Giving a lifeline to the impoverished: Aswesuma needs to be well-targeted

Wednesday, 10 April 2024 01:21 –      – 13

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Poverty is an extremely traumatic state of living, the severity of which is only experienced by those who actually undergo it. Every civic-conscious society around the globe aspires to safeguard the destitute communities out of feelings of compassion and empathy. The sensitive socio-economic issue has become a common talking point within the polity in the backdrop of the economic meltdown the nation experienced not so long ago.

According to the World Bank (WB)’s latest development update on Sri Lanka, the poverty rate in the island had increased for the fourth consecutive year, with an estimated 25.9% of Sri Lankans living below the poverty line in 2023. This is a serious setback for a country which had an excellent track record in terms of reducing the number of people below the poverty line prior to 2020. The percentage of the population living below the national poverty line – poverty headcount ratio – declined from 46.8% in 2002 (based on the updated poverty line) to 14.3% or 3,042,300 people in 2019 as per the Department of Census and Statistics (DCS).

The global lender observes that approximately 60% of Sri Lankan households have decreased incomes, with many facing increased food insecurity, malnutrition as well as stunted growth. Almost 17.5% of households had reduced their education expenses while others had curtailed their spending on health to manage the rising costs. The citizens who were experiencing loss of livelihoods from 2020 to 2021 because of the pandemic faced a double whammy when the economic meltdown caused widespread devastation.

The substantial upsurge in poverty-stricken individuals undoubtedly necessitates a systematic and comprehensive social safety net to provide a breathing space for families undergoing extreme deprivations in terms of their daily needs across the country. Social safety nets are implemented even in capitalist countries such as the US; hence, Aswesuma – which was launched by the Wickremesinghe administration during last year – should not be labelled as a vote-catching initiative out of ignorance.

The IMF too has included the necessity for an effective financial safety net to be undertaken within the island in order to safeguard the vulnerable communities as a vital prerequisite for approving the economic bailout package. The program is not entirely funded by the Treasury, as it receives financial assistance from the WB.

The Government has allocated Rs. 205 billion to undertake Aswesuma during this year, and it aims to cover 2.4 million eligible households. The beneficiary households are classified under four categories: severely poor, poor, vulnerable, and transitional. Although Aswesuma is a considerably improved financial assistance scheme for the needy compared to Samurdhi, questions have been raised with regard to the criteria adopted to determine beneficiaries. The recipients have been determined by applying 22 indicators that were developed by the Ministry of Finance and the DCS in 2019. Given that the indicators were conceptualised prior to the unprecedented economic crisis, some have expressed doubts whether the yardsticks to determine the eligibility are suitable to assess the applicants in the light of the considerable deterioration in the standard of living transcending social layers over the last few years.

The recent reports in the press disclosed that if a child in a household is sitting for the Ordinary Level Examination, the particular household becomes ineligible to receive benefits under Aswesuma. For Aswesuma to become successful, benefits need to be obtained by those who genuinely deserve assistance. Thus, it is incumbent upon the authorities to review certain measures of determining suitability that appear to be irrational to improve the effectiveness of this critical socially sensitive program.

Apart from temporary relief measures, in the long-term, maintaining and accelerating reforms to achieve macroeconomic stability as well as to stimulate private investments apart from capital inflows are necessary towards combatting poverty on a sustainable basis. A change in the mindset of the people too is required to make it happen by shifting from demanding freebies to rely on self-initiative and personal responsibility.

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