The experience of the Women’s Credit Union 1
Alana AlbeeandNandasiri Gamage
Freelance consultant, UK and community activist, Sri Lanka
According to official statistics, Sri Lanka has had an impressive record of development with only 4 per cent of children dying before their fifth birthday, a high average life expectancy of seventy years and 85 per cent of women deemed to be literate. However, during the 1980s and 1990s, conditions have improved more slowly or not at all: unemployment exceeds 20 per cent of the labour force; prices have multiplied five-fold between 1977 and 1990 and government expenditure on social welfare has declined to pre-1960s levels. These conditions have had a devastating impact on low-income households, especially women, as increased poverty has forced them into the workforce as either co-, primary or sole income earners.
The extent of urban poverty is exemplified by the case of Colombo where there are approximately 850 low-income settlements with a total of more than 350,000 residents. The endurance of poverty here has led many people to question the whole concept of development. As argued by one of the authors, Nandasiri Gamage:
Sri Lanka is classified as a ‘developing’ country. My father read about this as a young man, now I read about it in my middle-age and my son reads about it in school. Yet, it is unclear to us what we, as Sri Lankans, want to achieve and how we want to define ‘development’. Are the huge buildings and roads and the tourists on the seaside beaches indicators of ‘development’? Whose needs will be met by these?
(Albee and Gamage 1996:39)