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Less citizen-blaming, more empathy

9 months ago

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In an interview with BBC over the weekend, International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva said that Governments need to subsidise the cost of food and energy for the poorest members of society, and expressed concern that without the correct government support, the protests seen in Sri Lanka could be repeated in other countries. She added that similar unrest to Sri Lanka’s was seen before the pandemic, from France to Chile, due to a growing sense of inequality and decisions being made without the support of the people. These words should matter to Sri Lanka on three fronts: Firstly, the fact that Georgieva takes Sri Lanka as a cautionary tale for other middle-income and developing nations goes to show that, while economic crises in the post-pandemic world are not unique to Sri Lanka, it now has the dubious distinction of being one of the first nations to completely collapse. Secondly, the IMF has long been accused of being blind to the concerns of the poorest segments of the countries it provides funding to, focusing almost entirely on fiscal consolidation and long-term economic recovery through increased taxation and austerity measures, at the cost of welfare and social security. However, the IMF of the past decade has tried to shake this image for a more humane and empathetic one, and that revamp has been accelerated by the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Therefore, what Georgieva’s comments underline is that even an organisation with the reputation of the IMF understands the importance of being sensitive to ordinary citizens’ complaints to prevent social unrest from snowballing into social chaos and anarchy. Thirdly, Georgieva’s comments come alongside comments by MPs representing the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), condemning the growing acts of sabotage and disruption by the public, making little effort to understand the underlying causes of such behavior and their own part in creating those causes. The propagator-in-chief of this condemnation has been Minister of Power and Energy Kanchana Wijesekera, who warned the public that fuel will not be distributed to filling stations in areas where the public are blocking roads and behaving in a riotous manner. These acts of disruption play in to the hands of the beleaguered Government, which can use it to further its narrative that it is trying its best to stabilise the economy and bring back a sense of normalcy to civilian life, but that the civilians themselves, sometimes egged on by the political opposition, are not allowing it to do so. The lack of fuel stocks in Sri Lanka can easily be hidden behind the veil of disruptive behavior making distribution of fuel impossible, passing the blame from the Government to the people themselves. It’s the age old, tried and tested, divide and rule playbook that has worked so well for Machiavellian leaders over centuries, and equally well for the Rajapaksa family that has ruled Sri Lanka for 17 years. Turn the people against each other, so they spend more time fighting amongst themselves and have less time to fight the Government. Make no mistake, obstructing fuel bowsers and blocking off roads to vehicles is not the best way for people to make their demand for fuel. It directly inconveniences and disadvantages their fellow citizens who are in the same boat as the disruptors. However, looking at these disruptive activities in the abstract, without considering the environment that gave rise to them, is both unfair to the masses and unilluminating for the purposes of analysis. Human beings are often irrational when faced with dire circumstances and impossible situations. When their frustrations cannot be vented on the politicians who are responsible for their plight, as they are protected by mutitudes of military and policemen with weapons, they tend to vent on the easy targets. This helps nobody and can actually worsen matters, but it is an emotional response rather than a logical one.  However, the danger lies in an escalation of these types of disruptive behavior to the level of violence and looting. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe himself said that the next couple of months will be the worst in our lifetime economically, which for many Sri Lankans is hard to imagine, considering how difficult the past few months have been. However, the statement is accurate, and if it plays out as feared, one can only hope the public exercises restraint and patience, and that society does not descend into lawlessness and anarchy, which could in turn lead to violence and bloodshed – which Sri Lanka has seen enough of over the decades. If such a worst-case scenario is to be avoided, the Government needs to take heed of the IMF chief’s words, that the poorest segments of society should not be forgotten or overlooked in the endeavor to stabilise the economy and put Sri Lanka back on track. If the Government develops an increased level of empathy and a decreased level of victim-blaming, a heightened sense of self-reflection and a lowered sense of self-importance, and a greater empathy for the masses for whom it is a challenge to source their next meal, Sri Lanka may be able to minimise the stark inequalities the pandemic and the Government’s policies have created, and ensure this full blown economic crisis does not escalate into a full-blown social and humanitarian crisis.  

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