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Austerity and social protection



By Uditha Devapriya

Marga Institute held its second 50th Anniversary Think Tank Discussion, on the IMF, economic contraction, and social protection, last Monday, May 29. The discussion featured two presentations, by Ermiza Tegal and Ahilan Kadirgamar.

Tegal’s presentation, made on behalf of the Feminist Collective for Economic Justice, comprehensively addressed the issue of diminishing social protection in Sri Lanka, especially in the backdrop of calls for greater austerity by the government and sections of civil society. Kadirgamar focused on the IMF’s role in the debt crisis, articulating his bluntest critique yet of the organisation’s advocacy of market liberalisation, fiscal consolidation, and welfare reduction.

The audience, as expected, represented many interests and groups. Some agreed with what the presenters had to say, others did not. There was a consensus that the government had to take the blame for the crisis, but regarding the next step there was disagreement. Towards the end of the forum more than one person pointed out that blaming the IMF was fruitless, that we had to continue negotiating with the IMF, that the crisis was the government’s own doing, and that people should not be pointing fingers at other organisations and institutions, probably including capital markets, for the failures of the State. I rather liked Kadirgamar’s counterresponse. He contended that organisations like the IMF represented the interests of private investors, not the country’s or its people’s.

After a while I sensed some barely concealed hostility to the presenters. One audience member, for instance, faulted them for not pointing out the “good” that private firms and conglomerates, specifically in the plantation sector, were doing on behalf of deprived and marginalised communities. Others questioned the presenters’ conclusion that informal sector workers were faring worse than before, on the grounds that wages of plumbers and domestic helpers had risen substantially now. All these criticisms, for me at least, seemed to be couched in narrow personal experiences, and attempts were made one after another to generalise from them. This was in contrast to the presentations, which had all been based on interviews and surveys conducted across several districts.

There seemed to be very little support for the presenters. Ermiza Tegal, for instance, raised the (very valid) concern that the government’s proposed new welfare scheme, Aswesuma, would not reach or benefit the population that it should be targeting, and in response one audience member contended that her calculations had been based, not on the number of people, but rather the number of households.

As a sort of counter-response, an economist immediately pointed out that there had been a lack of clarity over what Aswesuma would be targeting, households or actual people. This was, for me at least, the only show of support for the presenters from the audience, most of whom seemed to hail from a conspicuously affluent, middle-class, middle-aged milieu: a milieu whose interests, economic or otherwise, would hardly have aligned with the politics of the two presenters.

This is not to say everyone disagreed with the presentations. To the point that the IMF was not paying enough attention to the anxieties and concerns of marginalised communities, one person argued that several think-tanks, including those involved with governance and political reform, felt the same. Another pointed out that much had been made of the IMF’s meetings with trade unions, civil society, and other organisations, but that such meetings and discussions did not appear to lead anywhere. Again, Kadirgamar brought up the most valid argument. When I argued that the civil society of today, unlike the civil society of the 1960s and 1970s, seemed much less inclined to question policy orthodoxy, even when such policy affected the poor adversely, he responded that there was no point talking about civil society without including unions, cooperatives, and agrarian organisations.

Kadirgamar then went on to mention that which never gets mentioned in the open, the question of who funds civil society. He highlighted the paradox of Western governments sponsoring certain local NGOs, which are supposed to be non-governmental organisations. The latter, he pointed out, have been forced to advocate for policies promoted by Western interests. This is a candid observation, and on the whole, it is true.

In stark contrast to think-tanks from the 1970s, which concerned themselves with the question of development – what Godfrey Gunatilleke, the founder of Marga, called the “Sri Lankan model of development” – many of today’s (economic) think-tanks promote reducing or downsizing the role of the public sector and welfare state, going so far as to justify dirt-cheap wages on the basis that Sri Lanka’s low income earners, including apparel and estate workers, spend what little they get on inexpensive goods.

I am sure many people would find this reasoning almost as incredible as I do. But such thinking has become mainstream now. And that, I think, is Sri Lanka’s tragedy: the fact that a presentation based on raw data, focusing on the many dimensions of poverty in Sri Lanka, contesting the official neoliberal – one could say Reaganite – narrative of the poor as lazy and unproductive – can be critiqued on the grounds that it does not highlight the “positive” contribution of the private sector, or that it faults the IMF and other multilateral institutions unnecessarily, with little to no support from the rest of the audience. This is tied to another problem. The leftward, progressive tilt we saw last year – the tilt that pushed the young to the streets, that forced them to grapple with issues of poverty and development – has been side-lined. In its place we have an “official” narrative, peddled by think tanks and no different to the government’s version of events, framing austerity as essential.

For me, the Marga Institute forum revealed the challenges facing grass-roots civil society groups. Most of them are underfunded and overworked, but all of them do a remarkable job – more remarkable, I should think, than those limited to Colombo’s affluent middle-classes – of meeting people and talking with them. I think Ermiza Tegal spoke for these people when she observed that they are worried about their future, that they are living on the edge. The media may promote the establishment’s view that Sri Lanka is on its way to recovery. But for a vast majority in this country, recovery has become a byword for painful, crushing austerity, of the sort not a few of us have accepted as the new normal. The tragedy here is that we generalise from our experience. Because we seem to be doing better, we assume others are too. This is not so, and it takes a Kadirgamar or a Tegal to prove it.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at


Lingering world disorder and the UN’s role



The 9/11 Twin Tower horror in New York.

Russia could very well be questioning the legitimacy of the UN system by currently challenging the right of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to arbitrate in the conflicting accusations of genocide brought against each other by it and Ukraine. Russia has countered Ukraine’s charge of genocide, occasioned by its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, by accusing the latter of perpetrating the same crime in the rebel region of Eastern Ukraine, which is seen as being within the Russian sphere of influence.

As is known, when Russia did not participate in a hearing sanctioned by the ICJ on the charge of genocide brought against it in March 2022, the ICJ called on Russia to halt the invasion forthwith. Russia, however, as reported in some sections of the international media, reacted by claiming that the ICJ has ‘no jurisdiction over the case since Ukraine’s request does not come within the scope of the Genocide Convention.’ The main sides to the Ukraine conflict are at present reportedly stating their positions in the ICJ with regard to the correctness of this claim.

Whereas, the law-abiding the world over would have expected the ICJ’s word to prevail in the Ukraine conflict, this does not seem to be the case. More precisely, it is the moral authority of the UN that is being questioned by Russia. Given this situation, the observer cannot be faulted for believing that Russia is ‘sticking to its guns’ of favouring a military solution in the Ukraine.

Considering the foregoing and the continuing lawlessness in other geographical regions, such as South-West Asia, the Middle East and parts of Africa, the commentator is justified in taking the position that little or nothing has been gained by the world community by way of fostering international peace over the decades.

Most distressing is the UN’s seeming helplessness in the face of international disorder, bloodshed and war. The thorny questions from the 9/11 New York twin-tower terror attacks, for instance, are remaining with humanity.

One of the most dreaded questions is whether the UN Charter has been rendered a dead letter by the forces of lawlessness and those wielders of overwhelming military might who couldn’t care less for moral scruples. Those state actors who display these traits risk being seen as destruction-oriented subversives or terrorists who are impervious to civilizational values.

Commentators are right when they point to the need for UN reform. This is, in fact, long overdue. Of the original ‘Big Five’ who went on to constitute the permanent membership of the UN Security Council (UNSC) at the end of World War 11 and who oversaw the establishment of the UN, only the US and China retain major power status in the true sense of the phrase today.

The rest of the original heavyweights cannot be considered ‘spent forces’, but there are other powers of more recent origin who could easily vie for their positions. Some of these are India, Brazil, South Africa, Turkey and Indonesia. Inducting some of the latter into the UNSC could help constitute a more globally representative UNSC. That is, they will help put together an UNSC which is more faithfully reflective of the current global power distribution.

Theoretically, a more widely representative and inclusive UNSC could be a check against the arbitrary exercise of power by the more ambitious, expansionary and authoritarian members of the UNSC but a foremost challenge facing the UN is to induce such new members of the UNSC into representing the vital and legitimate interests of the ordinary publics within these states and internationally. Minus such representation of the world’s powerless UN reform could come to nought. In fact, this could be described as a prime challenge before the UN which could decide its enduring relevance.

Admittedly, the challenge is complex and defies easy resolution. Not all the countries that are seen as prospective UNSC members are democratic in orientation. That is, they would not be people-friendly or egalitarian. Most of them are governed by power elites that are part of what has been described as the ‘Transnational Capitalist Class’ and could be expected to be repressive and parasitic rather than caring or egalitarian. How then could they be expected to be committed to re-distributive justice within their countries, for example?

In the short and medium terms, the UN system could bring into being systems and institutions that could make it comparatively difficult for the power elites of the world to be parasitic, exploitive, self-serving and unconscionable. Strengthening and giving added teeth to systems that could prove effective against money-laundering and allied practices of self-aggrandizement is one way out.

Ironically, it is perhaps the UN that could lay the basis for and provide these mechanisms most effectively and non-obtrusively. It would need to work more with governments and publics on these fronts and lay the foundation for the necessary accountability procedures within states. It should prepare for the long haul.

In the longer term, it’s the coming into existence of democracy-conscious governments and ruling strata that must be sought. Here too the UN could play a significant role. Its numerous agencies could prove more proactive and dynamic in inculcating and teaching the core values of democracy to particularly poor and vulnerable populations that could fall prey to anti-democratic, parochial political forces that thrive on division and discord.

UN aid could be even directly tied to the establishment and strengthening of democratic institutions in particularly impoverished countries and regions. Thus will the basis be laid for younger leaders with a strong democratic vision and programmatic alternative for their countries. Hopefully, such issues would get some airing in the current UN General Assembly sessions.

Accordingly, the broad-basing of the UNSC is integral to UN reform but the progressive world cannot stop there. It would need to ensure the perpetuation of the UN system by helping to bring into being polities that would respect this cardinal international organization which has as its prime aim the fostering of world peace. Democracy-conscious populations are an urgent need and systems of education that advocate the core values of democracy need to be established and strengthened worldwide.

The coming into being of rivals to the current Western-dominated world order, such as the BRICS bloc, needs to be welcomed but unless they are people-friendly and egalitarian little good will be achieved. Besides, undermining the UN and its central institutions would prove utterly counter-productive.

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Country Roads …concert for children



Sponsors and Country Music Foundation officials - from left: Dmitri Cooray (Jetwing), Maljini Jayasekera (Cargills), Feizal Samath (President CMF), Susaan Bandara (LOLC), Deepal Perera (SriLankan Airlines) and Spencer Manualpillai (Dilmah)

I’ve always wondered why those who have hit the big time in their profession, as singers, have not cared to reach out to the needy.

They generally glorify themselves, especially on social media, not only with their achievements, but also with their outfits, etc. – all status symbols.

I’m still to see some of the big names grouping together to help the thousands who are suffering, at this point in time – children, especially.

However, I need to commend the Country Music Foundation of Sri Lanka for tirelessly working to bring some relief, and happiness, to children, in this part of the world.

Country Roads is said to be Sri Lanka’s and South Asia’s longest running charity concert for children, and this year, they say, the show will be even better.

This concert has consistently donated 100% of its proceeds to children’s charities in Sri Lanka. Over the past 35 years, this has resulted in several million rupees worth of aid, all of which has contributed directly to addressing the most pressing issues faced by children in Sri Lanka, a common practice since the concert’s first edition was held in 1988.

In 2014, the concert contributed Rs. 500,000 to Save the Children Sri Lanka, to support its mother-and-child programme for local plantations. During the same year, another Rs. 100,000 was given to the Oxonian Heart Foundation, to help treat impoverished and destitute children suffering from heart disease, while a further Rs. 100,000 was donated to a poor family caring for a special needs child. In commemoration of its landmark 25th anniversary concert in 2013, CMF donated a million rupees to aid in a special UNICEF project.

Astrid Brook from the UK

The 2023 musical extravaganza will feature the bright lights and panoramic cityscape of Colombo, as its backdrop, as it will be held at the picturesque Virticle by Jetwing, which is situated high above the city, on the 30th floor of the Access Towers building, in Union Place, Colombo 2.

The 35th anniversary Country Roads concert for children will take place on Saturday, 7th October, 2023.

Feizal Samath, President of the Country Music Foundation (CMF), the concert organisers, commented: “We are very much looking forward to this event as it’s being held after a lapse of five years, due to unavoidable circumstances.”

Fan favourites the Mavericks from Germany and Astrid Brook from the UK will once again return to headline the 2023 concert, and joining them on stage will be local outfit Cosmic Rays, as well as the Country Revival Band, with Feizal and Jury.

Dirk (from the Mavericks) has this to say to his Sri Lankan fans: “2018 was the last time we were in your beautiful country with the Mavericks band. Then Corona came and with it a long break. I missed you very much during this time.

“It has now been five years since my last visit to Sri Lanka. A lot has changed. The sponsorship that has always made this trip possible for us is gone. But we didn’t just want to end this tradition, which we have learned to love so much since 1992. That’s why we’re travelling to Sri Lanka this year entirely at our own expense, because it’s an affair of the heart for us.

Mavericks from Germany

“We very much hope that it won’t be the last Maverick performance in Sri Lanka. We hope that this unique journey will continue, that there will also be a Country Roads concert in the years to come.”

The 35th anniversary edition of the Country Roads concert for children will be supported by Official Venue Virticle by Jetwing, and Official Airline SriLankan Airlines, as well as its other partners, Jetwing Colombo Seven, Cargills, LOLC, and Firefly.

Tickets are currently available, for a charitable donation of Rs 2,000 each, at Cargills Food City outlets at Kirulapone, Kohuwela (Bernards), Majestic City, Mount Lavinia (junction) and Staples Street.

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Healthy, Glowing Skin



Give your skin a boost by including the following into your diet:

* Avocados:

Avocados contain healthy fats which can help your skin stay moisturised and firm.

They also contain vitamin C and E – two important nutrients that your body need to support healthy skin and fight free radical formation.

Avocados are also rich in biotin, a B vitamin that some nutritionists believe can help promote healthy skin and hair. A deficiency of biotin can lead to skin problems, such as rashes, ache, psoriasis, dermatitis and overall itchiness.

* Carrots:

Carrots are rich in vitamin A, which fights against sunburns, cell death, and wrinkles. Vitamin A also adds a healthy, warm glow to your skin.

You can get vitamin A by consuming provitamin A through fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based products. Your body then converts beta-carotene into vitamin A to protect your skin from the sun.

Provitamin A can also be found in oranges, spinach, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, bell peppers, broccoli and more.

* Dark Chocolate:

Dark chocolate is beneficial for your skin because cocoa powder boasts a bunch of antioxidants. These antioxidants hydrate and smoothen your skin, making your skin less sensitive to sunburn and improves the blood flow of your skin. Make a healthy choice by opting for a bar of dark chocolate with 70% cocoa for more antioxidants and lesser added sugar.

* Green Tea:

Green tea has been said to protect the skin against external stressors and ageing. This is because it is antioxidant-rich and contains catechins that protect your skin, reduce redness, increase hydration, and improve elasticity.

A diet rich in antioxidants along with adequate hydration may even out your skin texture, strengthen your skin barrier and improve your overall skin health.

Avoid adding milk to green tea as the combination can reduce the effects of the antioxidants present in green tea.

Additional tips for healthy skin…

Don’t forget to stay hydrated because water plays a big part in the appearance of your skin. Water ensures your skin has enough moisture, which reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles. It also helps with nutrient absorption, removal of toxins and blood circulation.

Besides food and water, it is important to observe proper hygiene. This means no touching your face until you’ve washed your hands. Your hands carry more bacteria than you think and the occasional touch here and there can add up. After a long day out, cleanse your face thoroughly.

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