this is not an average
I’ve had this book for a while and it’s about time to read it. It’s called ‘Profiling the Sri Lankan Consumer‘ by Uditha Liyanage. It’s not the best written book, but it has a lot of facts. As an example, let’s take the average Sri Lankan male. He probably married around 26 and (taking the median) he’s probably 28 right now. Breeding like a Tennekoon, he now has a household of 4.2 peoples, and the wife is probably earning income. He can expect to live to 72 while is wife will reach 77. The average Sri Lankan income is 17,109 per month. However, let’s assume that Haramanis Average lives in an urban area. The means that he garners Rs 30,091 per month. Of this, he spends about 7,500 on food, 6,300 on rent and 720 Rs on hotels and restos. What is more interesting is that the data marks a division between two metaclasses. One that participates in globalization and one that is left out.
Sri Lankans are getting wealthier, having less children, and ageing. This is more like developed countries than developing. People now get married later (the median couple being 21/26, older male). We also spend less than 50% of our income on food, which is a good sign. The lion’s share of GDP (49.4% is produced in the Western Province), and that in Urban areas. Ony 7.9% of Urban households are classed as poor, compared to 26.4% in Rural areas and 23.3% in Estates.
The gap between rich and poor widened from 1973 to 1986, with almost 50% of national income going to the Top 10 Percent in 1986. Then it dropped. As of 2003/2004 almost 50% of the income goes to the middle 50%.
More significantly, Sri Lanka has seemingly divided into two (subdivided) classes – one left behind by globalization and one moving ahead. I’m borrowing the terms ‘Gap’ and ‘Core’ from Barnett’s “Pentagon’s New Map“.
Alienated Rural Youth
Sri Lanka’s education system has the odd characteristic that it actually makes you less employable. Basically, the country has idealogically rejected cosmopolitan bilingualism from its education system, but employers still demand those skills. As goverment jobs dry up, the youth is stuck. Basically, if you have no schooling at all your unemployment rate is 33.3%. If you have a University Degree or higher, however, your unemployment rate is 59.5% (!). That is, as a purely economic decision, you might as well save the money and time and just work.
This seeming paradox occurs because the economy (especially rural) is still largely ‘based on primary activities of agriculture and fisheries’ and over 40% of those jobs are of a manual nature. Educated rural youth are not interested in those jobs. 21% of the unemployed are instead looking for clerical work, but only 4% of available jobs are of that nature. They are seeking white collar jobs but they haven’t been taught white collar skills. 50% of them ‘declatared their preference for a public sector job. Importantly, 54% of the unemployed youth believe that the private sector is discriminatory in recruitment and other employment related practices. They believe the companies show favoritism to known groups and individuals, and that they discriminate against persons of low-income groups (Lakshman, 2002)’.
From the other side, however, employers say that rural youth simply don’t have the requisite skill and knowledge, particularily English. 57% of urban youth have poor or no knowledge of English while that number is 78% in rural areas. Only 23% of those who sit pass the English O/Level. They also have drastically different attitudes.
‘The Youth Survey recognized the continuing commitment to a socialist ideology by the majority of youth. Nonwithstanding the pursuit of an explicitly market-led development policy for almost 25 years, it is significant that 62% of the sampled youth continue to be committed to a socialist ideology. Only 10% expressed commitment to a capitalist idealogy.’
‘It is in this context that one views a key finding, that 71% of Sri Lankan youth are of the opinion that the Sri Lankan society is “not just”. This percentage increases with the increasing education level of the youth. Moreover, the survey indicates that as many as 75% of the youth believe that the benefits of development will be confined to the “well-to-do”, and 51% believe that such benefits will be limited to “those with political connections”.
Traditional Middle Class
The jobs the Alienated Rural Youth aspire to are largely the historical of the Traditional Middle Class, where occupation and heritage were all that mattered. The rural monolinguals briefly occupied these sphere, but the economy moved forward and they were left behind.
‘The intelligentsia of the 1950s and say, a decade and a half thereafter, was distinctively Sri Lankan unlike its alienated predecessors. However, they were essentially cosmopolitan and not entirely in consonance with the larger Sri Lankan ethos. This was the class which, from the 50s to 70s, kept the wheels of the administrative structure moving for the ruling classes. They basically belonged to an upper middle class who were bilingual and, at it’s upper end, cosmopolitan and Western oriented while, at its lower end, populist and nativistic.’
‘The intelligentsia that followed comprises, almost in its entirety, products of Free Education. They are essentially monolingual and operate within the state sector and under the rubric of the nation state. They are exposed to Western lifestyles and behaviors, but are not avid followers of them.’
However, the rise of the private sector has made government employees less relevant and placed more value on industry and income generation. Today only 12.9% of people are employed in the public sector compared to 21.5% in 1990. The private sector, meanwhile, has grown to 47.2% from 33.7%. This has created a New Urban Middle Class (NUMC) rooted not in the nation-state, but in a globalized context.
Primarily private sector, the Numties include CEOs and managers who high salaries as well as cars and benefits. CEO salaries have increased 5.4 times and managers by 4.17 since 1993, according to Ernst & Young. Also, the open economy has brought in international NGOs with global budgets, leading to well-paid employment for many Sri Lankans.
‘Their significant discretionary incomes and distinctive Western orientation, increasingly shaped by exposure to TV and travel, have thrown segments of Sri Lankan society into the age of modern consumerism. Multiple television networks, the proliferation of modern restaurants, luxurious office buildings and hotels, the increased number of luxury cars (1,500 cars at Rs 4 million each imported in 2004), the spread of mobile phones (3.3 million) and an estimated 575,000 active credit card holders are tell-tale signs of the transformation of the urban landscape. The increasing number of up-scale private hospitals and nursing homes, rapid expansion of International Schools (around 80) and an estimated 6,000 Sri Lanka students who attend universities overseas at a total cost of Rs 6 Billion per year (LMD, March 2003) essentially cater to the NUMC.’
These Numties are essentially a group of people who, like myself, live not so much within this nation state but in a globalized context. By Sri Lankan standards we appear rich, but in the cosmopolitan culture we inhabit we are actually middle-class in behavior and poor dollar-wise. If you educate your children abroad, buy and fuel a car, and buy or rent Colombo property then you need way more than Rs 30,000 to live on. In a globalized context, living on $300 a month is impossible, and this class does the work to earn more. In the private sector or in international oriented knowledge work, there is a class which generates income to live in the global society without taking money away from ‘average’ Sri Lankans. However, there is resentment, even though this jealousy doesn’t put money in anyones pockets.
There is, however, a New Working Class which isn’t left behind by globalization and which is capitalizing.
New Working Class
A staggering 1.21 million Sri Lankans have globalized with their feet and work abroad. Currently the number of workers in (local) BOI companies is only 438,000 (Central Bank). Of the 204,000 placements in 2003-4, Housemaids were 116,000, unskilled workers 43,000, and skilled workers 45,500. This means that literally 5 percent of the Sri Lankan population is abroad at any given time. They also, tragically, cannot vote via abstentee ballots. There are also many local women who fall into a similar category by working for export textiles companies (like MAS and Brandix). These people are globalized, albeit at the very bottom rung. They have limited civil rights and no possibility of citizenship in the Middle East (where most work) and they have no voting rights at home (while they are abroad). They do have income and the country floats on their remittances, but they don’t have enough of a political voice.
In short, I don’t know where the average really lies. Probably on the disaffected side, on the side left out of globalization. For all the bile that comes out of the JVP and their like, there are legitimate concerns underneath. All the blind xenophobia against NGOs and Expats is misplaced, but the problems are real. Unfortunately, the knee-jerk reaction against all things western actually creates a flow of money and people out of the country and entrenches and education system that doesn’t match the economy. The key is actually being more open to English and globalization but, in fear and insecurity, people back away. The way out is to step away from the hysterics, breathe, and participate proudly in globalization. The only danger is that the itching insecurity may (as it has in the JVP insurrections) send us hurtling back into the past.