Economic Development | Speeches

Corporate sector and NGOs must play crucial role in South Asia's poverty alleviation

Opening address at the 'Be the Change' Seminar

Colombo, Sri Lanka

December 9, 2011

I wish to add my warm welcome to all of you for being present with us today. I wish to make special mention of Professor Yunus, for taking time off from his very busy and important schedules, to grace this occasion today, and to talk to us about some of the experiences from his rich and dedicated career. I have no doubt, we could learn much from his admirable achievements.

Also to Mrs Alkar Talwar, for her presence, to represent TATA Consultancy Agency, and share with us your experience in the great work undertaken by TATAs, in the areas of poverty alleviation and rural development.

My colleague Dr Acharya and others before me have spoken to you about our organization, South Asia Policy and Research Institute. I wish to only add that the Vision of SAPRI is to gather together, thinkers from South Asia and elsewhere to study the major challenges our region faces today, make policy recommendations, promote dialogue about these among policy makers, from the public and private sectors, as well as leaders of non-governmental organizations and academics. We will then publish our findings and recommendations and engage in advocacy of our recommendations among decision makers of the region.

We are a strictly non-political, non partisan organization. I must hasten to add that although we are politically non-partisan, we remain deeply committed to economic and social justice.

The Seminar today deals with the subject of Poverty. Poverty is an economic, political and moral problem.

It constitutes loss of economic potential, causes frustration and anger among the dispossessed, leading to severe political unrest and even armed conflict.

Morally it is an outrage.

It is important to distinguish between poverty as defined by levels of income and expenditure on one hand, and poverty that causes income disparity and inequality on the other.

Prof Amartya Sen another Noble prize winner from our region advocates the definition of poverty based on human capabilities in other words opportunities offered to citizens.

Recent studies in Horizontal Inequalities led by scholars at Oxford University, demonstrate that inequalities lead to conflict as well as economic regression.

Perceived injustice as well as frustration and despair caused by continued social marginalization, economic deprivation and political defeat has been known to result in violence. It was said that “young hope betrayed, transforms itself into bombs”.

The exclusion of some communities from an equitable share of the benefits of prosperity causes inequalities in every sphere. It has been affirmed that Poverty, Injustice and their relationship to conflict may be measured by the difference in opportunity structures for the excluded groups.

The most potent source of violent conflict today is identity. The denial of rights to or the exclusion of certain groups with a common identity becomes the bedrock of dissent and violent conflict.

All this to say that the most urgent challenge we in South Asia face today, is to eliminate poverty while undertaking equitable development that would include all sectors of society.

The largest number of poor - 600 million people live in South Asia. Although we see significant progress in poverty reduction in Asia, particularly in China and East Asia, South Asia has yet much to achieve in this sphere.

India has achieved massive economic progress in the last 15 years. However, it is estimated 200 million people still live below the poverty line there and are becoming poorer. There are also pockets of acute poverty and increasing inequalities in all our countries, especially those affected by conflict.

As I asserted earlier, this situation should cause concern to all of us, because economic deprivation would invariably lead to political instability and conflict.

If you will permit me to briefly speak about Sri Lanka, since independence we have had a strong commitment to public policies designed to promote social and economic development. This has resulted in impressive achievements in social indicators and strong performance on the UNDP Human Development Index and lower levels of income deprivation when compared with other countries of the region.

However, we have considerable sectors of our people living in poverty and experiencing inequalities, economically, socially and politically – mainly in the regions where the civil war prevailed until 2 ½ years ago. It is essential that all Sri Lankans recognize that the root cause of the terrible conflict we experienced in our country was not only due to the excesses of one terrorist leader, but to the exclusion of the minorities from an equitable share of benefits of development and progress and their social and political marginalization. All Sri Lankans have a responsibility for building an inclusive society where all citizens are brought in fully and honestly to the process of development and also as full and equal partners of the process of government through power sharing.

We live in an era of globalization. Not only do we see the global spread of one economic concept, but also the spread of the political philosophy of human freedoms, of democracy and pluralism. Diversity and difference is no more a problem. It is celebrated and its richness employed for progress and prosperity.

In this context, governments alone cannot successfully take on the responsibility of guaranteeing progress. The private sector, professionals, academics and NGOs can and are playing a crucial role in development. I am proud to say that the private sector in Sri Lanka has grown to become strong, independent and capable of holding its own anywhere in the world, during the last three decades.

We possess an active and competent NGO sector. Unfortunately, we have lost a large number of our competent professionals and academics to other countries. I have no doubt that they will return to play their part, if we Sri Lankans evolve a great national project for building Peace and Prosperity for All.

Today let us learn from the experiences of a great South Asian - Prof Yunus and a private sector leader - the TATA Group of India, of their noble efforts to lift their peoples from the humiliation of poverty and ignorance towards prosperity and progress. Our private sector can play a lead role in not only generating growth and creating wealth as you have successfully done, but also to alleviate poverty.

We are proud that several companies, large and small, are playing their part in this sphere. We appeal to all in the Non-governmental sector to add their collective strength and skills to a National Project for building a Nation, where our peoples belonging to diverse ethnic, linguistic and religious groups will live as equal partners, working collectively to achieve Prosperity in a country Safe for Difference.