Let’s continue investing in Sri Lanka’s future generations | Daily FT

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Forming close bonds and secure relationships with parents and caregivers can enhance a child’s ability to deal with emotional challenges in later life. The World Bank is supporting Sri Lanka to improve human capital development so that future generations, including little children like Amanthi, can achieve their full potential

Reflections on International Day of Education Sri Lanka is the South Asia region’s top performer in terms of human development outcomes and fares well above the average for Lower Middle-Income Countries (LMICs).

This is the result of the country’s commitment and long-track record of achievement in health and education, as evidenced by the country’s universal network of schools and high primary and secondary school enrolment and almost universal coverage of maternal and child health services. And Sri Lanka has been able to achieve these impressive results even though spending on health, education and social protection as a percentage GDP is a lot less than its regional peers and LMICS.

Sri Lanka could aim higher, reaching new heights of productivity and economic growth, if some remaining human development challenges are addressed. Let’s take for example the case of Amanthi, a baby girl born in the Western Province.

According to the World Bank’s latest Human Capital Index (HCI), which was prepared with pre-COVID-19 data, Amanthi would be “40% below what could have been achieved with complete education [14-year schooling with highest achievable test score of 625] and full health [not stunted and live up to age 60]”.

This is primarily driven by a significant learning gap. While Amanthi is expected to complete 13.2 years of school, on par with high-income countries, in terms of what she will actually learn, her expected years of school would be equivalent to only 8.5 years. If we also factor in the country’s relatively high level of stunting, Amanthi has a 17% chance of being stunted, or having impaired growth and development resulting from poor nutrition, repeated infection, and inadequate psychosocial stimulation.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 poses further pressure on human development challenges in Sri Lanka, threatening to reverse years of progress made. Real GDP is expected to have contracted sharply in 2020 due to COVID-19, possibly leading to a significant increase in poverty and vulnerability driven by job and income losses. This could force many Sri Lankan families to engage in negative coping mechanisms such as missing meals and doctor’s visits or foregoing schooling, which will inevitably lead to lower human development outcomes.

To mitigate the pandemic’s negative impact on human development, robust and resilient social protection systems and programs become even more important—especially those that protect the poor and vulnerable populations, including the disabled and the elderly, who will make up as much as 25% of the population by 2040. Indeed, the elderly are particularly affected by the country’s rising rate of non-communicable diseases and are thus more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Finally, school closures—which are expected to lead to more than 10 million more dropouts worldwide in basic education alone and result in losses of $10 trillion in future lifetime earnings globally—will have a disproportionate effect on poor and vulnerable households that lack the capacity to keep their children in school and engaged to continue learning.

To help Sri Lanka “build back better” from the COVID-19 crisis and protect human development gains, the World Bank has provided $155 million of new emergency financing and redirected financing from existing projects (totalling $161 million to date) to help meet immediate and longer-term needs.

For example, the COVID-19 Emergency Response and Health Systems Preparedness Project is helping the government to respond to the urgent health needs and provide emergency income support to poor and vulnerable Sri Lankans, all the while helping to strengthen the country’s health systems for pandemic preparedness. At the Government’s request, important design features of the ongoing Social Safety Net Project were adjusted to ensure that it supports the Government to meet urgent COVID-19-related needs and priorities.

In addition, many projects incorporated COVID-related activities within the existing design. The Early Childhood Development (ECD) Project has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by financing personal protective equipment such as masks, sanitisers, handheld thermal sensing thermometers, and hand washing basins in ECD centres for the health and safety of children and teachers.

It is also expanding tuition fee waiver support to more children as a direct assistance to families facing economic hardships in the wake of the pandemic and providing teaching materials to more ECD centres to reach to a larger population of children in need.

The General Education and Modernization Project is supporting the Government to provide tele-education to children in all provinces, while the Accelerating Higher Education Expansion and Development Operation is assisting universities to deliver digital-based learning and e-learning.

Recently, the World Bank has launched its plan for accelerating human capital development in South Asia—Unleashing South Asian Century through Human Capital for All. This plan provides a framework to support countries in their efforts to accelerate human capital development by focusing on four ‘i’s: invest smarter to ensure quality services for all Sri Lankans; include those who are excluded to offer untapped economic potential; insure against the myriad shocks to protect hard-won human capital gains; and innovate to accelerate human capital accumulation.

The framework could be applied and tailored to the specific needs and priorities of Sri Lanka, in line with the Government’s Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour Manifesto and those measures included in the A Productive Citizen and a Happy Family Policy.

We stand ready to continue supporting Sri Lanka to improve human capital development so that future generations, including little children like Amanthi, can achieve their full potential.

(The writer is World Bank Country Manager for Maldives and Sri Lanka.)