Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Thoughts from a train journey

Some random thoughts that came to mind yesterday as I sat on a train from Bentota to Galle, gazing out of the window at the mish mash of houses and villages en route, mostly very poor. To set the scene...I'd just been to visit a centre for abused and orphaned children. On my way back the train passed a village called "KPMG Village", presumably christened that after post-tsunami rebuilding support.

There is a kind of 'secret shame' that goes on here when it comes to various things including child abuse, children who are abandoned because their families are too poor to look after them, street kids who go on to become prey for "sex tourists" (one of those phrases like "ethnic cleansing" that doesn't remotely do justice to its meaning), elderly people who are abandoned into filthy, squalid care homes, disabled people who are left to wither because they're seen as a burden, domestic violence, rampant alcoholism, and no doubt a lot more...

People don't talk about any of these things. There's little public acknowledgement of them and where there is it tends to be discussed in terms of blaming 'bad families' or 'village people and their ignorant ways'. Sri Lanka's entrenched system of caste, class and religious discriminiation and prejudice comes to the fore.

Do these problems exist because of lack of money - because Sri Lanka is a 'poor' country? I'm no expert and these things are, of course, complicated. But there seems to be plenty of money around to spend on military campaigns, national celebrations of the 'recapture' of the Eastern province, palatial homes and luxury cars for the 100+ ministries that exist here (for a population of 19 million), employing 8 people to do a job that one person could do...etc etc. Meanwhile well-meaning but not always very effective international aid and development agencies do what they can on the ground while getting slated by the government for 'funding the terrorists', while local campaigners and activists carry on as best they can in the face of public and government apathy to their causes.

More than lack of money, it seems there is a lack of will and desire to change the way things are - many people appear to be fatalistic about the status quo and/or feel powerless to change things, while those that can leave, do - there is a huge brain drain problem and massive competition among middle classes to send their children overseas to study/work.

All of this raises familiar questions about the role of international aid, how best to tackle global poverty, imbalances in economies and so on. It's ok that there aren't any easy or straightforward answers, but it would be better if people/organisations who are trying to find answers at least recognised the complexities and didn't make grand claims for things that aren't borne out in reality.

Ho hum.

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