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To improve female labour force participation in Sri Lanka, first change attitudes

Idah Z. Pswarayi-Riddihough's picture
Sri Lankan Women
Read the feature story here 
Earlier this year in Hatton, I met a group of talented, young adults who had just participated in a social innovation pilot program. They were enthusiastic and dynamic, brimming with potential. But the potential to realize that potential was going to be influenced along gender lines; the expectations and obligations to the families were the most important determinants.   
 
I heard about some of these challenges. One girl had an ailing mother at home and was responsible for her care; another struggled to study on weekends while working on weekdays, with both activities requiring long commutes. One young lady, T. Priya, who had just graduated from university with a BA, told me she was currently unemployed because she was determined to wait for the right job—which to her, meant joining the public sector. You’d be amazed at how often I have heard this from young Sri Lankans. Unfortunately, as we all know too well, there are only a limited number of these positions available. 
Getting Sri Lanka's Women to Work


This week, the World Bank published Getting to Work: Unlocking Women’s Potential in Sri Lanka’s Labor Force. The report notes that the number of women participating in Sri Lanka’s workforce is low, that women under 30 are facing high rates of unemployment and that wage disparities still exist between the sexes.  
 
Among its findings is that women like Priya, despite having high educational attainments (university level or higher), still queue for a limited number of public sector jobs which raises their rates of unemployment. Government jobs are seen as offering more flexible hours and financial security than private sector jobs.
 
Another issue is that the burden of household responsibilities and chores fall disproportionately on women. When women got married, it made it harder, not easier, for them to go to work, and this was only exacerbated when women had children.
 
For men, the situation is somewhat different. As of 2015, marriage lowered the odds of Female Labour Force Participation by 4.4 percentage points, while boosting men’s odds by 11 percentage points.  
 
But I think the roots of this problem go deeper, and start early. Young girls learn that it’s not important to be good at maths or sciences and many more pursue degrees in humanities and the arts, widely considered gender appropriate, rather than in the technical skills that are in demand in the private sector and growing industries.
 
This is only one way in which we limit our daughters.

The Legacy of Saman Kelegama

Sanjay Kathuria's picture
Saman Kelegama, a Sri Lankan economist and the Executive Director of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS Sri Lanka) died prematurely in June 2017. He was a champion of deeper South Asian cooperation.
Saman Kelegama, a Sri Lankan economist and the Executive Director of the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS Sri Lanka) died prematurely in June 2017. He was a champion of deeper South Asian cooperation. Credit:  Institute of Policy Studies

I first met Saman in the early 1990s in Delhi.  Over the years, our paths diverged.  When I re-engaged on South Asia, I ran into Saman again. We re-connected instantly, despite the long intervening period.  This was easy to do with Saman—soft-spoken, affable, a gentleman to the core.  He bore his considerable knowledge lightly.  

Despite his premature passing away in June 2017, he left a rich and varied legacy behind him. I will confine myself to discussing his insights on regional cooperation in South Asia, based on his public writings and my interactions with him.

Saman was a champion of deeper economic linkages within South Asia. He was also pragmatic. 

Along with a few other regional champions, Saman, as the head of the Institute of Policy Studies in Colombo, helped to kick-start the “South Asian Economic Summit”, or SAES, in Colombo in 2008, to provide a high-profile forum for dialogue on topical issues, especially South Asian regional integration. It is remarkable that the SAES has endured, without any gap. The fact that the policy and academic fraternity meet with unfailing regularity, despite on-and-off political tensions in the region, is testimony to its value.

Saman repeatedly stressed that Sri Lanka has been able to reap benefits from the India-Sri Lanka FTA (ISFTA), contrary to the general belief. His arguments were powerful: the import-export ratio for Sri Lanka improved from 10.3 in 2000 (the start of the ISFTA) to 6.6 in 2015; about 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s exports to India get duty-free access under the FTA, but less than 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s imports from India come under the FTA (since India provided “special and differential treatment” to Sri Lanka).

Sri Lanka: When girls outpace boys in schools

Harsha Aturupane's picture
Despite evidence that girls outperform boys in educational achievement, a common perception was that boys were naturally smarter than girls, and did not need to work as hard. (Photo: Harsha Aturupane/ World Bank)


When we speak of gender equity in education in developing countries, and particularly in the South Asian context, we immediately think of the disadvantages girls face in access to education. The case in Sri Lanka, however, will make you think twice.

While most of South Asia still faces the gender gap challenge in favor of boys, we think that Sri Lanka’s educational gender gap favors girls. Like their counterparts in most high-income countries, Sri Lankan girls are consistently outpacing boys both in terms of educational access and achievement.

Measuring South Asia’s economy from outer space

Martin Rama's picture
New technologies offer an opportunity to strengthen economic measurement. Evening luminosity observed from satellites has been shown to be a good proxy for economic activity.
New technologies offer an opportunity to strengthen economic measurement. Evening luminosity observed from satellites has been shown to be a good proxy for economic activity.
Economic growth is a key concern for economists, political leaders, and the broader population.

But how confident are we that the available data on economic activity paints an accurate picture of a country’s performance?

Measuring Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the most standard measure of economic activity, is especially challenging in developing countries, where the informal sector is large and institutional constraints can be severe.

In addition, many countries only provide GDP measures annually and at the national level. Not surprisingly, GDP growth estimates are often met with skepticism.
 
New technologies offer an opportunity to strengthen economic measurement. Evening luminosity observed from satellites has been shown to be a good proxy for economic activity.

As shown in Figure 1, there is a strong correlation between nightlight intensity and GDP levels in South Asia: the higher the nightlight intensity on the horizontal axis, the stronger the economic activity on the vertical axis.
Figure 1 Nightlight intensity increases with economic activity
Figure 1 Nightlight intensity increases with economic activity

However, measuring nightlight is challenging and comes with a few caveats. Clouds, moonlight, and radiance from the sun can affect measurement accuracy, which then requires filtering and standardizing.

On the other hand, nighlight data has a lot advantages like being available in high-frequency and with a very high spatial resolution. In the latest edition of South Asia Economic Focus, we use variations in nightlight intensity to analyze economic trends and illustrate how this data can help predict GDP over time and across space.

Share your views on Sri Lanka’s Vision to End Poverty: The Road to 2025

Mariam Yousef's picture


October 17, 2017
– Today marks the 25th anniversary of the United National declaration of the International Day to End Extreme Poverty. Compared to many other countries in the world, Sri Lanka has done well in ending extreme poverty. Between 2002 and 2012, extreme poverty in Sri Lanka decreased from 8.3% to 1.9% while the national poverty level fell from 22% to 6.7% during the same period. Read the latest poverty brief and the two-part series on understanding poverty in Sri Lanka to learn more.

The big picture of poverty in Sri Lanka may be different when we zoom in on individuals and communities. In order to understand individual perspectives and opinions, this year we have opened up an opportunity for Sri Lankans to share their views on Sri Lanka’s Vision to End Poverty. We welcome your views in the form of a short blog post on why you believe #itspossible to end poverty in Sri Lanka. Below are some questions to get you thinking. You need not capture all of them, or be restricted to answering just these questions, but we are interested in hearing from you on these themes. 
  • Do you feel that you have more opportunities than your parents did at your age? Why or why not?
  • How could more openings be created for you and your peers?
  • Do you believe that the future will provide more prospects than the present?
  • What are you most excited about and most discouraged by in terms of available opportunities in Sri Lanka?
  • Do you think it is possible to end poverty in Sri Lanka? As individuals, can we contribute to making this goal a reality?
  • How do you think the reforms listed in Vision 2025 can contribute to ending poverty in Sri Lanka?
How it works:
  • All participants must be registered with us through the online form available here. Follow the submission instructions detailed there.
  • You will be requested to provide a short biography and profile picture which will become your profile, and accessible from the article(s) you write if selected by the panel of editors.

Trade facilitation reform in Sri Lanka can drive a change in culture

Marcus Bartley Johns's picture

Two years ago, we started counting how many Sri Lankan agencies were involved in trade facilitation processes such as issuing permits and managing the movement of goods in and out of the country.  We counted at least 22 agencies in this assessment, and today, the Department of Commerce estimates that number at least 34 agencies are involved in issuing permits or publishing regulations that affect trade.
 
We know trade is critical to Sri Lanka’s future and that there are strong links between trade, economic growth and poverty reduction.

However, the trading community reports a lack of transparency, confusion around rules and regulations, poor coordination between various ministries and a dearth of critical infrastructure—you can see why trade has suffered in Sri Lanka.

 

When the World Bank evaluates a country’s performance in critical rankings like Doing Business, the ease of trading across borders is one of the benchmarks we consider. In this, and in other lists like the Logistics Performance Index, Sri Lanka is underperforming compared with its potential. Here, the average trade transaction involves over 30 different parties with different objectives, incentives, competence and constituencies they answer to, and up to 200 data elements, many of which are repeated multiple times. This environment constrains the growth of Sri Lanka’s private sector, especially SMEs.  
 
But now for the good news. By ratifying the World Trade Organisation Trade Facilitation Agreement, Sri Lanka has signalled its determination to intensify reform efforts.

Six reasons why Sri Lanka needs to boost its ailing private sector

Tatiana Nenova's picture
 Joe Qian / World Bank
A view of the business district in Colombo. Credit: Joe Qian / World Bank

Sri Lanka experienced strong growth at the end of its 26-year conflict. This was to be expected as post-war reconstruction tends to bring new hope and energy to a country.
 
And Sri Lanka has done well—5 percent growth is nothing to scoff at.  
 
However, Sri Lanka needs to create an environment that fosters private-sector growth and creates more and better jobs. To that end, the country should address these 6 pressing challenges:

1. The easy economic wins are almost exhausted

For a long time, the public-sector has been pouring funds into everything from infrastructure to healthcare. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka’s public sector is facing serious budget constraints. The island’s tax to growth domestic product (GDP) ratio is one of the lowest in the world, falling from 24.2% in 1978 to 10.1% in 2014. Sri Lanka should look for more sustainable sources of growth. As in many other countries, the answer lies with the private sector.
 
2. Sri Lanka has isolated itself from global and regional value chains 

Over the past decades, Sri Lanka has lost its trade competitiveness. As illustrated in the graph below, Sri Lanka outperformed Vietnam in the early 1990s on how much of its trade contributed to its growth domestic product. Vietnam has now overtaken Sri Lanka where trade has been harmed by high tariffs and para-tariffs and trade interventions on agriculture.


Sri Lanka dropped down by 14 notches to the 85th position out of 137 in the recent  Global Competitiveness Index.
           
3. The system inhibits private sector growth

Sri Lanka’s private sector is ailing. Sri Lankan companies are entrepreneurial and the country’s young people are smart, inquisitive, and dynamic. Yet, this does not translate into a vibrant private sector. Instead, public enterprises are the ones carrying the whole weight of development in this country.
 
The question is, why is the private sector not shouldering its burden of growth?


From the chart above, you can see how difficult it is to set up and operate a business in Sri Lanka. From paying taxes to enforcing contracts to registering property, entrepreneurs have the deck stacked against them.
 
Trading across borders is particularly challenging for Sri Lankan businesses. Trade facilitation is inadequate to the point of stunting growth and linkages to regional value chains. The chart explains just why Sri Lanka is considered one of the hardest countries in the world to run a trading business. Compare it to Singapore–you could even import a live tiger there without a problem.

Cash it out? Why food-based programs exist, and how to improve them

Ugo Gentilini's picture
© Dominic Chavez/World Bank
© Dominic Chavez/World Bank

India’s state of Chhattisgarh faced a daunting challenge in the mid-2000s. About half of its public food distribution was leaked, meaning that it never reached the intended beneficiaries. By 2012, however, Chhattisgarh had nearly eliminated leakages, doubled the coverage of the scheme, and reduced exclusion errors to low single digits.
 
How did they do it? 

Sri Lanka, you have a right to know!

Idah Z. Pswarayi-Riddihough's picture
Sri Lanka's Right to Information act (RTI) can help citizens hold governments accountable and encourage citizens to participate actively in their democracy.
Sri Lanka's Right to Information act (RTI) can help citizens hold governments accountable and encourage citizens to participate actively in their democracy.


Today, the world marks the International Day for the Universal Access to Information. Fittingly, we in Sri Lanka, celebrate 7 months since the Right to Information (RTI) Bill was enacted.  

The product of a slow and steady reform process, RTI is a milestone in Sri Lanka’s history.

Yet how many citizens know about its benefits?

As open access to information takes international center stage today, I’m hoping Sri Lanka’s Right to Information Bill, one of the world’s most comprehensive, will get the attention it deserves.

There is indeed much to celebrate.

Civil society organizations and private citizens are putting Sri Lanka’s RTI to the test. Diverse requests have been filed, from questions relating to how investments are made for the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) to how soil and sand mining permits have been allotted in districts like Gampaha.

Interestingly, people living in rural areas are more aware -- and vocal -- of their rights to know than people in urban areas.

The government is making steady progress. In the last six months, more than 3,000 information officers have been recruited. An independent RTI Commission enforces compliance and acts on those who do not follow the law. If, for example, an information officer refuses to release information pertaining to a citizen’s life, they must provide a valid reason or face legal penalties.

In the next few years, the Sri Lankan bureaucracy faces the huge task of revamping its record management, including its land registration system. This reform is an opportunity to live up to RTI’s ambitions of open governance and help citizens access land title information and records that give them a legal title to their property.

Reforms Sri Lanka needs to boost its economy

Idah Z. Pswarayi-Riddihough's picture
 Joe Qian/World Bank
The Colombo Stock Exchange. Credit: Joe Qian/World Bank

Many Sri Lankans understand the potential benefits of lowering trade costs and making their country more competitive in the global economy. The majority, however, fear increased competition, the unfair advantage of the private sector from abroad and limited skills and innovation to compete.

Yet, Sri Lanka’s aspirations cannot be realized in the current status quo.  

While changes in trade policies and regulations will undeniably improve the lives of most citizens, I’m mindful that some are likely to lose. However, many potential gainers of the reforms who are currently opposed to them are unaware of their benefits.

Implementing smart reforms means that government funds will be used more effectively for the people, improve access to better healthcare, education, basic infrastructure and provide Sri Lankans with opportunities to get more and better jobs. Let me focus on a few reforms that I believe are critical for the country.  First, Sri Lanka needs to seek growth opportunities and foreign investment beyond its borders.    

First, Sri Lanka needs to seek growth opportunities and foreign investment beyond its borders.

Experience shows that no country in the world today has been able to create opportunities for its population entirely within its own geographic boundaries. To succeed in this open environment, Sri Lanka will need to improve its skills base, better understand supply and demand chains as well as produce higher quality goods and services

Experience shows that no country in the world today has been able to create opportunities for its population entirely within its own geographic boundaries. To succeed in this open environment, Sri Lanka will need to improve its skills base, better understand supply and demand chains as well as produce higher quality goods and services.


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