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26 January 2016 Posted by No Comment


Sajeeva Samaranayake, Attorney at Law


A respected academic has recently repeated the middle class mantra about “social development” in Sri Lanka in the following terms:

“Sri Lanka’s high level of social development enabled the country to stand out in the region in terms of many social indicators despite a very low per capita of GDP.”

Underpinning our social crisis is the absence of a culture of helping each other. Such a culture leads in organized societies to a professional social work system. In Sri Lanka we trailed behind many developing countries to produce our first graduates in social work as late as 2006 through the National Institute of Social Development. No university in Sri Lanka has moved below their ivory towers to develop a course in social work. Underpinning the lack of a social work system are two factors:

  1. The uncritical assertion about our human development success story under a welfare regime from 1940’s up to 1977. While it is true that a measure of social mobility took place the fact that it largely served the urbanized middle classes was overlooked. This split also laid the foundation for the dual economy since 1977 with the poor being limited to increasingly smaller benefits from what continues to be referred to as ‘free’ health and education systems.
  2. Related to this clever piece of social welfare management by the powers that be is the genuine absence of a social vision, social solidarity and a corresponding unwillingness to part with more money than is strictly necessary to maintain the poor at a charity level. This excluded the necessity of investing in social work knowledge, education and training and in social care planning.

On the surface we have a legal and administrative culture of formal equality.

Formal equality is coupled with social distance which is a clear source of informal power in a deeply hierarchical society.

This is what makes communication between the powerful and powerless in Sri Lanka profoundly problematic. Those who take decisions, exercise power and write policies must seek an understanding of ground level realities through a vacuum of social distance that separates them from the people they seek to serve, represent and assist.

There is a consequent failure to ‘recognize’ a plurality of family arrangements and a plurality of communities among the poor. These disempowered people are managed through top down poor laws that consist of criminal, administrative and residential approaches. The resultant gaps may be filled by special schemes that apply to workers abroad, farmers, plantation workers etc. and the informal channels which have opened up as a result of belonging to primordial caste or religious groupings. Patronage and paternalism remain the key organizing principles of this order.

The multiplicity of issues relating to vulnerable children, women and men have simply followed the beat and tune set by identity and rights based international organizations which championed their preferred target groups. In each response, questions that arose due to the non-availability of social work were answered in a limited way to ensure that workplans would somehow be carried out using a mixture of government officers and specially recruited social workers. At the end of the project we reverted back to square one. And this has been repeated over and over again.

The reactive nature of most concerns from child abuse to violence against women and a host of other forms of maltreatment militates against building the micro level visions of children, families and communities. As educated people we must see through the covert political process whereby a social issue is converted to a crime to strengthen, glorify and solidify an incompetent state. The thousands and thousands of unresolved child abuse cases stand eloquent testimony to the fact that we have been fooled. Criminality must of course be dealt with firmly – but it is not a general solution for a social problem. Powerful institutions like courts, the Attorney General and the Police were never meant to deal with social issues in the wholesale way they have now been entrusted by an ignorant and hapless public. Those institutions will never be the a substitute for the assumption of social responsibility by you and me as individuals and as members of social groups. There lies the hidden and untapped strength of our society. While we live today in a society created by the imperial British State in 1833 we must ask ourselves whether the time has come to re-think the assumptions that we swallowed as part of our colonial diet. Ultimately what must re-define both society and state is the writ and will of society.

Forms of social work provided by ‘officers’ recruited en masse by the Government and placed in divisional offices have not been effective in breaking out of the stranglehold of vertical departmentalism and the more recent tendencies of empire building which run counter to decentralization and innovative social work. However there are opportunities that are available at divisional and village levels that should not be overlooked. The grass root level has presented interesting examples of mobilization where a genuine process of voluntarism and community leadership has been fostered and nurtured with the required degree of care. It is also important to bear in mind that the celebrated cases of social mobilization in Sri Lanka – Sarvodaya, Million Houses programme and Janasaviya have all broken loose from pre-conceptions to enable local ideas and actions to flourish with the right balance being achieved between external resources and local ownership.

Only this type of initiative was able to confront and address the fundamental contradiction around all our attempts at remedying social ills. We have sought to address social issues without a social process; a process that is out of the box, participatory and democratic in every sense of those words. In short we have chosen to remain in our comfort zones. Our politicians and administrators in general have been the most reluctant to join hands with the people they claim to serve in searching for solutions to our social issues.

To answer the question posed at the beginning it is my humble view that we did not attain “social development”. It was simply a case of the middle classes serving themselves and admitting conformist individuals in a controlled way into the same ranks. Income levels increased but society did not change, progress or “develop”. We retained the same divisions that we learnt from our schools – segregated by class, race, religion, language and sex; we lost our voices and abilities to see each other and communicate. Consequently we dreamed of Sinhalese and Tamils and killed each other. After 2009 we continued the war in every place other than the Vanni because we did not know a different way of relating to each other. All our government institutions and social institutions bear remain silent witnesses to the lack of civility, arrogance, pig headedness and gross indecency that the powerful perpetrated on the powerless.

On the other hand, A society that develops socially grows closer, becomes more understanding, uses less and less violence and takes the path of balanced progress. This is not a utopian vision but one that has been achieved by several “non-miraculous” nations – particularly after the Second World War. We have continued to be satisfied with uncritical slogans, mantras and self deception. It is pursuant to this same sickness (of lying to ourselves) that we continue to refer to our standing out in South Asia. It is time that we began a more honest and realistic discourse to move forward in the social sphere.

(All views expressed in the writer’s personal capacity. He can be contacted at ssajeeva1968@hotmail.com)

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