By Sajeeva Samaranayake –
Since 2010 the Ministry of Social Services has been engaged in the development of a family policy for Sri Lanka. At face value this is a laudable task and one that should be supported by all. On closer examination however a number of fundamental issues arise which cannot be ignored if this exercise is to benefit its intended beneficiaries – those families which are struggling to make ends meet and live together and which are disintegrating as mainstream ‘development’ gathers pace with elements of ‘social engineering’ also thrown in.
Why a family policy?
State provision for families in Sri Lanka is now in a completely fragmented and scattered state. Areas like housing, transport, utilities, health, education, social services, probation & child care services are all divided and sub divided beyond all human attempts to bring them into a sane degree of coordination. Given this reality we must question the rationale of the Ministry of Social Services (MoSS) – the official body that is entrusted with the care of human beings largely beyond the pale of all other services – attempting an ambitious exercise like a ‘family policy’ when its actual mandate is limited to the rejects of society. In short what happens to many families is ‘pre-decided’ by policy decisions and other exercises of power that take place outside the ambit of influence of the MoSS. The MoSS as we know is simply there for the societal task of garbage disposal or garbage retention out of sight of the glitzy new metros that will soon adorn the island. What value can yet another policy document achieve within this scenario? Should the focus not be on more limited and strategic objectives that are doable within our limited capacity and resources? As professionals working for the deprived and vulnerable we should not waste time on abstract exercises which have no connection to the harsh realities of the world outside. There are other questions as to who wanted this family policy and why. There is no pretence that a weighty exercise of this nature looking into our fundamental social unit has mobilized sufficient social or political backing for its success. It has not. A piece of research on families exists giving an ostensible basis for the exercise but ‘data’ cannot take the place of living people who must be engaged openly, inclusively and democratically. The preparation of a family policy for a nation cannot be a technical exercise given over to ‘consultants.’
Getting the policy right
There is an attempt at this stage to get the ‘policy right.’ To have a good text is always the objective of the drafters. But there is a rider in the usual platitudes about ‘implementation being the most challenging thing.’ We take full responsibility for the words but add regretfully that we are powerless to do much about the ‘action’ part.
What hides behind this facile reasoning is our historic inability to engage with what matters – implementation. There is nothing but implementation and praxis that we must focus on. And this happens not in the rooms and halls of academia but in police stations, DS offices, courts, orphanages and homes for other rejects of society and in slums and ‘watte’s’ and miserable houses which are all stagnant pools of pure suffering. Our inability to express solidarity with these people and their unfortunate, under-resourced service providers is the crux of the matter. If this engagement can take place the necessary resources will be found and necessary policies will be drafted – not in this current contrived fashion but as a smooth flow of a series of actions not impeded by our own alienation. We must move into action and let policies come last once we learn – not by poring over data as pseudo professionals – but by listening and sharing the lives of the less fortunate as human beings.
Policy and implementation are not two. We in Sri Lanka have made it two – completely divorcing our ideals from our reality. Ending this divorce is what is needed – not another document to add to the meaningless pile of empty words.
The vulnerable are outside our circle of regular resources
Anyone with a nodding acquaintance with our human development services will know that they are essentially office based services which help those who reach their doorstep. In short the people must seek the services whether these are hospitals or midwife clinics, schools or offices of social welfare officers in Divisional Secretariats. In the absence of an organized and properly resourced social work system these officers who venture out to the field find that they must spend from their own pockets to make those extra telephone calls or walk or bike that extra mile. Remote and isolated villages frequently fall outside their range.
A good proportion of surplus wealth in this country is diverted to making provision in heaven for the next life. Direct assistance to vulnerable families is rare. A meaningful conversation to understand their plight is even more rare. Hundreds of ‘homes’ are supported as alternatives to family life. What these do is take the resources that could have gone to families in the first place and then deprive the families of their children as well. Thus a family policy maker must reflect seriously on the different types of ‘alternative families’ that exist with societal sanction continuously eroding and undermining the families that live in survival mode. The deep rooted ignorance and apathy that condition these ‘homes’ cannot be challenged by ‘policies.’
Ultimately the question is a political and social one. Are we as a society willing to set aside unconditionally a part of our earnings for the less fortunate in society so that they may also enjoy a reasonable standard of living? Contrary to what people think how we spend what we earn is not necessarily an economic question. How we generate wealth is based on economic considerations but how we spend it is not a wholly economic issue. It is also a social and political issue. This is what John Stuart Mill said in Victorian Britain and we are in many ways closer to that age than to the 21st century that other nations have reached.
Our inability to confront this question ensures the continuance of NGO’s, INGO’s and the whole UN system which supports and maintains our vulnerable while we seek to emulate middle classes in more developed societies with our alienated western habits. Do we wish to endure this indignity and shame indefinitely?
Those interested in the Sri Lankan family must ask what they can do to develop its overall resource base. This cannot be done without asking why we failed to develop a social work system for the most vulnerable whilst reaping the fat dividends of a free health and education system as urbanized middle classes. Our human development indicators which are the best in South Asia have hidden the truth as to how the middle classes exploited the welfare system and left their less fortunate brethren in the lurch. The dual economy that is now fully established in an inexorable chain of events since 1977 gives proper expression to our selfishness and lack of social solidarity.
These are the tough and uncomfortable lessons we must ponder as we pick up the pieces of a broken society. As such we are a long way off from re-acquiring that wisdom for understanding the true nature and role of a policy in a functional society. Till then we must reflect on our sad reality of unbridled nepotism – at every level. Unraveling this legacy of shame is our first step.
A social vision by 2033 ?
Those with some historical sense will know that we are due to celebrate 200 years of the Colebrooke Cameron Reforms in 2033. These reforms signified the entry of the island into a modern world it has never really understood. We have been putting all our eggs into the ‘state basket’ without understanding and appreciating the need for a free society and culture. We have become reduced to governing with military and economic power denying the world of potential that lies within human freedom and creativity. This has impoverished the nation. This perception of poverty has produced our human conflict. Two centuries of dependency, ignominy and arrogant boastfulness is enough for a self governing island of 2000 years to decide the road we now wish to take.
The family is the first school that children attend and it is to this venue that we must return to make sense of the necessary conditions for their flowering. Do we wish to produce more mindless consumers and machines for continued exploitation or free human beings who can spread the message of happiness and peace for the world?