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Sri Lanka school dropout crisis of poor kids could worsen from Coronavirus: think tank

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s Coronavirus school closures could aggravate the plight of poor kids who already form the overwhelming majority of school dropouts, an analysis by Colombo-based Institute of Policy Studies had warned.

“Although Sri Lanka has provided universal free education since 1939, around one-fifth of poor children drop out of school after the age of 14 years and another-two thirds after the age of 16 years,” Wimal Nanayakkara, Senior Visting Fellow at IPS.

“With the closure of schools following the COVID-19 outbreak and the sudden shift to online learning, poor children with no access to e-learning opportunities risk falling even further behind.”

Based on the 2016 Household Income and Expenditure Survey of the Department of Census and Statistics of Nanayakkara estimated that 4.7 percent of poor kids left school between the ages of 5 and 14, compared to 0.7 percent for kids from non-poor households.

Between the ages of 15 and 16, 19.6 percent of poor kids had dropped out compared to 7.2 percent for non-poor.

By the age of 17-18 around 64.3 percent of poor kids were not attending any type of education institute compared to 30.3 percent for kids from non-poor households.

Compared to a HIES survey in 2012/2013 the ratio had improved by only 4.2 percent.

“Among poor children aged between 17-18 years, this figure has remained almost unchanged at
nearly 65 percent,” Nanayakkara said.

“The corresponding percentages for non-poor children are much lower “.

Out of the poor children (15-16 years) who leave the education system, more than 66 percent had left due to ‘poor educational progress/not willing to attend, 36.6 percent due to ‘financial problems’ 22.1 percent, or to ‘help in housekeeping /other activities of the household’.

According to published data, 621,000 students (including those sitting twice) had applied to sit for the GCE Ordinary Level exam this time.

But only 362,824 sat for the GCE A/L exams, where 319,485 students were in the new syllabus and 43,339 were sitting for the old syllabus class.

Scholl drop outs were higher in male students compared to female students.

“A 73.6 percent of poor boys aged 17-18 years are out of school compared to 53.9 percent of poor girls’ inthis age group,” Nanayakkara said. “The corresponding percentages for the 16-17 age group are 24.5 and 14.2 respectively.”

Only 48 percent of Sri Lankan households with school-aged children owned a smartphone or computer – essential for online learning – at the start of 2019, and only 34 percent had an internet connection, a majority of whom are connected via mobile phones, survey data had showed, IPS said.

“Further, these are average figures, meaning that poorer, rural households are even worse-off ”

“Not all children have the necessary facilities for onlinelearning during prolonged curfews, lockdowns or when schools are kept closed indefinitely.

“According tothe Computer Literacy Survey –2019 (DCS), only 22.2% of the households in Sri Lanka own adesktop/laptop computer (Urban: 38.3%; Rural: 19.9% and Estate: 3.8%).

The use of smartphones, while growing would be limited particularly in rural areas.

IPS said, the budget 2021 has some proposals which, if implemented, could solve most of the issues in the education system that had taken to a severe level during the pandemic.

“They will benefit the poor and vulnerable children, who are facing difficulties in continuing their
education,” the report said.

“The early implementation of these proposals could pave the way to breaking the vicious poverty
trap through equitable education and ensuring that no child is left behind.”

Education Equity in Sri Lanka: A Pathway out of Poverty

By Wimal Nanayakkara

Although Sri Lanka has provided universal free education since 1939, around one-fifth of poor children drop out of school after the age of 14 years and another-two thirds after the age of 16 years. Comparison of estimates based on the Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES)-2012/13 and HIES-2016, conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics (DCS), show only a marginal improvement.

With the closure of schools following the COVID-19 outbreak and the sudden shift to online learning, poor children with no access to e-learning opportunities risk falling even further behind. In this context, some proposals made in Budget 2021 to improve the education system and reduce poverty will benefit poor children who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. This blog highlights some of the education-related difficulties faced by poor children in Sri Lanka based on HIES data and the recent budget proposals which could help them to overcome these difficulties.

Poor Children Out of School

A large proportion of poor children are dropping out of school after 14 years, and the percentage of poor children (15-16 years) not attending school has declined only by 4.2, between the two survey periods. Among poor children aged between 17-18 years, this figure has remained almost unchanged at nearly 65%. The corresponding percentages for non-poor children are much lower (Table 1).

Out of the poor children (15-16 years) who leave the education system, more than 66% left mainly due to “poor educational progress/not willing to attend” (36.6%), “financial problems” (22.1%), or to “help in housekeeping /other activities of the household” (8.6%). The corresponding percentages of poor children (17-18 years) were 49.5, 15.8 and 20.0 respectively. One of the reasons for poor education progress could be inadequate nutritional intake. The HIES-2016 shows that the per capita energy consumption of poor households with children (5-18 years) is less than 75% [or 1513 kilo calories per capita a day (kcpcad)] of the recommended energy requirement (2030 kcpcad).The corresponding consumption of non-poor households is 2081 kcpcad, above the recommended requirement.

Gender Gap of Early School Leavers

As there is a possibility for some of the near-poor children to slip into poverty, due to the effects of COVID-19, it is important to consider both poor and near-poor. Figure (1) showsthe proportions of early school leavers are very high for poor and near-poor children compared to non-poor. There is also a significant gender gap, especially among the poor and near-poor.

Figure 1: Proportions of Children (Non-poor, Poor, Near-Poor) Not Attending School by Age and Sex *Note: Multi-dimensionally poor (MDP) households (HHs)- [HHs with weighted deprivation score of 33.3% or more]; Near IP HHs [ HHs within 20% above the NPL]; Near MDP HHs [HHs with weighted deprivation score 20% or higher, but less than 33.3%]; Near Poor children [children in Near IP HHs and/or Near MDP HHs]
Source: Author’s estimates based on HIES-2016, DCS

For example, 73.6% of poor boys aged 17-18 years are out of school compared to 53.9% of poor girls in this age group. The corresponding percentages for the 16-17 age group are 24.5 and 14.2 respectively. A similar pattern is observed for near-poor children and even non-poor children, although the proportions are significantly low for non-poor.

Inadequacy of Facilities for Online Learning

Inequality in education can be further widened as not all children have the necessary facilities for online learning during prolonged curfews, lockdowns or when schools are kept closed indefinitely. According to the Computer Literacy Survey –2019 (DCS), only 22.2% of the households in Sri Lanka own a desktop/laptop computer (Urban:38.3%; Rural: 19.9% and Estate: 3.8%).

According to the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC) of Sri Lanka, there were a total of 1.53 million fixed internet subscribers and 5.73 million mobile subscribers in 2018. However, the use of smartphones would be limited, especially in remote rural areas, where broadband internet facilities are weak and there is no information on the extent of smartphone users among the poor.

‘E-Thaksalawa’ the national e-learning portal of the Ministry of Education (MoE), is facilitating e-learning for students (Grade 1 to Advanced Level). But some children, cannot access them at present due to the lack of facilities or means. Broadband internet facilities, a computer/laptop or a smartphone and sufficient data are essential to download available study material.

As highlighted in a previous IPS blog, the best option therefore would be to use television (TV) as 86% (HIES-2016) of households in the country own TVs (Urban: 88.9%; Rural: 86.1% and Estate: 81.2%). The ‘Guru Gedara’ distance learning programme of the MoE broadcast by Channel Eye/Nethra TV, ART TV and Ada Derana, for students from Grade 3 to GCE (A/L) are both in Sinhala and Tamil. The SLBC is also broadcasting these lessons for the benefit of children who do not have access even to a TV.

This is an excellent and innovative way for poor children to continue their studies in a stream of their choice, who may be leaving education prematurely due to lack of facilities, especially teachers, to teach science/ technology subjects, mathematics, languages, etc., in rural/estate schools and non-national schools.

Budget Proposals

Budget 2021 has some proposals which, if implemented, could solve most of the issues highlighted above. They will benefit the poor and vulnerable children, who are facing difficulties in continuing their education, explained above. The proposals are also aimed at developing the entire education system with special emphasis on skills development, to meet the ever-increasing demand for high skills and also to provide necessary facilities.

A summary of some of the most important proposals are:

‘GamataSannivedanaya’ to provide 4G/Fiber broadband facilities to cover all GramaNiladhari divisions; internet facilities to all schools.

‘E-Thaksalawa’ learning portal to be strengthened further to minimise the difficulties faced by students in rural / estate and non-national schools.

‘Guru Gedara’ programme to be made available to all students, by providing TV sets to schools in difficult areas.

Improving and expanding the opportunities for vocational/technical education, which will be extremely useful in developing the necessary skills in a rapidly changing environment.

The early implementation of these proposals could pave the way to breaking the vicious poverty trap through equitable education and ensuring that no child is left behind.

Wimal Nanayakkara is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS) with research interests in poverty, and is a specialist in sampling. He was previously engaged at the Department of Census and Statistics, where he functioned as the Director General for 12 years. He received his BSc in Mathematics and Physics from the University of Peradeniya and holds a Postgraduate Diploma in Applied Statistics from the University of Reading, UK.(Talk to Wimal – wimal@ips.lk)

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Sri Lanka to find investors by ‘competitive system’ after revoking plantations privatizations

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka will revoke the privatization of plantation companies that do not pay government dictated wages, by cancelling land leases and find new investors under a ‘competitive system’, State Minister for Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya has said.

Sri Lanka privatized the ownership of 22 plantations companies in the 1990s through long term leases after initially giving only management to private firms.

Management companies that made profits (mostly those with more rubber) were given the firms under a valuation and those that made losses (mostly ones with more tea) were sold on the stock market.

The privatized firms then made annual lease payments and paid taxes when profits were made.

In 2024 the government decreed a wage hike announced a mandated wage after President Ranil Wickremesinghe made the announcement in the presence of several politicians representing plantations workers.

The land leases of privatized plantations, which do not pay the mandated wages would be cancelled, Minister Siyambalapitiya was quoted as saying at a ceremony in Deraniyagala.

The re-expropriated plantations would be given to new investors through “special transparency”

The new ‘privatization’ will be done in a ‘competitive process’ taking into account export orientation, worker welfare, infrastructure, new technology, Minister Siyambalapitiya said.

It is not clear whether paying government-dictated wages was a clause in the privatization agreement.

Then President J R Jayewardene put constitutional guarantee against expropriation as the original nationalization of foreign and domestic owned companies were blamed for Sri Lanka becoming a backward nation after getting independence with indicators ‘only behind Japan’ according to many commentators.

However, in 2011 a series of companies were expropriation without recourse to judicial review, again delivering a blow to the country’s investment framework.

Ironically plantations that were privatized in the 1990s were in the original wave of nationalizations.

Minister Bandula Gunawardana said the cabinet approval had been given to set up a committee to examine wage and cancel the leases of plantations that were unable to pay the dictated wages.

Related

Sri Lanka state interference in plantation wages escalates into land grab threat

From the time the firms were privatized unions and the companies had bargained through collective agreements, striking in some cases as macro-economists printed money and triggered high inflation.

Under President Gotabaya, mandating wages through gazettes began in January 2020, and the wage bargaining process was put aside.

Sri Lanka’s macro-economists advising President Rajapaksa the printed money and triggered a collapse of the rupee from 184 to 370 to the US dollar from 2020 to 2020 in the course of targeting ‘potential output’ which was taught by the International Monetary Fund.

In 2024, the current central bank governor had allowed the exchange rate to appreciate to 300 to the US dollar, amid deflationary policy, recouping some of the lost wages of plantations workers.

The plantations have not given an official increase to account for what macro-economists did to the unit of account of their wages. With salaries under ‘wages boards’ from the 2020 through gazettes, neither employees not workers have engaged in the traditional wage negotiations.

The threat to re-exproriate plantations is coming as the government is trying to privatize several state enterprises, including SriLankan Airlines.

It is not clear now the impending reversal of plantations privatization will affect the prices of bids by investors for upcoming privatizations.

The firms were privatized to stop monthly transfers from the Treasury to pay salaries under state ownership. (Colombo/May25/2024)

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300 out of 1,200 Sri Lanka central bank staff works on EPF: CB Governor

ECONOMYNEXT – About 300 central bank staff out of 1,200 are employed in the Employees Provident Fund and related work, Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe said, with the function due to be transferred to a separate agency after a revamp of its governing law.

“When it comes to the EPF there is an obvious conflict of interest. We are very happy to take that function out,” Governor Weerasinghe told a forum organized by Colombo-based Advocata Institute.

“We have about 300 staff out of 1,200 including contract staff, almost 150 of permanent staff is employed to run this huge operation. I don’t think the central bank should be doing this business,”

The EPF had come under fire in the past over questionable investments in stocks and also bonds.

In addition, the central bank also faced a conflict of interest because it had another agency function to sell bonds for the Treasury at the lowest possible price, not to mention its monetary policy functions.

“There has been a lot of allegations on the management of this fund. This is the biggest fund of the private sector; about 2.6 million active, I think about 10 million accounts.

“When it comes to EPF, obviously there’s another thing. We obviously have, in terms of resources, on the Central Bank, that has a clear conflict because we are responsible for the members.

“We have to give them a, as a custodian of the fund, we have to give them a maximum return for the members.

“For us to get the maximum return, on one hand, we determine the interest rates as multi-policy. On the other hand, we are managing public debt as a, raising funds for the government.

“And on the third hand, this EPF is investing 90 percent in government securities. And also, interest rates we determine, and they want to get the maximum interest. That’s a clear conflict, obviously, there’s no question.”

A separate agency is to be set up, he said.

“It’s up to the government or the members to determine to establish a new institution that has a trust and credibility and confidence of the members that this institution will be able to manage and secure an interest and give them a reasonable return, good return for their lifetime savings,” Governor Weerasinghe said.

“The question is that how whether we have whether we can develop that institution, whether we have the strong institution with accountability and the proper governance for this thing.

“I don’t think it should be given completely to a private sector business to run that. Because one is that here we have no regulatory institution. Pension funds are not a regulated business.

“First one is we need to establish, government should establish a regulatory agency to regulate not only the EPF business fund, there are several other similar funds are not properly regulated.

“Once we have proper regulations like we regulate banks, then we can have a can ensure proper practices are basically adopted by all these institutions.

“Then you can develop an institution that we who can run this and can be taken back by the Labour Department. I’m not sure Labour Department has the capacity to do all these things.”

While some EPF managers had come under scrutiny during the bondscam and for questionable stock investments, in recent years, it had earned better returns under the central bank management than some private funds that underwent debt restructuring according to capital market analysts with knowledge of he matter. (Colombo/May24/2024)

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Desperate Sri Lankans seek risky foreign jobs amid tough IMF reforms

ECONOMYNEXT – After working 11 years in Saudi Arabia as a driver, Sanath returned to Sri Lanka with dreams of starting a transport service company, buoyed by Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s 2019 presidential victory.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and an unprecedented economic crisis in 2022 shattered his dreams. Once an aspiring entrepreneur, he became a bank defaulter.

Facing hyperinflation, an unbearable cost of living, and his family’s daily struggles, Sanath sought greener pastures again—this time in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“I had to pay 900,000 rupees ($3,000) to secure a driving job here,” Sanath (45), a father of two, told EconomyNext while having a cup of tea and a parotta for dinner near Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi.

Working for a reputed taxi company in the UAE, Sanath’s modest meal cost only 3 UAE dirhams (243 Sri Lankan rupees). Despite a monthly salary of around 3,000 dirhams, he limits his spending to save as much as possible.

Sanath has been in Abu Dhabi for 13 months but had to wait six months before driving a taxi and receiving no salary.

TOUGH REALITIES

“I had to get my UAE driving license. I failed the first trial, and the company paid 6,500 dirhams on my behalf, agreeing to deduct 500 dirhams monthly from my salary,” he explained.

“So far, I have repaid only 3,000 dirhams.”

To raise the 900,000 rupees for the job, Sanath borrowed money from friends and pawned jewelry.

“I don’t know if I was cheated by the agent, but I must repay that money and also send money for my family’s expenses,” he said, glancing at a photograph of his family in a Colombo suburb.

Working night shifts in busy Abu Dhabi, Sanath said, “If I can secure 9,000 dirhams monthly through taxi driving, I will earn 3,000 dirhams in the month after deductions for the license fee and any traffic fines.”

Sanath came to Abu Dhabi with seven other Sri Lankan men through an employment agency in the Northwestern town of Kurunegala.

“Only two of us have withstood the tough traffic rules and payment deductions for offenses,” he said. Some of his colleagues are still job-hunting, while others have returned to Sri Lanka.

Sanath is one of around 700,000 Sri Lankans who have left the island in the last two years due to the economic crisis that forced the country to adopt difficult fiscal and monetary policies, including higher taxes and costly borrowing, exacerbating the cost of living.

FOREIGN EXCHANGE EARNERS

From January 2022 to the end of March 2024, at least 683,118 Sri Lankans migrated for foreign employment through legal channels, according to the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau.

They have sent $11.31 billion in remittances through official banking channels during the same period, central bank data shows.

Many Sri Lankans leave on visit visas, hoping to find jobs later, often guided by friends already working abroad. The economic crisis has pushed them to seek better opportunities abroad, despite the risks.

Sri Lankan authorities struggle to stop such risk-takers, who sometimes resort to illegal migration, despite warnings about human trafficking.

In Myanmar, 56 Sri Lankans caught in an IT job scam were detained earlier this year, and the government is still repatriating them.

At least 16 retired Sri Lankan military personnel have been killed in the Russia-Ukraine war after being misled by unscrupulous recruiters. Officials estimate that over 400 retired military officers may have left for similar reasons.

DISPERATE TO LEAVE

In March, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry warned against visiting any nation on open visas, urging Sri Lankans to emigrate only through registered agencies.

Despite the risks, many Sri Lankans are desperate to leave.

Abu Salim, a 32-year-old former rugby player, came to Dubai on a visit visa hoping for a banking job, which he never got.

Now freelancing in an insurance firm, he said, “I survive, and my relatives don’t see my struggle. It’s stressful, but still better than Sri Lanka right now.”

Suneth, a former top garment merchandiser, is also job-hunting in Sharjah after quitting his initial job in Sharjah.

“My worry is the visa. I must find a new job before it expires,” he said.

Many Sri Lankans in the UAE work multiple jobs, compromising their sleep and health to make ends meet. (Abu Dhabi/May 24/2024)

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