Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: poverty

Helping the Covid Poor

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on July 21, 2021. It is on Page 7 of the E-paper

Giving Is Good

Easy Giving

The philosopher of ethics, Peter Singer, recommends giving a sort of tithe to charities along the lines of religious organisations such as the Mormons. Of his book, The Life You Can Save he says, “The ultimate purpose of this book is to reduce extreme poverty, not to make you feel guilty.” The Life You Can Save seems to me to fall short of Singer’s normal subtlety of thought and is an example of the fallacy of false analogy. Just because I choose to forgo some trivial pleasure and give the saved cash to some corporate body claiming to be engaged in philanthropy does not guarantee that anything better will happen to “the poor”. The most likely result is that I will feel some kind of self-gratification from donating.

Poverty in Sri Lanka

The problem of poverty in Sri Lanka had eased considerably until recent times. The per capita GDP improved rapidly from below US $1,000 in 2003 to a peak of US $4,081 in 2018 before dipping to $3,853 in 2019 (World Bank). Both the Department of Census and Statistics and the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) recorded a sharp decline in the actual numbers of the ‘poor’ from the late 1990s up to 2016.

Blows to the Sri Lankan Economy

The Coronavirus pandemic has a devastating effect on Sri Lankan livelihoods. The Easter Sunday bombings severely damaged the Lankan economy and also exposed serious flaws in political management. There was insufficient time for the economy to recover from the shock of Easter Sunday before the pandemic hit.

The first case of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka was detected on March 11th, 2020. The initial response by the government was stringent and effective. However, the unfortunate by-product of government measures to contain the spread of the virus was further severe damage to the economy. When the economy is damaged there are many who are not cushioned from the impact. Many of those serving in the Sri Lankan economy are what Professor Guy Standing has called the “precariat”. Lockdowns result in reduced incomes and higher prices which are hard for many to bear.

Many Sri Lankan workers lost their jobs in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown. Statistics indicate that the total number of jobs in the economy contracted by 160,996 in the first quarter of 2020. Even skilled workers who help to maintain our own living standards through their construction, electrical and plumbing expertise tend to be paid on a daily basis and have little scope to build up protection against unforeseen contingencies. Life is far more precarious for those who are unskilled and rely on casual manual or domestic labour. This is very difficult when movement is restricted.

After the lockdown implemented in Sri Lanka between March and June 2020, overall unemployment increased to above 6% in the second quarter and conditions continue to worsen for many workers, especially the precariat.


Even in the good times, the spread of wealth was uneven, with the heavily urbanised Western Province accounting for almost 40 per cent of the national GDP. Central Bank data shows that in 2019, There are large pockets of people in all parts of the country still below the poverty line, malnourished and stunted children, substantial numbers of unqualified youth and unemployed, under-employed or only seasonally employed people. This situation fuels drug addiction, alcoholism and general social discontent.

Direct Giving

Whatever about government disaster management or the contribution of INGOs (International Non-Governmental Organisations) and local NGOs, Sri Lankan people have a good record for responding to natural and other crises. I witnessed for myself the efforts of ordinary people to help out after the tsunami.

Susantha Goonathilake wrote in his book, Recolonization, about the influence of foreign NGOs on Sri Lanka: ‘While NGOs stood wringing their hands or trying to mobilize funds only from international sources, Buddhist temples around the country were the quickest to respond. Those affected by the tsunami rushed into temples where they were received with warmth. These temples along the coast became havens of shelter, not only for Buddhists, but also for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. There are innumerable stories of the incredible generosity of these temples. Monks gave up their robes to bandage victims, looked after their children and babies, fed them from whatever little provisions they had, and comforted them.

Private Initiatives

A recent private response to covid poverty involved the distribution of 400 packs of dried goods to needy communities in the Aluthwatta area near Kandy. The organiser wishes to remain anonymous, but she said this about what motivated her: “I saw a heartbreaking video of starving people and felt that, how can some people not have a grain of rice to cook when we have three square meals a day!”

The video clip was shot in the Ambakote area near Kandy. This lady is very well-networked and managed through her many contacts to communicate with the vice-president of a women’s organisation in Ambakote. It became clear that the publicity had been beneficial to Ambakote, and the local people had had their suffering relieved somewhat. A nearby village had been having similar problems, so the project was now targeted on Wijayasirigama, Aluthwatta.

Each pack included five kg of rice, one kg each of dhal, sugar and potatoes and a 400 gr milk powder packet. The organiser sent a WhatsApp message to family and friends who then passed it on exponentially to their own contacts. The original aim was to collect a 100 packs. “I got calls from people all over the world, most who helped and some who didn’t. But what was amazing was the giving spirit of the people!” Some people, such as a cancer patient, were generous from limited resources. One individual generously provided funds for 80 packs.

Within a week funds were available for 400 packs. “This would not have been possible if not for the friends, family and mostly total strangers who called from all over the world to say, ‘we need to do something for our country’ and who placed their trust in me to do this with honour and integrity.” The distribution was done on an ecumenical basis from Gangaramaya Temple, Gangapitiya, Lighthouse Church, Wijayasirigama, Masjidul Noor Jumma Mosque and Shri Kali Amman Kovil, Gangapitiya.

The person who organised the Aluthwatta initiative would not want to engage in what Paul Newman called “noisy philanthropy”. This is not about saintliness but about examples to encourage others of what an ordinary person can achieve by small acts of direct giving. Whatever Peter Singer might claim, the main function of NGOs has long been to provide a career for the ambitious rather than a vocation for the idealistic. Andrew Carnegie wrote: “[O]f every thousand dollars spent in so-called charity today, it is probable that nine hundred and fifty dollars is unwisely spent—so spent, indeed, as to produce the very evils which it hopes to mitigate or cure.” Before his death on August 11, 1919, Carnegie had donated $350,695,654 for various causes. “Humanitarianism” has become a billion-dollar industry. NGOs are huge corporate businesses ossified by management and career structures and bureaucracy speaking an impenetrable language. NGO workers can build up an image of saintliness as well as developing a lucrative CV. NGO links with the World Bank can lead to even more lucrative careers in inter-state organisations.

Active charity is more effective than passive giving. Singer recognised that one could not always know how one’s donations were being spent. It seemed to me that this form of delegated compassion makes more of a difference to the giver’s self-esteem than to the welfare of the needy. A little money makes a big difference if it does not have to go through the grinding bureaucratic mills of an NGO.

Those of us with less wealth than Carnegie and co. can also benefit from giving. We can perhaps benefit more, because we can have the satisfaction of giving to the hand and looking in the eye. Clinging to material goods makes people selfish, struggling to satisfy insatiable desires with transitory pleasures.  When we decide to give something of our own to someone else, we simultaneously reduce our attachment to the object; to make a habit of giving can thus gradually weaken the mental factor of craving. Giving is the antidote to cure the illness of egoism and greed.

You do not need to be as rich as Bill Gates is or as well-connected as Bono. You do not have to send money abroad. You do not even have to give money. Awareness is the most important thing. Look around your own area, talk to religious leaders and doctors, talk to your neighbours. They will advise you who is in need. By giving of your heart as well as your money, you can save yourself, make a difference and improve someone else’s life, by giving with wisdom.

It’s a bargain!

Poverty in the UK

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on March 292018


In the UK, the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions changes its name every few years to protect the guilty. When I worked for it, it was called the SS) is more unloved than it ever was – and that is saying something.

A combination of austerity measures and a deluded faith in outsourcing has caused a great deal of extra suffering to already vulnerable people. The National Audit Office (NAO) has reported that 70,000 benefit claimants were underpaid by an average of £5,000 each since 2011. 20,000 people could be owed around £11,500 each and “a small number of people” could have been underpaid by £20,000.

There are many people who desperately need that money. Poverty is not just a problem for people who cannot find jobs. Even people in full-time work struggle to exist. Two-thirds (67 per cent) of children growing up in poverty, live in a family where at least one person works. A family might move into poverty because of a rise in living costs, a drop in earnings through job loss or benefit changes.

Data released by the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that in 2015, some 4.6 million (7.3 per cent) people were enduring “persistent” poverty. The technical meaning of ‘persistent poverty’ is living in relative income poverty in the current year and at least two of the three preceding years. The figure marks a 700,000 rise in people who are persistently poor since 2014, affecting 6.5 per cent of the population.

It is generally agreed that the effects of experiencing relative low income for long periods of time are more detrimental than experiencing low income for short periods. The proportion of women who were persistently poor in 2015 stood at 8.2 per cent, compared with 6.3 per cent of men – marking the biggest gender gap since data began in 2008. Such levels of poverty are having effects on people’s mental health.  Almost a third of the population was recorded as being at risk of poverty for at least one year between 2012 and 2015.The figures do not compare badly with other EU countries but things have got worse since 2015.

Poverty affects one in four children in the UK. There were 4 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2015-16 – look at it as 9 in a classroom of 30. That wonderful cosmopolitan city London has the highest rates of child poverty in the country. By GCSE, there is a 28 per cent gap between children receiving free school meals and their wealthier peers in terms of the number achieving at least 5 A*-C GCSE grade Men in the most deprived areas of England have a life expectancy 9.2 year shorter than men in the least deprived areas. They also spend 14% less of their life in good health.

According to a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report in 2011, in the year to 2009/10, the child poverty rate fell to 29%, the second fall in two years. Child poverty fell by around one-seventh under the previous Labour Government. More recently, Campbell Robb, the current chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, warned of “signs we could be at the beginning of a sharp rise in poverty, with forecasts suggesting child poverty could rise further by 2021.”Government figures now show that 300,000 more people are now in poverty compared to last year

This suffering is not due to irresistible natural forces or even the spurious laws of economics. This is the result of boneheaded government policy. It has been government policy to impose austerity measures and cuts in public services and to entrust the administration of benefits to those more interested in profit than welfare. Many cuts have not yet worked their way through the system. Many of the most significant reductions to working age benefits will not be reflected in the 2016/17 figures but will bite harshly later on. Robb urged the government, “to restore the Work Allowances in Universal Credit to their original level.

By doing so, lower earners could keep more of their earnings ensuring they could reach a decent standard of living, benefiting over three million low income working households and protecting 340,000 people from being pushed into poverty by 2020 – 21.”

In a press release dated only a few days before I wrote this, 22 March 2018, Robb, said: “We share a moral responsibility to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to build a better life. The government must act to right the wrong of in-work poverty.”
We will see.


Hate Crime in the UK

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on March 22 2018

According to the Crown Prosecution Service, a hate crime is ‘any criminal offence which is perceived, by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by a hostility or prejudice’ based on one of five categories – religion, faith or belief; race, ethnicity or nationality; sexual orientation; disability; or gender identity.

According to Nottingham police there was no information to suggest the attack which led to the death of Mariam Moustafa was motivated by hate. Was it tough love? The 18-year-old Egyptian engineering student died on 15 March, 2018 following an attack that took place on 20 February. Nottinghamshire Police said Miss Moustafa was ‘punched several times’ by a group of women while waiting for a bus outside the Victoria Centre in Parliament Street.

Video footage is available showing the attack continuing on the bus. A 17-year-old girl was arrested on suspicion of assault occasioning grievous bodily harm. Mariam’s uncle, Amr El Hariry, said two of the girls had attacked Mariam and her sister Mallak, 16, four months prior to this assault. Mallak’s leg had been broken in the previous attack. He said the police had done nothing.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that Miss Moustafa’s death ‘cannot go unpunished.’ Crimes committed in one country are often condemned by other countries. At the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council on 8 March, 2018, the UK condemned just about everybody. Honduras, Thailand, Philippines, DRC, Israel and Vietnam all got a good kicking.

“Finally, we share concerns about recent inter-communal violence in Sri Lanka. We support the government’s determination to end it swiftly, using measures that are proportionate and respect human rights, and urge it to hold the perpetrators to account.”

A report by The Home office, compiled by Aoife O’Neill and published in October 2017, shows that the number of hate crimes in England and Wales has increased by 29%, the largest percentage increase seen since the series began in 2011/12. In 2016/17, there were 80,393 offences recorded by the police in which one or more hate crime strands were deemed to be a motivating factor. 62,685 (78%) were race hate crimes.

‘Race hate crime can include any group defined by race, colour, nationality or ethnic or national origin, including countries within the UK, and Gypsy or Irish Travellers. It automatically includes a person who is targeted because they are an asylum seeker or refugee as this is intrinsically linked to their ethnicity and origins. Policy and legislation takes a ‘human rights’ approach and covers majority as well as minority groups.’

I got into an intense discussion on Facebook with a woman who described the story of Mariam’s death as ‘fake news.’ She asserted that there would not even be a charge of manslaughter. Indeed, a post-mortem was ‘inconclusive.’ Mallak, told the BBC that her sister was ‘born with half a heart.’

My interlocutor seemed to be saying that the girl deserved to die because she was foolish enough to be out and about in St Ann’s after dark, because that is a notoriously rough area. She hinted that Mariam was attacked because she was a ‘snitch.’ She found it odd that Mariam and her extended family seemed to be middle class but lived in an area that was ‘stereotypical inner city full of drug dealers and drug wars.’ She described the normal inhabitants of St Ann’s as an ‘underclass’ and as ‘scum.’ It would be difficult for Mariam to live in St Ann’s without going out.

I have spent a lot of time in Nottingham and first heard about St Ann’s 51 years ago when Ken Coates and Richard Silburn published a study of the area which was then inhabited by 30,000 people living in dire conditions. In his preface to the 2007 reissue of the book, Coates wrote, ‘Poverty has certainly changed its aspect since the 1960s, but since we were primarily concerned with its moral effects, our report remains depressingly familiar, and points up a whole constellation of attitudes and experiences which are all-too-familiar in modern times.’

According to my Facebook interlocutor, St Ann’s is more of a hellhole today than it was in the 1960s. Although she was vituperative in her comments, my interlocutor seemed to me to be agreeing on some basic points. It seems she is not a native of Britain and disapproves of much that is British, “your entire society is responsible for it. As well as Brexit.”

Blessing or Curse? Three-Wheelers in Sri Lanka.

This article was published in Ceylon Today on March 12 2014

Colman's Column3

Three-wheeled motorised rickshaws, or tuk-tuks, first emerged in Japan and Italy 50 years ago. Now they can be seen everywhere – Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Nigeria, Peru, Sri Lanka and Thailand are the biggest markets. They are growing in numbers in cities in east Africa and in Cape Town and Johannesburg, the Middle East and China. In many ways, the three-wheeler (aka auto-rickshaw, samosa, tempo, tuk-tuk, trishaw, auto, rickshaw, autorick, bajaj, rick, mototaxi, baby taxi or lapa) is a wonderful invention. I find them very useful (and relatively cheap, if I am vigilant) in getting around the shops and restaurants when I am in Colombo. Back home, it is useful to send for a three-wheeler when I need a gas cylinder or a crate of beer. Three-wheelers are ideal for negotiating the rocky road to my front gate.


There have been dour and earnest academic papers on the virtues of the three-wheeler. Let me quote from one of them. The authors are AK Somasundaraswaran, MBIT Kumari and DHSDA Siriwardana. They assert that the three-wheeler “provides door-to-door services and helps to reduce the unemployment problem and improve the poverty level”.  That is a fair enough argument. Then they get over-excited and partisan on behalf of the three-wheeler. They complain that it is a “pathetic situation” that “their operations fail to get the credit from the society”.

Messrs Somasundaraswaran, Kumari and Siriwardana have a somewhat rose-tinted view of Sri Lankan buses too. “In Sri Lanka, after a reformed public transport arrangement in 1977, private sector has taken a key role in providing transport services. Since then the private buses started their operation in a well organized manner with a schedule time table”. More about Sri Lankan buses in a future article. Our idealistic authors see three-wheelers as filling gaps that even such a well-organised bus service cannot fill. “Transport in early morning or late night has become a problem for the public, especially commuters in rural areas or in small cities. Three-wheelers perform many of the same functions as the taxi and it is considered as a next step up ladder for personal mobility to buses in small cities.”


Three- Wheelers and Poverty


H D Karunaratne of Colombo University looks at three-wheelers as a means of poverty reduction. He says: “Over 70% of these taxis are utilized by the urban community and are handled by low income groups in urban areas. As a driver, service man, repairer, producer of parts, retail seller of parts, and parking assistant, poor people had opportunities to earn money from the three-wheeler taxi industry. In addition, indirect income generating opportunities were also generated by that industry.”


Professor Karunaratne gave a figure of 200,000 three-wheelers in the country. Minister Basil Rajapaksa announced his plan to make Sri Lanka poverty-free by 2016 through self-employment opportunities rather than the old Keynesian way of spending government money and creating jobs. He said this at a ceremony held at Hyde Park, Colombo in connection with the distribution of 250 three-wheelers among self-employed persons in accordance with the Mahinda Chinthana Vision. The event was organized by the Self-Employed Persons Federation, which expected to distribute 1000 three wheelers during 2013. According to the Federation, there were nearly 500,000 three-wheeler drivers in the country 92,000 providing spares and other services.  Three-wheelers gave jobs directly to  600,000 people.  There were almost 2.5 million indirect beneficiaries. Annual sales figures for the wheelers stand at 40,000 to 45,000 units and its demand will further increase with the opening of Northern and Eastern markets.


I recognise that inconvenience to me is a trivial matter compared to eliminating poverty in Sri Lanka by 2016. I am an early riser, so it is not a major problem to me if I have to set off at the crack of dawn to do my grocery shopping. If I set off any later, every available space in town is filled  by three-wheelers. If I squeeze into a small space that is too close to a pedestrian crossing or infringes on a pavement, the police will quickly nab me. Recently, I grabbed a space outside the hospital only to be told by a taxi driver that the space was reserved for three-wheelers.

According to the Sunday Times, there are 800,000 three-wheelers operating in the country, of which about 300,000 operate within the Colombo.


Our doughty champions of the three-wheeler, Somasundaraswaran, Kumari and Siriwardana, found in their survey of three-wheeler drivers that “About 68% of them have drinking habits and 87% have smoking habits. Superficially, 66% of the drinking drivers operate their vehicle under the influence of liquor.” I am not quite sure what “superficial” drunken driving is.


At a workshop held in Colombo on March2 2014, Professor  K Karunathilaka of Colombo University said his  research showed  there are about 480,000 three wheelers in Sri Lanka at present. He acknowledged “three wheel drivers massively contribute to Sri Lankan economy” but his research showed that that 48 percent of them were careless drivers.


It is easy enough to trawl the newspapers and find many examples of horrific accidents involving three-wheelers.  There were 7,927 accidents in 2010 involving three-wheelers. One can easily observe why accidents happen. They turn around onto the main road without looking. They overtake on the inside. They tootle along in the middle of the road with their indicators on.  The spot fine for turning without signalling is  Rs 500, while the maximum court fines is Rs 5,000.  The maximum court for reckless and dangerous driving is Rs 5,000. The spot fine for causing obstruction is  Rs 500 and the  court fine Rs 1,000. The fines are the same for crossing the single line and double continuous line.

Will the Market Decide?

I had hoped that with the advent of the Nanocab and metered three-wheelers, my transportation around Colombo would be less fraught than in the past. Those tiresome negotiations about fares and grumbles from drivers about distance should have ended. We are not quite there yet. On a recent visit, I prebooked a metered Nanocab from the suburbs. We had eaten up quite a lot of the road on the way to our destination when the talkative driver announced: “l forgot to switch the meter on.” I said “Oh.” There was no further conversation.


Metered three-wheelers seemed great in theory. Initially, it worked well for me in practice. I got in a resting vehicle near House of Fashion and went to Liberty Plaza. The fare was 130 rupees. In the past, I would have had to pay much more, even with prior negotiation. From Liberty Plaza, I accepted an invitation from a driver to get into his “meter cab”.  When we got to the Cricket Club Café, he said: “Two hundred rupees.” I asked why his charge was more than for the equivalent or lesser distance in the other direction. “‘What does the meter say?” I asked. “Meter broken,” was his riposte.

In Colombo, there may be enough gullible tourists around for the drivers to get away with this and not worry about repeat business. Perhaps some economic law will start to kick in and bad practices will be driven out by good ones. Surely, there is a glut of three-wheelers in the market anyway?

Professor Karunaratne gave a figure of 200,000 three-wheelers throughout the country. Professor  K Karunathilaka of Colombo University said his  research showed  there are about 480,000 three wheelers in Sri Lanka at present. According to the Self-Employed Persons Federation, there were nearly 500,000 three-wheeler drivers. According to the Sunday Times, there are 800,000 three-wheelers operating in the country.

Three-wheeler operators recognise that, with more operators trying to establish themselves and with the increase in metered cabs and Nanocabs, business is falling off. Who would want to endure a white-knuckle ride in   three-wheeler risking carbon monoxide poisoning when one could travel in comfort in a Nano cab? Many three-wheeler operators are losing business, with some of them already looking for other work. We have always tried to help local drivers who have given us good service. For example, we have passed on second hand mobile phones and even helped with small loans. They may soon be beyond help, left stranded on the shore by the tide of evolution. One driver that we have used on a regular basis has given up and gone to work in a shop in Colombo.

It is the President’s vision that Sri Lanka should rise in the world as a country by raising the living standards of families, thereby ensuring village development, provincial development and eventually national development.  It is clear that if the government wants to promote the use of three-wheelers the voice of an old curmudgeon like myself will have no influence. However, what does the market think about all this?



Padraig Colman

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