Re-imagining development in Sri Lanka: In conversation with Nilakshi De Silva

Nilakshi De Silva is a Senior Research Professional at the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), and in this interview, talks about the multi-faceted challenges facing development in Sri Lanka post-war, including the nature and extent of poverty in the country. She is the second interviewee from CEPA featured on Groundviews this year, the first being CEPA’s Executive Director, Priyanthi Fernando.

The interview with Nilakshi is anchored to Re-imagining Development? An Exchange of Ideas based on the Sri Lankan Experience, the title of CEPA’s 2012 Symposium looking at equitable, sustainable, inclusive development in Sri Lanka. Though the Symposium’s dedicated site features a lot of interesting content but no real conversation around some of the ideas flagged in this interview, CEPA’s institutional output has for years focussed on development as more than just economic prosperity or year on year GDP growth.

Early on in the conversation, Nilakshi flags the importance of looking at poverty not just as something that afflicts the poor, but as a structural problem, and how looking at the challenges of poverty alleviation through this holistic perspective has also changed CEPA’s own thinking about and approach to development over 10 years. Nilakshi talks about a significant and growing disconnect between the development that is being delivered to the people today, and their real expectations, ideas, visions and values of a good life.

We then talk about the challenges of changing the minds and perceptions of policy makers to look more broadly at development and poverty alleviation, in a country where the dominant discourse of both issues is pegged to high economic (and GDP) growth alone. Nilakshi answers by noting that it is important to not over-estimate the role of policymakers and under-estimate the role of civil society in shaping a more coherent and just developmental discourse. SHe laments the lack of discussion and debate in civil society about alternative ideas around development, and goes into why this is the case. She also explores why some of the rich debates at the field level may not, as much as they could and should, be making it to the radar of Colombo based civil society and media.

Nilakshi also states a number of interesting examples from CEPA’s field work where people around the country have a richer understanding of development than just economic prosperity and wealth generation, as well as perspective of women and their role (plus choices they can make) in economic growth.

When asked as to what she thinks is the most pressing challenge for development post-MDGs and in post-war Sri Lanka, Nilakshi’s notes that there is great and growing concern that despite high economic growth, inequality in Sri Lanka is increasing apace. She also talks about the immense importance of universal education in social mobility (and poverty alleviation) and how, along with other systems like universal healthcare, this is now quickly breaking down. Nilakshi also notes that development seen just as shiny new buildings and infrastructure is a red herring, without looking at growing disparities in society.

Nilakshi talks about the lack of reflecting back on past developmental strategies and projects, in addition to very low national spending on R&D, as further aggravating bad policies and practices currently in play.

We then switch to CEPA’s Symposium, and how in 2012, it specifically looks at expanding the debate on development beyond just the domain of economists, by bringing in creative individuals who are filmmakers, the media and civil society writ large. Given CEPA’s own use of ICTs and in particular, web based social media, Nilakshi explores how technology can help expand and enrich the debates on development, as well as fertilise the Symposium itself with new ideas from unusual suspects.

Nilakshi ends the conversation by flagging the importance of thinking about the limits to consumption, without just thinking of acquiring more and more material wealth, since it is simply not sustainable. She is quick to say that it is not that material prosperity isn’t important, but that unbridled, it is more harmful than helpful. What is the society we want to have, and what choices do we have to make is the question Nilakshi ends by flagging, and by also noting that CEPA’s Symposium this year will tackle the issues we touched on in greater detail.

Nilakshi De Silva from Young Asia Television on Vimeo.

  • Jayalath

    Thank you for the research ,which has exposed and identified the post war developments and poverty .how can we reach a sustainable development to defeat the challenging poverty. According to the latest research , we has been maintaining quite well rate of economic growth last few years ,which was imperative . Some how , it is not in satisfactory level , which is an evidence your artical .

    So , my concern is to point you out few more vital informations to consider before we reach a rational conclusion . We cannot simply ignore the real facts behind the scene , therefore , it is very important to scrutinise the problems lie ahead us in general . These problems are not only existing among the Sri lankans , the developments and poverty , disparities are commonly found every where in the world , therefore , the whole world is working hard to find a very sustainable approach to these burning problems around the world .

    At the present moment, the population of the world is higher by far than it has ever been, it is now nearly 7 billion, compared with 3 billion only 50 years ago . It is more than double in the last 50 years , and is going to double again , barring some new control. So we are having trouble feeding people.
    A sustainable proportion of man kind is in constant danger of starvation .This means that within next few decades famines may have become an all too common occurrence .

    In addition, with a great many people I’ll- nourished, there would be an increase In diseases . There would be more general unrest in the world . It is not enough to provide extra sources energy or foods. Supposing that, say, by 2012 we have worked out some schemes we can feed 7 billion people. If we do so and every one continues having children, then in 50 years ther will be 14 billion. And then what? Some where , some time, the growth must stop. But there are only two ways in which growth can stop .
    Either the death rate goes up to match the birth rate, or the birth rate comes down to match the death rate.

    Some how the birth rate has to come down rapidly , declining resources , rising population , pollution and do on has made it very clear that no nation is an independent unit. It has made it very clear that war is not impossible, not only nuclear war but ordinary war.

    If we can solve the population problem, however narrowly, and we can spend the 21 st century recovering and rebuilding a new civilisation on a philosophy of growth in quality,if we can do that , it seems to me that the future has the capacity to be enormous ly , enormously wonderful.
    We don’t need recklessly committed suicide . Therefore, it is a choice ,between the extinction or existence .

  • Jayalath

    Attaching to previous page .

    By the way , according to your research, you have pointed out about the shiny new buildings and rapidly developing infrastructure around the country and the rising poverty.
    Poverty seems to continue growing though there are significant economic growth has been reported around the world . Some economic experts Recently stated their shocks to hear the scale of poverty are still existing , despite the unprecedented prosperity,

    Some of the countries have been very successful in reducing poverty bigger extent ,they are china , chile, Indonesia , Malaysia , Thailand , Mexico and some other countries have shown the dramatic record of poverty reduction by 21 st century . So , it is indicating the world has taken a stand against poverty .

    The development of infrastructure is essential to a country, roads , bridges and necessary facilities for the trading & housing , which can be regarded as initial step of development . But that alone will not improve the standard of living .
    First of all , we need to focus on what we can develop and what level it can help to people .
    This is the vision and mission that should have been .

    Generally Our economy is based on the agriculture and services ., we formally export ,tea, rubber, coconut to earn revenue . But now it has changed . The tea is still the biggest export item . If we carefully observed that what we have done to improve the tea market and harvest , it might be very less that we supposed to be . It can create vast number of work for people .what we need for that is to identify and take the appropriate action where it needs to be developed .

    The textile trade isn’t second to the tea trade , which has created massive works around the country . And services as working in foreign and the tourism . These are the main departments We earn the revenue .
    Honestly , I didnt make much attention to think much about how we earn , but it is impressive when I figure out it in order , we have many ways of earning a decent revenue ,and to have a decent life to every one .

    Neither we have colonies nor slaves to come the revenues. Therefore, we could have carefully observed the right thing to the country . Refrain from the corruption ,and stealing state properties by politicians and their henchmen can make a huge different . If we need to build this country or any one has a genuine purpose to do so ,they must need to have a plan at least for hundred years to come .

    This is the thought of 21 dt century , control the population, resolve problems by scientifically ,end to the mythology and superstition ,zero to poverty, road to a prosperous world .

  • georgethebushpig

    Dear Ms. De Silva,

    Glad to see this initiative taking off. One of the problems I see emerging in this discussion is the conflation of terms. Discussing poverty alleviation (lifting people above an agreed daily income level – i.e. above $1.50 p/d) with “development” is confusing. Ensuring that people have an income to meet their basic sustenance (poverty alleviation) is hugely different from creating a space and opportunities that allow people to achieve their highest aspirations (development).

    However, discussing “development” and “inequality” is not limited to the poor (below $1.50 p/d) but to all of us and I’m glad to see that the boundaries of the discussion are being opened up as pointed out by you. The natural trajectory of the person that rises above the $1.50 p/d ceiling inevitably will aspire to greater material wealth possibly culminating in a thirst for a red Lamborghini. This may not necessarily be because he/she wants one but because that’s the only sorry game in town.

    In line with your argument, if we do not define what we consider “development” to be, at least we must identify what it is not. In this regard, the Bhutanese have got it right when they measure Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than GDP (http://www.grossnationalhappiness.com/). Working within such a paradigm helps transcend the ubiquitous neo-liberal economic model of consumer driven “development” – the limitations of which are becoming all too apparent with the rise of climate change referred to by Lord Stern (also a neo-liberal economist) as the greatest market failure in history. This is the development model that Sri Lanka and all other countries (with a few exceptions) have adopted. This is the same model that has engendered the greatest inequality that the world has seen within both rich and poor nations alike.

    Can we construct a paradigm of our own or do we go down the neo-liberal race track against a backdrop of declining forests and soil fertility and chemically poisoned food and water (see Ranil Senanayake’s articles on GV on these subjects)?

    I look forward to the seminar and I hope there’ll be an opportunity to contribute via web as well.