Photo courtesy of Global Press Journal

The Welfare Benefits Board (WBB) called for applications last year for people to be included in the new registry that will bring all the current benefits schemes under one platform names Aswesuma. In 2023, the WBB began an enumeration exercise whereby all those who applied to receive welfare benefits were scored across a 22 indicator list to determine their eligibility. According to the WBB, 3.7 million applications were received to be included in this registry. These key milestones of Aswesuma were prior actions in the World Bank Development Policy Options and closely monitored by the Bank. On June 20, 2023 the list of selected beneficiaries were published online with reports of around two million out of the 3.7 million being selected under four categories.

Key Issues

Aswesuma uses proxy means testing to select beneficiaries. They are scored across 22 indicators. These indicators were formulated by the Ministry of Finance and Department of Census and Statistics in 2019 It was put together at a time that had not even imagined the state of the economy as it is today. The impact of this crisis is unprecedented and generational and therefore welfare measures and indicator lists developed at a time when the economic situation of the country was in a completely different state will not suffice. Selection of vulnerable households from an expanding pool of households are causing further tensions and divisions at a community level.

Our research with working class poor communities in Colombo shows that having a permanent house, assets such as machinery or vehicles, use of a gas cylinder, grid access such as electricity and water does not protect people from precarity or vulnerability and in fact may exacerbate it. Families that have all these assets receive a score of zero in the Aswesuma enumeration and our work shows that such families to date are also unable to put three meals on the table, have cut back on nutrition and medications, are unable to send children to school daily and are severely in debt, even to the extent of borrowing to eat. These are also families that had not begun to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown period and now in addition to being impacted by the economic crisis are also severely affected by economic adjustments such as increase in VAT and electricity tariff rate hikes.

Furthermore, being included in a social registry is not about the cash transfer alone but what it also affords access to – low interest loans, saving schemes and access to support during times of crisis.

Using asset based targeting imagines poverty presenting itself in a particular way and leaves room for more exclusion errors. According to the latest UNDP report on multidimensional vulnerability of Sri Lankans, as many as 12.34 million people (55.7%) are multi-dimensionally vulnerable and yet only two million households have been selected as beneficiaries under Aswesuma.

Many development experts have highlighted the dangers of targeted social security programmes and in light of the Human Rights Watch recent report on Jordan’s Takaful social welfare programme funded by the World Bank, where HRW “found that asset-based profiling can force some people into an unacceptable trade off between their right to social security and the assets they need to exercise other economic and social rights, such as their rights to a decent living, health, and food”, we have continued to question why the World Bank supports the government in targeted schemes instead of strongly advocating for universal programmes, especially when similar programmes have failed in other countries.

The government must increase the fiscal allocation for social welfare. At present we are told by the World Bank in Sri Lanka and the WBB that the choice is between expanding the safety net and transferring people a smaller amount of money versus selecting the most vulnerable and transferring them a larger amount of money. However, we have not seen any meaningful cut backs on government spending elsewhere or larger allocations for social welfare in the recently presented budget. While the government meets the social protection floor set by the IMF, we still remain one of the severely underfunded social security systems in the region.

If the rationale for targeting is that a smaller pool of beneficiaries gets a larger allocation, how does the WBB justify the amounts allocated for all categories (Rs 2,500, 5,000 and 8,500) except for the severely poor category that has been allocated Rs.15,000 a month for three years. Even those with Chronic Kidney Disease have been allocated only Rs.5,000 a month when dialysis costs per session can range from Rs.20,000 to 25,000 and many have been relying on private healthcare given the crippled status of the country’s healthcare system. We have not seen a justification of how the allocations were arrived at, when it was arrived at and how are these allocations expected to respond to the cost of living.

Information disclosure and transparency continue to remain a huge issue. The WBB has not publicised how the district level allocations were arrived at and families also do not know what their scores were and how far they were from the cut off mark. If we are to believe that the new system leaves no room for politicisation or corruption, all this information must be made public. There has also been no information about data security and storage and whether the WBB in fact has the capacity for managing such an amount of data. A significant amount of personal and economic information was collected at a household level including photographs of the home, individuals and assets. The WBB website alone has been badly managed with a lot of personal data of beneficiaries being publicly available before it was taken down.

What do we need for Sri Lanka?

Civil society organisations, activists and development specialists have been reiterating the need for a universal social protection system and moving away from targeted schemes. Unfortunately Aswesuma is what is being reiterated by the government and the IMF as the social safety net they have put in place to support people from the crisis and the economic adjustments. Economic adjustments like increasing electricity tariff hikes and increase in VAT are crippling for working class families who are coping by pawning jewellery, borrowing from the informal credit market, not sending children to school just in order to put food on the table. Our research in the past year alone has shown significant cuts in nutrition, school attendance and increase in household debt. As the new school year begins soon, parents are already wondering how to pay for uniforms, shoes and stationary at a time when they don’t even have a meal to send with a child to school.

What is needed is a constellation of social protection beyond cash transfers and that at its core is mindful that many of those who are in need of support now were actually able to make ends meet pre-2020 and that human dignity and quality of life should not be compromised for the sake of efficiency. A constellation of support could include free midday meal programmes at all schools for all grades free public transport for school going children a guaranteed basket of fresh produce and proteins for families every week the public health system be allocated far more resources not just for clinics and medicines but also for vital check-ups and procedures such as dialysis increased allocations for nutrient support such as thriposha and supplements for pregnant and lactating mothers livelihood support for the informal sector writing off utility bill arrears for low income families more investment in public care infrastructures such as creches and day care centres.

While Aswesuma is riddled with issues, the alternative is not to do away with cash transfers but to make it universal – expand it, remove targeting and allocate more funding. By focussing more on creating an “efficient” system to minimise inclusion errors, the WBB and the World Bank has in fact created far more exclusion at a time when people need support in ways not required before. Furthermore, implementing a variety of social protection mechanisms across various sectors like health and education would also expand the safety net in different ways and ease the burden on Sri Lankans. Cash transfers are important for the household and they are important for the economy. But given where Sri Lanka is at present, a targeted cash transfer alone will never result in a just recovery.