UNICEF promotes access to social services and the development of human capital. We work with government and policy makers to ensure equitable and quality delivery.
For child rights to be universally and equitably realized, not only do the right policies need to be in place, but government’s plans and budgets across the country and amongst different sectors must be adequate. This require our urgent attention. To inform and drive our policy engagement for inclusive growth and equitable investment in children, evidence-generation and strategic partnerships and advocacy around planning, budgeting and policy-making on child rights are crucial.
Since the end of the conflict Sri Lanka has enjoyed substantial peace and economic growth which allowed for impressive reductions in poverty and the overcoming of many human development challenges common in developing countries.
Yet, significant socioeconomic disparities, with large pockets of ‘left-behind’ poor, especially in the tea estates and remote rural areas still exist. Despite the impressive poverty reduction, child poverty rates are higher than overall poverty rates, with about half of the children in monetary poverty living in only seven of the 25 districts. In some districts, more than a fifth of children live under the poverty line.
Poverty has a lasting impact on children, and understanding the extent of poverty, and how to tackle major violation of children’s rights are essential for the development of the country. High levels of child under-nutrition, and in particular wasting, contrast with the broader progress in human development. Further disparities are also seen; stunting goes hand in hand with a family’s wealth level, with prevalence rising from 8.5% in the richest (5th) quintile to 17.7% in the poorest (1st) quintile. Stunting particularly affects children in the tea estate sector, while wasting rates are very high almost everywhere.
Beside poverty, the level of vulnerability among children are also high. A large number of families live just above the poverty line, only a shock away from falling into poverty—which could result from a natural disaster, the loss of employment, illness or the death of a breadwinner. Social safety nets are therefore an important tool not only for helping a child to break out of the cycle of poverty, but for ensuring stability in a child’s life and diminishing the impact of bouts of poverty.
Yet, public spending on social safety has decreased as a percentage of GDP over recent years, and many programs suffer from low benefit amounts, poor targeting, coordination, planning and implementation.
As Sri Lanka heads towards upper middle-income country status, it is important that growth does not happen at the expense of equitable and universal social services for children. A strong emphasis on capital infrastructure has squeezed spending in the social sectors that most impact children’s lives, namely, in areas such as health, education and social protection. In fact, social spending is currently below levels seen in other middle income countries. For example, Sri Lanka spends far less on education and health relative to the size of its economy. Moreover, within the constrained education budget, resources are inequitably tilted to the minority of national schools, located mainly in the major cities, at the expense of provincial schools, which dominate in the rural areas.
Low levels of public funding put at risk the quality and equity of some programs, even though coverage is very high. In education, for example, Sri Lanka appears to perform relatively poorly on international comparative tests, compromising ambitions for the country to become a knowledge-based economy. Budget transparency is important to allow financing issues to be brought to light and understood. Citizens’ participation in the planning and budgeting processes can also influence budgets for children. And finally, appropriate oversight is crucial to ensure that the country’s resources are being used effectively and efficiently to realize all rights of all children in Sri Lanka.