STATEN ISLAND, New York — Known for its tropical beaches, booming tea market and rich biodiversity, one can find Sri Lanka on countless travel bucket lists and destinations to visit. Behind its gorgeous landscapes and cultural attractions, however, are the country’s poverty-stricken people and a crumbling economy. The arguably underrated “pearl of the Indian Ocean” has seen its fair share of turbulence and uncertainty as a country relatively recently out of a civil war, hit with the COVID-19 pandemic and its current economic crisis.
With these shifts in political, social, and economic stability, came a fluctuating standard of living for its citizens. Sri Lanka’s poverty rates stood at about 11.7% as of 2020, with the poverty line drawn at those earning less than $3.20 per day. Though it is still struggling to get its poverty under control, the country has seen great improvement since the 1980s during the civil war, when more than 80% of people were making less than $5.50 per day.
Throughout its conflict and crises, citizens have watched as the country crumbled, and rebuilt itself. Ruwani Vitharange is a Sri Lankan woman who grew up during the nearly 30-year civil war and has watched more recent crises in Sri Lanka unfold.
The Civil War
Religious and cultural differences between the Sinhalese majority and Sri Lankan Tamil minority led to ethnic tension and riots. The Tamil Tigers and Sri Lankan army engaged in a civil war beginning in 1983 and lasting until 2009, with escalating violence in the form of guerilla warfare and suicide bombers from the Tamil insurgents and retaliation from the Sri Lankan army.
The ongoing violence had drastic consequences on the standard of living for citizens, with the unpredictable chaos and a lack of security and safety across the country. Ruwani Vitharanage who shared her experience with The Borgen Project said, “Suicide bomb attackers were everywhere targeting civilians, leading politicians and high-rank forces officers. Living conditions were not up to the standard, economically as well. There were some days we couldn’t even go to school in the Colombo area due to the attackers during the civil war.”
The war unsettled society with “widespread misery, inclusive of displacement, loss of property, injury and death and break up of communities,” as well as the loss of economic support from fishing and farming due to security compromises. The civil war finally reached its end in 2009 under President Mahinda Rajapaksa and people were able to “go out of [their]homes at any time without thinking twice to any part of the country by any public transportation” with peace of mind, more or less. Following the year 2010, the country saw infrastructure investments and economic growth, which restored an element of Sri Lanka’s living standards. People could travel again without restriction and work for their livelihoods, which reduced poverty levels from 22.7% in 2002 to 6.7% in 2012.
Following the end of the civil war, Sri Lanka’s living standards faced another major threat with the emergence of COVID-19 just 10 years after peace from conflict. The economy contracted by 3.6%, and people’s lifestyles changed as they “were asked to stay inside [their]homes and be cautious every time, and used to order groceries online. [They] reduced [their]trips, day to day activities like meeting up with friends, and relatives.” This was a shared experience across the world, but the already impoverished country experienced heightened effects. The economic effects of the lack of social protection and mobility, job losses and unequal income distribution was an increase of 500,000 people living in poor conditions as the poverty rate increased from 9.2% in 2019 to 11.7% in 2020.
However, at the end of 2020, hopes existed of an economic recovery with a 3.4% projected GDP growth rate and an expected decline in poverty rates after the vaccine became more widely available and advanced technologies improved the job market. Welfare programs and employment programs offered that the government offered also nudged Sri Lanka’s living standards to recovery. The World Food Programme (WFP) and CARE focused on restoring food security, while the government provided payments to families who lost their incomes.
Current Economic Crises
Still, amid recovery from the pandemic, political upheaval and a catastrophic economic crisis led to bankruptcy earlier this year, which plunged Sri Lanka’s living standards. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s loans for civil war expenses and political corruption have led to the country’s worst economic crisis since 1948, leaving citizens unable to support themselves. Citizens have come to expect daily power outages, no access to gasoline for cooking or travel and hiked prices for basic necessities.
Ruwani Vitharanage said that “The current economic state of our country has damaged the whole nation (rich and poor) not the people in rural areas but the people who live in cities too..the major impact is cost of living, high expenditure… Every household cost is unbearably high these days compared to other periods of crisis. During the civil war and pandemic, we didn’t face such hardships.” She added that poverty rates are at some of the highest she has seen in her community, with beggars and homeless people living in cities.
Hope for Sri Lanka
Though the country has declared bankruptcy, citizens are still holding out hope for their economic well-being and recovery. Sri Lanka has elected a new president, Ranil Wickremesinghe, with the hopes of reducing political corruption and restoring Sri Lanka’s living conditions. At least $4 billion would be necessary to pay off its debts, but Sri Lanka is receiving aid in the form of medicine and essentials packages, credit lines and bailouts from sources such as the World Bank, and is currently in negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
As of September 2022, the United Nations and Sri Lanka are in discussion to improve humanitarian challenges faced during the economic crises and assist those suffering from the lack of food, power and gas. The country, though facing extremely dark times, is finding hope in the little things, varying from their recent cricket team victory in the Asia Cup to political turnarounds.
– Nethya Samarakkodige
Photo: Wikimedia Commons