forces, political ramifications and likely future has produced a landmark study of significance for comparative social policy scholarship. His synthesis of the social policy tradition with development studies is theoretically innovative and points the way for future scholarly inquiry into social policy in the Global South.

    The author demonstrates an astonishing facility in utilising the insights of development thinking with that of social policy analysis. He is equally at home with the work of Sen, Titmuss and Marshall and his ability to utilise these very different conceptual perspectives to an analysis of the specifics of Sri Lankan social policy development is highly instructive.

    Perhaps his most significant contribution lies in his account of the colonial origins of the country's social welfare system and its comparatively unique approach to economic development, at least in the early years following independence. Like a handful of other countries in the South, Sri Lanka adopted an interventionist economic development strategy which did not replace the market with state socialism but instead used regulation, public investments, subsidies, education and health care programmes and other social services to combine economic growth with welfare objectives. Not surprisingly, Sri Lanka was often viewed as one of the developing world's few welfare states. Its egalitarian philosophy had directed the growth process towards raising the standards of living of the population as a whole. Although Sri Lanka did not record hyper growth rates, economic development was steady and sustainable, life expectancy surpassed that of many other low-income countries, and education and literacy reached western European levels. However, as Jayasuriya shows, the welfarism of the independence movement eventually faded and was replaced with a vigorous commitment to market liberalism, which, as in many other developing countries, produced higher inequality, poverty and deprivation. To make matters worse, ethnic conflict has plunged the nation into a civil war, resulting in great suffering for large numbers of people.

    The author's historical perspective has important lessons for the analysis of social policy in different parts of the world. The colonial era is now largely forgotten but, as the author shows, its legacy cannot be ignored. He also shows that an understanding of the institutions that foster (or detract) from social well-being cannot focus narrowly on welfare services or on the other hand on economic policy. His synthesis of the insights of Western social policy and development is richly enveloped in an historical account which is pioneering and satisfying. It deserves to be replicated in future studies of social policy in the developing world.

    JamesMidgley, Harry and Riva Specht Professor and Dean Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley


    This book has its origins in a research project on comparative social policy funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) which led to this study of social development in Sri Lanka. The ARC research project enabled me to continue my scholarly interests in Sri Lankan studies dating back to my days in the Department of Sociology, University of Peradeniya and later in the newly established Department of Sociology and Social Welfare, University of Colombo, where I held the Foundation Chair. I treasure and recall fond memories that I have of Sri Lanka, a country to which I am deeply indebted, with much nostalgia, but, I must confess, tinged with much sadness about the recent past.

    This volume presents what is best described as an ‘insider/outsider’ perspective on Sri Lanka, which is cast strictly within an academic and scholarly genre. As acknowledged in an earlier volume of mine, Welfarism and Politics in Sri Lanka (2000), I am deeply appreciative of the generous help and advise I have received from many friends, colleagues and former students in Sri Lanka and Australia. I owe a special word of thanks and appreciation to the University of Western Australia (UWA) and in particular to the staff and colleagues in Social Work and Social Policy, School of Social and Cultural Studies, UWA who have assisted me in numerous ways.

    A special word of thanks to Jimmy Midgley for his warm support and encouragement of this research project and for the honour and privilege he conferred on me by contributing the Foreword. Likewise, I am thankful to Nimal Sanderatne, a friend and colleague of many years, for his collegial help and support for years and, above all, for contributing an Afterword.

    Among the many who have given their time generously in assisting me, I would like to express my sincere thanks to Mike Clare, Sue Young, Rosa Catalano, Graeme Rymill, Craig Mackenzie, Helen Bailey, Jessica Hillman, Gamini Fernando and Elizabeth Spoor. I am especially indebted to the SAGE editorial and production team of Elina Majumdar, Aniruddha De and colleagues for their professional expertise and patience. But my greatest debt and thanks are due, in a variety of ways, to my family Rohini, Kanishka and Pradeep. Kanishka, in particular, has made an invaluable contribution with his scholarly expertise. Needless to say, as with all others who have contributed to this work, the usual disclaimer applies.

    Finally, I dedicate this volume to my late father, Walter Jayasuriya, who inspired me to devote my life to scholarship and public engagement in the pursuit of social ideals, and to my dear wife, Rohini, who has shared in many ways the work that has gone into the production of this volume. Without her many skills and talents, this work would never have seen the light of day and for all this, she surely deserves co-authorship status.

  • Afterword

    The perspectives in this book are quite different to much of the previous analyses of the Sri Lankan social development experience. This volume explores the genesis of, and factors responsible for, the adoption of social policies that enabled Sri Lanka to achieve higher levels of social attainments than expected at her level of per capita income. The historical, social and political dynamics in the evolution of social policy in Sri Lanka are covered comprehensively and authoritatively in this volume.

    The conceptual and theoretical discussion of social policy in the first two chapters is an appropriate backdrop to the analysis of Sri Lanka's social democracy. It places much emphasis on the ideological foundations of social policy dating back to British schools of thought and experimentation on social welfare. This analysis of social development as an aspect of social policy is an unassailable explanation of Sri Lanka's evolution of welfare policies.

    What is surprising is that such a perceptive analysis took so long a time to appear. There were historical, social and ideological aspects in some of the analyses of social development (Abeysekera 2006; Alailima 2006; Alailima and Sanderatne 1997; Gunatilleke 1985). Yet, these were not comprehensive analyses of the origins of social policies, but they were references en passé.

    There are many reasons for this lacuna. Most analysts of Sri Lanka's social development were economists whose interest in social development was in the explanation of how and why Sri Lanka was a forerunner in social attainments despite her relatively low per capita income. They focussed on two issues. Could a country with a low per capita income achieve high social indicators? And, the most controversial issue, whether Sri Lanka's case was one of a trade-off between social development and economic growth.

    In the view of several economists, the Sri Lankan experience exemplifies the possibility of achieving human development even at relatively low levels of per capita incomes (Dreze and Sen 1999; Sen 1981a, 1999). They have pointed out that Sri Lanka was able to achieve levels of life expectancy and mortality that are much better than many countries with higher levels of per capita income (Sen 1981a, 1999: 46–47). Others have been quick to argue that the welfare orientation was responsible for the relatively tardy economic growth (Bhalla and Glewe 1986).

    This controversy took a different turn when Amartya Sen added a further perception. He pointed out that the goal of economic growth and increases in per capita incomes is to achieve human development, and therefore if a country achieved that objective even before attaining high levels of per capita income, then it had achieved the objectives of economic growth.

    This is not the debate that Jayasuriya explores. It is the historical, political, social and ideological origins of social policy in Sri Lanka. He deals extensively with the ideological character of the influences in the genesis of social policy.

    Two ideological influences on Sri Lanka's social welfare policies were the influence of Buddhism and Buddhist values that went in tandem with Western ideas of social justice. Gamini Abeysekera contends that the secular teachings of the Buddha were influences on rulers from ancient times and that the provision of basic needs of food and health were obligatory on rulers (Abeysekera 2006). How these Buddhist values permeated state policy remains to be explored.

    British ideas of social policy permeated the political milieu through prominent Sri Lankans who studied in England, especially from those who studied under Harold Laski at the London School of Economics. They were a potent force in the country's politics through the Trotskyite party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party that was a significant political pressure group and influence till the 1970s.

    In the competitive electoral politics that emerged with the granting of universal franchise in 1931, the role of the dynamic Marxist opposition was significant in spurring the government to improve social conditions. The Suriyamal movement of the 1930s organised by the Trotskyite Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) and Communist Party to collect funds for malaria victims impelled the government to improve health facilities. The constant espousal of an egalitarian society by these parties was a significant factor in the government maintaining a welfare structure. The ruling élite may have also viewed the social welfare policies as a countervailing political strategy.

    In an Afterword, one could perhaps be permitted to indulge in some observations that are tangential to the focus of the author in the expectation that these would add some value of the study. The Sri Lankan social development experience exemplifies the susceptibility of a state welfare system to overall economic conditions. Strong political commitment ensured that the core of the welfare system was maintained in spite of severe economic strains but the expansion and quality of the welfare measures have suffered in recent years due to financial constraints (Sanderatne 2000: Chapter 5).

    The political commitment to social development since the grant of universal franchise in 1931 was an important factor in the maintenance of the country's social development policies. In the early years and till the late 1950s, the availability of resources enabled a smooth implementation of the free education and health policies and a food subsidy. The subsequent economic difficulties were inevitable influences in the implementation of the country's social welfare measures. Inadequate economic growth and public revenues and competing public expenditures were stumbling blocks to Sri Lanka achieving higher attainments in human development.

    Unlike the 1950s, the 1960s witnessed severe economic strains that initially impacted on the country's capacity to maintain its widespread social welfare system. The declining terms of trade on account of depressed prices for the country's primary commodity exports and increased prices for rice, fertiliser and petroleum imports, resulted in a severe balance of payments problem and a crunch in the public finances. Although free medical services was an entrenched national policy and all political parties subscribed to it, the difficult financial conditions, high cost of imported medical equipment and drugs and the exodus of doctors eroded the quality of public health services.

    Despite these difficulties, total welfare expenditure increased to a peak 10.5 per cent of GDP in the first half of the 1960s. This was mainly due to the increased expenditure on the food subsidy, which by itself absorbed 3.7 per cent of GDP. Health expenditure remained at 2 per cent of GDP during 1961–65. Despite the deteriorating economic conditions, the allocation for education reached a high 4 per cent of GDP during 1960–65.

    In the second half of the 1960s (1966–70), total welfare expenditure was cut down to 9 per cent of GDP. Expenditure on health and education fell to 1.8 and 3.6 per cent of GDP, respectively. This reduction in public expenditure on health was during a period when the full thrust of the rapid population increase of the 1950s and 1960s was having its impact. The cutback in educational expenditure was the initial step in weakening the public education system.

    The severest curtailment of expenditure on health was in the 1970s when economic conditions became particularly acute. The ‘socialist’ government of 1970, though ideologically committed ‘to maintain those social welfare measures which are an integral part of our social fabric’ (Government of Sri Lanka 1971: Budget Speech), was compelled to cut health expenditures owing to weak economic conditions.

    Between 1971 and 1977, health expenditures fell to 1.3 per cent of GDP, which was itself growing slowly at 2.8 per cent per year. The unfavourable global economic environment and external shocks, particularly the two oil price hikes, the international food crises, drought conditions in the country, poor economic management, inadequate public revenues and severe constraints in foreign exchange resources, resulted in a reluctant curtailment of social expenditure in the 1970–77 period. The insurgency of 1971 resulted in increased expenditure on defence, and for the first time, security expenditure became a significant item of government expenditure.

    The stringent public finances resulted in the poor maintenance of medical facilities and equipment. Not only was the expansion of the health system impeded but its quality and capacity weakened at the very time when morbidity increased. This period also witnessed an exodus of medical personnel, particularly doctors. The shortages of food and high rates of unemployment resulted in high levels of malnutrition. Surveys disclosed that 25 per cent of school children suffered from chronic malnutrition and 6 per cent of acute malnutrition (Alailima 1985: 31–40). These years witnessed the emergence of diseases associated with acute malnutrition that were not evident for decades.

    The achievements in human development indicators were therefore tardy. Although mortality rates continued to decline during these years, morbidity continued to be high and the rate of decline in mortality was less impressive. Infant mortality, which had declined from 82 to 57 per thousand between 1955 and 1965, declined to only 53.2 in 1965 and 47.5 in 1970. After falling to 46.3 in 1973, it actually increased to 51.3 in 1974, but declined thereafter to reach 37 per thousand in 1978. Child mortality declined very slowly during this period and was relatively high at 6.2 per thousand in 1975.

    The financial difficulties impacted on education as well. The allocation for education fell below 3 per cent of GDP for the first time since independence. The curtailed expenditure was adequate to meet only the essential recurrent expenditures, such as teacher salaries and the cost of expansion of schools necessitated by increased school enrolment. There was a set back to the quality of education as a consequence.

    Adult literacy continued to increase during this period, from 71.6 per cent in 1963 to 78.5 per cent in 1971 and 87.2 per cent in 1981. Female literacy rose from 63.2 per cent in 1963 to 70.9 per cent in 1971 and 83.2 per cent in 1981. School enrolment declined between 1960 and 1972 and improved thereafter to the level in 1960 by 1977. Female school enrolment caught up with male school enrolment during this period.

    The experience of this period illustrates the vulnerability of a state welfare system to overall economic conditions. The story of Sri Lanka's social development is one of ‘Early gains and later strains’ (Sanderatne 2000). Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that through more than a decade of economic crisis from the 1960s, the core of the welfare system was maintained.

    Although expenditure on health, education and other welfare measures was not as adequate as before and were modified owing to stringent financial conditions, the government continued to provide basic welfare measures. The financial strains resulted in the inability of the state to continue providing a quality-free medical and education system and a universal food subsidy rather than the elimination of the welfare package. The basic social welfare policies, though inadequately funded, remained in tact owing to social welfare measures being an integral part of the country's social and political foundations. The social milieu and the competitive political process were surely the reasons for such commitment to social welfare expenditure in the face of severe economic difficulties.

    Although Sri Lanka's social attainments are quite impressive, economic strains have been mainly responsible for a somewhat tardy rise in several indicators in the last two decades. Sri Lanka's post-independence experience brings out the divergence between political commitment and economic capacity and the vulnerability of social development programmes to the vicissitudes of economic fortunes of a poor economy dependent on global developments. In the initial years after independence, the structure of the economy, which emerged from colonial rule, enabled the government to tap resources from the developed and more productive plantation agriculture to provide the resources for the welfare package. By resorting to a high rate of taxation from the export plantation crops, tea, rubber and coconut, the government found the resources to finance the welfare programmes. Subsequently, when international prices of plantation crops declined in the late 1950s and 1960s, the shortfall in government revenue, the deteriorating terms of trade and shortages in foreign exchange, made these programmes not only difficult to expand but even a strain to service them adequately. A qualitative deterioration became inevitable. Since governments were extremely reluctant to curtail these welfare programmes and expenditures, they resorted to high levels of taxation, which jeopardised the plantation industry.

    The country's capacity to pursue broad-based social development programmes were also affected by the demands of other large expenditures, particularly defence. In the initial years and till the 1970s, Sri Lanka had a very low defence budget and debt-servicing costs. Revenues, which otherwise may have been spent on defence, were used to enhance the welfare programme. But since the 1970s, these expenditures have grown and made the financing of welfare programmes ever so difficult. The civil war in the last three decades increased defence expenditure, public debt and debt-servicing costs. Consequently, health and education expenditures were grossly inadequate for quality medical and educational facilities.

    Sri Lanka's social development experience exemplifies most forcefully that overall economic conditions have a direct and an indirect impact in the provision of welfare services even though the adoption of the welfare measures were due to non-economic considerations. The slow growth of the economy in the 1960s and most of the 1970s resulted in difficulties in sustaining free medical services at levels that would have pushed Sri Lanka's health to even better levels of achievement.

    An important aspect of social development has been the far-reaching impact of social development on the country's demographic changes. These have in turn had the most pervasive impacts on the country's social, political and economic development. The country moved through the three phases of the demographic transition that took over 150 years in Europe in the relatively short period of five to six decades. This was no doubt due to the effectiveness of the country's social policies.

    Sri Lanka entered the second phase of the demographic transition just before independence in 1948 owing to the sharp curtailment of the death rate, without an accompanying decline in fertility. The expansion of medical facilities by a free health system was mainly responsible for the country moving into the second phase of high population growth from the 1950s to the 1970s. These demographic developments are closely related to the social developments the country underwent. Social policies discussed in this book resulted in the reduction of the mortality rates and a sharp increase in population. On the other hand, this surge in population was an enormous strain on the economy and resulted in unemployment and social tensions. This was especially so as the growth in population was catered to by the free education system and in the fullness of time transformed into a massive problem of educated unemployed. This was the fundamental cause for the youth insurgency of 1971. The parallel development of the ethnic tensions that have engulfed the country for the last three decades or more have roots in this surge of educated youth, though there were significant political factors as well.

    Today population growth is a little over 1 per cent per year. Improvements in health, literacy and food availability played an important role in this development. These demographic developments with their far-reaching impacts have no doubt been a result of the social welfare policies of successive regimes. Further reduction in the momentum of population growth, a stabilisation of Sri Lanka's population around the third decade of the 21st century and the ageing of the country's population in the next few decades poses serious economic and social concerns, as well as provides new opportunities for development. A reorientation of social welfare policies to care for the elderly and their emerging problems is today's need.

    Professor Jayasuriya demonstrates that the genesis of social policy was rooted in ideological, philosophical and political reasons. It was not conceived of as an integral part of economic policy. This was made possible by the relative prosperity of the country and the means of taxation available during the pre-war years and for about a decade after. When economic strains began to appear the robust political commitment and the competitive nature of the country's politics sustained the social welfare system albeit with some degree of sacrifice in tits quality and expansion.

    Without the ideological origins of social policy that Professor Jayasuriya explores in this book, the story of Sri Lanka's social, political and economic development would have been very different.

    NimalSanderatne, Formerly Visiting Fellow University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka and Director of Economic Research, Central Bank of Sri Lanka


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    About the Author

    Laksiri Jayasuriya, currently Emeritus Professor and Senior Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia, is a graduate of the University of Sydney, with a doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), University of London. Previously he was the Foundation Professor of Sociology and Social Welfare at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. In Australia he held the Foundation Chair of Social Work and Social Administration at the University of Western Australia. His publications include Welfarism and Politics in Sri Lanka (2000), Immigration and Multiculturalism in Australia (1997), The Asianization of Australia? Some Facts about the Myths (co-author, 1999), The Changing Face of Electoral Politics in Sri Lanka (2005) and The Legacies of White Australia (co-editor, 2002).

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