The technocratic methodology adopted to assess the poor should raise alarm bells among Sri Lankans, as it further excludes and alienates large groups of people
By Feminist Collective for Economic Justice
The economic crisis and an austerity-oriented recovery program have devastated the lives of the working poor in Sri Lanka. While critics raised concerns about the inadequacy of the World Bank and IMF recommended targeted social safety nets program, the process of “verifying” the poor and those who are eligible for social security benefits has come to completion.
As the process was rolled out in our neighbourhoods, we watched with growing horror at the intrusive multi-media documentation and lengthy questionnaires being administered on people who were already severely impacted by the economic crisis. The Feminist Collective for Economic Justice conducted research in four districts – Jaffna, Batticaloa, Colombo, and Kilinochchi involving interviews and observations to better understand the process. We share some of our insights on the selection process below.
1010101010 verification process
The verification process included an extensive online questionnaire. Photographs of household members, homes, assets and documents were also recorded. Every person surveyed was given a QR code and data is collected via a digital application called Aswasuma. The Government claimed that it was a technologically efficient process, where each person was to get a message via SMS on when their household will be visited. Those who were not at home at the time enumerators visited, were deemed uninterested in the social safety net program.
In reality, people waited for hours and days without even going to work for the fear of being left out. Numerous delays occurred as field staff entrusted with the task struggled to make it through the hours-long interviews and cover the number of households allocated to them. People commuting for work to other districts could not make it back home in time and were effectively pushed out of the system. In one instance, a bedridden elderly woman had just moved to her son’s home in Mannar and did not have the resources to make it back to her registered address in Batticaloa. As a result, she was not “verified,” her QR code not issued and will most likely be omitted from the social safety net program.
It is evident that the verification process adopted was anything but efficient and is far from foolproof. Furthermore, the criteria, indicators and method of calculation used appear nonsensical and out of touch with the context and dimensions of poverty currently experienced in Sri Lanka. For example, given that one third of households are facing food insecurity and children with malnutrition have increased, the failure to give priority to measures of food security and ability to meet basic nutritional needs reveals the insensitivity to the devastation caused by the economic crisis and recovery program.
The criteria, including education, health, economic level, assets, housing condition and family demography, and a points-system of 1 and 0 are used to measure eligibility for social safety nets. Weightages given to indicators to determine the final score for each person and cut off points are decided by district quotas. According to the points-system used, a household is not considered poor if a family member possesses a permanent house, clean drinking water and toilet facilities, a motorbike, and livestock. Households without patients with long-term chronic illnesses or disabilities, children who are not school dropouts or not a single parent family are considered “not poor”. Criteria such as households with more than one acre of agricultural land, ownership of a tractor or fishing boat being categorised as “not poor”, further exposes the lack of understanding of the conditions that have led farmers and fisherfolk to poverty.
Amidst increased migration due to the economic crisis, a migrant worker in the household is deemed sufficient for removing State assistance. A woman injured during the war with a prosthetic leg was taken off the list when her husband was forced to take a loan to go abroad as he couldn’t find work locally. The disabled woman – now saddled with the loan, while no income has been received yet from her husband – is not receiving the State issued social security either. Instead of supporting those who are making desperate efforts to survive the crisis, the State is punishing them by removing support. We share her case as it also highlights why social security schemes should be viewed as the universal need for protection against certain life risks and social needs as the ILO articulates it and unavoidable interruptions to income flows. On the contrary, the World Bank and the Welfare Benefits Board’s singular focus on “identifying the poor” renders the meaning of social security defunct.
Many who were earlier part of the system are being pushed out with the “hit or miss” approach of the verification process. Such omissions occur in a context where, for example, thousands of people living with disabilities have been on waiting lists for the disability welfare scheme for years. It is no surprise that the people who have participated in the verification process view the exercise as a sinister move to reduce social security provisions when they are most vulnerable amidst the debilitating economic crisis.
The methodology adopted by the World Bank and Welfare Benefits Board fails to identify even the most explicit forms of poverty, leave alone the multiple, layered and complex dimensions of circumstances that lead to economic vulnerability and is a far cry from addressing the specific forms of exclusions people experience due to an economic crisis. The process assumes uniformity in the experiences of poverty across the country. It is devoid of an analysis of the political economy or social structures, including gender, that influence poverty and exclusion.
The verification process recommended by the World Bank and Welfare Benefits Board was justified on the grounds that a “scientific approach” to identify the poor based on “objective” characteristics developed by “experts” will eliminate those who unfairly want to take advantage of the system. Couched in such technocratic language, is a process that enables the stereotyping and hateful characterisations of the working poor in Sri Lanka and paves the way for coercive and excessive surveillance and data gathering. The process, unabashedly named “Aththema Kiyamu aththama ayata prathilaba demu (Let’s be honest – Benefit the real needy)” characterises the working poor as dishonest, lazy, and conniving. Given that women form the majority of the working poor in Sri Lanka, the primary targets of such a negative propaganda are women.
The discourse of ‘lazy and cheating’ poor working people is common among most Colombo-based policy forums. In his 2023 budget speech, President Ranil Wickremesinghe stated that, “We got lazy day by day. People got used to getting everything from the government.” Here the “we” he refers to are the poor and working people of this country. State officials sang the praises of the World Bank’s role in the process. For example, in one interview, a member of the Welfare Benefits Board said, “The eligibility criteria, developed with support from the World Bank, are based on objective and verifiable characteristics of households” and through this process 31 different social welfare programs will be brought under one system.
At the local level, government officials repeat the same justifications and argued that each household should only be eligible for one scheme and should not be receiving elders’ allowance, disability allowance and Samurdhi allowance even if persons of the household are experiencing multiple vulnerabilities. In reality, many households with compelling cases are not part of any Government schemes. Colombo-based think tanks too enthusiastically suggest new criteria such as electricity consumption now added to the burgeoning list on the Aswesuma criteria, demonstrating a lack of understanding of the multiple dimensions of urban poverty. Thus, while the IMF and World Bank perpetuate hate speech against the poor, rather than defending the nation’s working poor when they are being pushed to starvation by multiple disasters, the state and elites are also in full agreement with this discourse.
Divide and rule
The pandemic-hit year of 2021 and crisis-prone years of 2022 and 2023 have seen the implementation of harsh austerity measures. Increase of Value Added Taxes borne by ordinary people, slashing of electricity and water subsidies, rising costs of transport, medicines, kerosene, fertilisers, pesticides and animal feed and exponential increase in basic food items is the current reality in Sri Lanka. In contrast, there have been no increments in basic wages even while many working poor are struggling to find work in a context of massive cutbacks in numerous unorganised sector jobs.
Sri Lanka spent the lowest amount on social protection among South Asian countries during the pandemic. The IMF reported that the expenditure on social safety nets in 2022 was a mere 0.6% of GDP and this will be maintained in 2023 as well. Meanwhile, the poverty rate is estimated to have doubled and inequalities have widened over the past two years. The World Bank estimated that poverty increased from the pre-pandemic rate of 11.3% to 25.6% in 2022. Approximately 5.6 million people or 23% of the population have fallen into poverty in the last few years, many of them women. However, the number of persons receiving state support has not increased. The social security schemes currently reach less than 2 million persons or 9% of the population. The World Bank and Welfare Benefits Board led verification process covers only 3.7 million persons or 14% of the population and seeks to eliminate many among them from the benefits lists.
According to a Gazette notification (2328/131) issued on 21 April 2023, President Ranil Wickremesinghe has stated that from 1 July 2023, the Aswesuma Benefits scheme will be rolled out as follows. 400,000 families/individuals will receive Rs. 2,500 per month until 31 December 2023; 400,000 families/individuals will receive Rs. 5,000 per month until 31 March 2024; 800,000 families/individuals will receive Rs. 8,500 per month for a period of three years starting July 2023; and 400,000 families/individuals will receive Rs. 15,000 per month for a period of three years starting July 2023. If there are only two or less than two persons in a household, they will receive half of the allocated monthly payment. According to this Gazette, at its most, the scheme will reach only 2 million people until the end of the year and will be further rolled back in 2024.
In this context, the hateful logic about the poor perpetuated by a technocratic process not only divides the working poor to fight at the village level as to who should be on the list, but also to inform on and surveil each other. The surveillance of the poor is being carried out in the context of widespread discontent with the State abdicating its responsibility to alleviate their suffering caused by the economic crisis.
The technocratic methodology adopted to assess the poor should raise alarm bells among Sri Lankans, as it further excludes and alienates large groups of people. The insidious justifications offered in defence of the approach for targeted schemes fool no one. Thus, in addition to the imminent failure of a targeted social safety net to address the massive pauperisation of Sri Lankans amidst the economic crisis, the problematic discourses perpetuated about the working poor and women point to a larger social conflict in the offing.
(The Feminist Collective for Economic Justice is a collective of feminist economists, scholars, activists, university students and lawyers who came together to analyse and make proposals to respond to the current economic and political crisis.)