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Harnessing social protection during pandemics

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Strengthening social protection systems is of critical importance to respond to shocks such as COVID-19. They play a vital role in addressing consumption shortfalls and supporting income and job security for affected communities. Many countries have been taking various measures to strengthen their social protection. These include social assistance measures like cash and in-kind transfers, social insurance measures like pensions, unemployment benefits, social security contribution waivers/subsidisation, and active labour market related measures such as wage subsidies and training measures.

The government of Sri Lanka too introduced a relief package that included both financial and non-financial assistance to help households that were affected by the pandemic. One of the key measures was a social protection measure, i.e. a monthly cash transfer of LKR 5,000 for two consecutive months (April and May 2020) to various vulnerable groups. This social protection measure was based on a number of existing social protection schemes like the Samurdhi cash transfer programme, disability assistance, farmers’ and fishermen’s pension schemes etc. In addition, committees were set up in each Grama Niladhari (GN) division/ward to identify and approve other deserving individuals and families for this cash grant.

Horizontal expansion

Sri Lanka’s social protection response to COVID-19 showed a horizontal expansion/scaled-up coverage compared to the pre-COVID-19 level; it covered not only the current beneficiaries of the programmes considered (e.g. Samurdhi, elder’s assistance and disability assistance programmes) but also those who were in the waitlists as well as individuals and families selected by the Committees.

This social protection measure also indicated some level of vertical expansion, i.e. higher level of benefits compared to their pre-COVID-19 levels. Yet, the level of generosity of the benefits (compared to the pre-COVID-19 levels) varied from 0% to over 100% depending on the beneficiary category (see Figure). For example, over 100% increase in benefits was seen among the current beneficiaries of the Samurdhi and elders assistance programme while beneficiaries of the disability assistance programme and kidney patients allowance merely received their regular monthly allowance of LKR 5,000.

 

Recommendations

Despite the expansion, the cash transfer scheme had a number of limitations. Immediate/short-term measures like distribution of cash assistance are inadequate to sustain the recovery and to mitigate future crises. Long-term measures are required to strengthen Sri Lanka’s social protection.

• Integrated Social Protection System: The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need for an integrated social protection system and a unified and coordinated structure at the national level as well as at the divisional level in Sri Lanka. The existing system is a fragmented system with parallel structures.

• Scaled-up /Universal Coverage: The pandemic has also shown that not only the poor and vulnerable, but all segments of the population require protection. This calls for a universal social protection system, including social protection floors.

• Digitisation of Payments: Digital payment systems are key to improve efficiency of the delivery process without delays and higher transaction costs, while complying with health guidelines to combat a pandemic. They do not require both physical mobility of people and payments in cash. Thus, it is time for Sri Lanka too to move towards a digital payment system for delivery of cash transfers.

This Policy Insight is based on the comprehensive chapter on “Harnessing Social Protection During Pandemics” in ‘Sri Lanka: State of the Economy 2020’ report – the flagship publication of the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS). The complete report can be purchased from the Publications Unit of the IPS.



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Rootcode wins Startup of the Year and People’s Choice Award at SAARC Startup Awards 2022

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Rootcode, one of Sri Lanka’s leading tech companies, recently took home the “People’s Choice Award” in addition to being bestowed with the “Startup of the Year” title at the SAARC Startup Awards 2022. This regional recognition marks a significant milestone for the Sri Lankan tech space and workforce. Rootcode’s mission to build great tech is well underway, and it is gaining traction faster than ever.

This is the first time a Sri Lankan tech company has made a name for itself in the regional competition, and it is a watershed moment that has focused the global spotlight on Rootcode’s distinct approach to fostering innovation in Sri Lanka. This is also the first time that a Sri Lankan company was able to take home two awards of those presented at the SAARC Startup Awards.

Global Startup Awards SAARC celebrates the spirit of entrepreneurship and promotes bridging boundaries through innovation in its regions, which include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, by recognizing them with its most prestigious awards program, attended by top-notch entrepreneurs, corporates, investors, and ecosystem builders from Nordic, Central Europe, SAARC, and ASEAN regions.

Every year, the SAARC Startup Awards bring together hundreds of South Asian startups, entrepreneurs, investors, co-working spaces, and accelerators to provide a platform to highlight trailblazers in the region’s startup world. Rootcode was chosen ahead of dozens of other regional tech startups in the competition.

Sri Lanka is a relative newcomer to the South Asian startup fraternity, and Rootcode’s ability to represent the country on the global stage not long after its inception is remarkable.

“We are extremely humbled and honored by the support shown to us at the SAARC Startup Awards 2022, and being recognized under two categories is a huge milestone for us,” said the CEO and Founder of Rootcode Labs, Alagan Mahalingam. “We have always been driven forward by excellence, collaboration, and integrity, which I believe is the reason why we have come so far and why Rootcode continues to grow every day.”

Rootcode is driven by its focus on helping businesses build great tech not just locally but globally, and its achievement at the SAARC awards stands as a testament to that. Despite the challenging times, this is a win for Sri Lanka.

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INSEE Cement felicitates Sri Lanka’s youngest Commonwealth medallist

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INSEE Cement awarded aspiring wrestler, Nethmi Ahimsa Fernando, who won a Bronze Medal for Sri Lanka at the recently concluded Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, LKR 1 million cash reward, to support her to pursue her passion. Suranga Kumara, her coach, also received LKR 250,000 cash reward, in appreciation of his contribution towards Nethmi’s recent achievements. INSEE Cement has also pledged to support Nethmi’s aspiration to represent Sri Lanka at the 2024 Olympic games, while also providing the entire cement requirement for the completion of her new house, which is presently under construction, in collaboration with the Manusath Derana initiative.

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Has Sri Lanka finally learned its lesson on emotional vs evidence-based agri policies?

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By Dr. Roshan Rajadurai

Inflation looms large over every Sri Lankan as the price of food and other essentials continues to skyrocket. At the center of this historic economic, political, social and humanitarian disaster are a series of deeply flawed and widely criticized policy decisions which have plunged the nation’s agriculture sector into complete disarray.

Among the decisions being singled out for criticism both locally and globally is the now infamous overnight ban on the importation all agrochemicals including synthetic fertilizer, weedicides, pesticides, and fungicides.

At the time, the policy was held out as the first and only preliminary measure needed to drive an immediate, island-wide shift to organic agriculture. Dubious “organic agriculture experts”, as well as medical doctors and monks were found in abundance, loudly proclaiming the virtues of a “100% organic agriculture strategy”.

These once vocal champions of organic agriculture claimed at the time that the ‘declining health of the average Sri Lankan’ and the negative impacts of agro-chemicals on the environment, as well as the annual US$ 48 billion that could be saved by halting fertilizer imports was sufficient justification for the ban.

These same “experts” were quick to dismiss the warnings, counter-arguments, and volumes of scientific data of respected academics and professionals with actual agricultural experience as being nothing more than the dishonest lies of what the former Agriculture Minister imaginatively dubbed a “Fertilizer mafia larger than the Sigiriya Rock”.

Deadly consequences

Back in September of 2021, after many months of frantic discussions with the leadership of the day, I stated the following in a widely published article titled: ‘Sri Lankan tea’s current crisis only reinforces the value of productivity-linked wages’

“Without any prior planning or notice, our entire sector has been coerced into blindly participating in the most unscientific experiment ever attempted in Sri Lanka’s history…The broad consensus among those with expertise is that we can start to see exponentially worse crop losses starting from the end of 2021, hitting approximately 30-40% by next year.

“If RPCs were to have disregarded basic agronomic practices and norms in such a manner, it would have been called criminal mismanagement. With agricultural best practices now being roundly ignored in favour of a undefined and unplanned strategy “100% organic agriculture”, this historic, and intentionally misinformed self-sabotage is being repackaged as visionary and progressive…

“Regardless of short-term political expediency, reality has a way of asserting itself…With insufficient balanced nutrients as a result of the unplanned push for organic, we anticipate a series of cascading failures stemming from a collapse in productivity. No amount of rhetoric will be able to turn back the tide of negative sentiment against such developments.”

Less than a year later, all that we have stated has come to pass. Agricultural productivity in Export crops has dropped by 20%. While export values of tea and rubber have increased, volumes have plummeted by 20% and 30% respectively. Had we been able to maintain production at pre-fertilizer ban levels, we estimate additional export earnings of US$240 M from plantation-related exports.

These shortcomings are reflected in Sri Lanka’s humiliating bankruptcy, and its crippling 54.6% inflation and deadly 81% food inflation. As a result, today the World Food Programme estimates that 3 in 10 Sri Lankans – 6.7 million Sri Lankans – are now facing severe food insecurity. For context, one of the worst famine’s in modern history was the Bengal Famine, which resulted in the deaths of an estimated 3 million Indians. If we allow any further blunders, these are the dangerous waters in which we are now swimming.

Meanwhile, the overnight 100% organic agriculture experts, the doctors and monks whose sole concern was for the health and well-being of all Sri Lankans are nowhere to be seen or heard from. And it is left to the once vilified professionals and academics to now chart a roadmap out of crisis and restore the industry on which more than 10% of our national population depend on for their sustenance.

A common framework for progress

Solving this complex misadventure is going to be extremely challenging, but we do believe it’s possible. And we believe the plantation industry will have an essential role to play in this difficult and necessary journey.

However in order to do so, we must acknowledge and examine all of the decisions that led us to this terrible low point. Moving forward, we need to appoint a Sectoral Task force – made up of credible industry experts, whom the Government must consult, particularly when formulating policy decisions that have the potential to impact the entire agriculture sector. Failure to do so even at this late juncture will risk even further irreversible damage being done to our industry and the millions of lives that are impacted by it.

This means that the Government in particular needs to commit to a strict regime of evidence-based policy at all times. If drastic policy adjustments are required, the Government has to take a consultative approach, seek out balanced and credible opinions, and obtain broad approval from stakeholders.

With this common agreement in place, we can finally begin to bring together the best minds in our respective industries and work in partnership towards developing a viable roadmap for a sustainable path to a true Sri Lankan economic renaissance. As Sri Lanka’s first true export industry, we believe the Sri Lankan plantation industry should be the first to take up this challenge.

For over a decade, our industry has painstakingly sought to articulate what the plantation sector requires to move forward. At present, the consensus is that reforms, investment, and knowledge sharing are most needed in our industry are in the areas of:

Sustainable, progressive productivity-linked wages that benefit workers and companies

Agricultural and operational best practices

Research and development towards greater local value addition

Factory, and supply chain modernization

Implementation of a consistent, science-based national agriculture policy framework

We call on all those with the knowledge and expertise to join us in this difficult and long over-due enterprise.

Abouts the Author:

Dr. Roshan Rajadurai is the Managing Director of the Plantation Sector of Hayleys PLC (which comprise Kelani Valley Plantations, Talawakelle Tea Estates and Horana Plantations). A former Chairman of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon, Dr. Rajadurai has 36 years of experience in the plantation sector.

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