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From MDGs to SDGs: Well done, Sri Lanka – but mind the gaps!
by Nalaka Gunawardene
September 25, 2015

“You’re doing well – but can do better! Try harder!”

Teachers have been saying such words to generations of school children.

It also seems apt advice for Sri Lanka’s human development efforts: much has been achieved in recent years, but there is room for improvement.

That is the overall message in a recent report that took stock of Sri Lanka’s pursuit of Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs.

Sri Lanka was among the 189 countries that adopted the MDGs at the Millennium Summit at the United Nations headquarters in September 2000.

The eight MDGs covered a broad spectrum of goals, from eradicating absolute poverty and hunger to combating HIV, and from having all children attending primary school to saving mothers from dying during pregnancy and childbirth.

For the past 15 years, the MDGs have provided a framework for Sri Lanka’s national development programmes. Progress has been assessed every few years: the most recent ‘report card’ came out in March 2015.

Sri Lanka MDG Country Report 2014
Sri Lanka MDG Country Report 2014

Data from the 2012 census and Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2012/13 have made it possible to assess MDG situation across the country, including the former war affected areas.

The MDG Country Report 2014 shows that, on the whole, Sri Lanka has done well: it has either already achieved, or is on-track to achieve, a majority of the MDG goals and indicators.

Consider these highlights:

  • Sri Lanka’s overall income poverty rates have come down from 15.2% in 2006/7 to 6.7% in 2012.
  • Unemployment rate declined to 3.9% in 2012. But unemployment rate among women is twice as high as among men.
  • While food production keeps up with population growth, malnutrition is a concern. Some 20% of children under five are underweight. And half of all people still consume less than the minimum requirement of dietary energy.
  • Nearly all (99%) school going children enter primary school. At that stage, the numbers of boys and girls are equal. In secondary school and beyond (university), there now are more girls than boys.
  • More babies now survive their first year of life: infant mortality rate is at 9.4 among 1,000 live births (reduced from 17.7 in 1991). Deaths among all children under five have also been nearly halved (down from 22.2 in 1991 to 11.3 in 2009).
  • Fewer women die of complications arising from pregnancy and childbirth. The maternal mortality rate, 92 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990, came to 33 by 2010. Doctors or skilled health workers are now present during almost all births.
  • Sri Lanka’s HIV infection levels have remained now, even though the number of cases is slowly increasing. Meanwhile, in a major public health triumph, the country has had no indigenous malaria cases since November 2012 and no malaria-related deaths since 2007.
  • Most Lankans now have access to safe drinking water (up from 68% in 1990 to almost 90% in 2012-2013.)

These accomplishments are the result of progressive policies for decades.

“Sri Lanka’s long history of investment in health, education and poverty alleviation programmes has translated into robust performance against the MDGs, and Sri Lanka has many lessons to share,” said Sri Lanka’s UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative, Subinay Nandy, at the report’s launch in March 2015.

Sri Lanka has halved income poverty, but progress is not equal across the island. Image source: http://countryoffice.unfpa.org/srilanka/?reports=10872
Sri Lanka has halved income poverty, but progress is not equal across the island. Image source: http://countryoffice.unfpa.org/srilanka/?reports=10872

Mind the Gaps

Despite these results, some gaps and challenges remain – these need closer attention in the coming years. It is also important to sustain progress already achieved on many fronts.

Impressive national level statistics sometimes eclipse provincial and district level disparities. Not all parts of Sri Lanka have progressed equally well.

For example, while most districts have already cut income poverty rates in half, there are some exceptions: eight districts in the Northern and Eastern provinces, for which reliable data are not available for comparison years, and the Monaragala District in Uva Province.

Another concern: the gap between rich and poor remains despite economic growth. “Income inequality has not changed, although many poor people managed to move out of poverty and improve their living conditions,” the MDG Progress report says.

Sri Lanka income disparity is high, data shows. Image source: http://countryoffice.unfpa.org/srilanka/?reports=10872
Sri Lanka income disparity is high, data shows. Image source: http://countryoffice.unfpa.org/srilanka/?reports=10872

Many human development indicators are lower in the plantation estate sector, where 4.4% of the population lives. For example, when at least 90% of all living in urban and rural areas can access safe drinking water, the rate in the estate sector is 46.3%.

There is also an urgent need to improve the quality and relevance of education. It involves increasing opportunities for tertiary education, bridging the gap between education and employment, and reducing the skills mismatch in the labour market.

On the health front, surveillance for infectious diseases cannot be relaxed. Even as malaria retreats, dengue has been spreading. Old diseases like tuberculosis (8,000 cases per year) stubbornly persist. A rise in non-communicable diseases – like heart attacks, stroke, cancers and asthma – poses a whole new set of public health challenges.

Sri Lanka - Deaths of children under 5 - 2009 data by district. Image source: http://countryoffice.unfpa.org/srilanka/?reports=10872
Sri Lanka – Deaths of children under 5 – 2009 data by district. Image source:
http://countryoffice.unfpa.org/srilanka/?reports=10872

Onward with SDGs!

 So the well-performing nation has much more to do. From this month, a new and improved global task-list called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will provide useful direction and focus.

Prepared after two years of wide-ranging global, regional and national consultations, the SDGs offer a broader vision for development until 2030. There are 17 SDGs tackling unfinished business of MDGs and newer problems like sustainable cities and climate change.

SDGs will be formally adopted at the Sustainable Development Summit 2015 in New York, a high-level meeting of the 66th UN General Assembly from 25 to 27 September 2015. Sri Lanka’s President Maithripala Sirisena is among many world leaders participating in the Summit.

Useful links:

Sri Lanka Millennium Development Goals Country Report 2014

2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

Moving Towards a New Development Pathway. By Subinay Nandy

Sri Lanka Department of Census and Statistics: MDG Monitoring

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