Social protection in Sri Lanka is a vast subject and it needs to be dealt with statistics and many aspects in detail to have a very clear picture of the subject. Since this cannot be dealt in 05 minutes I wanted to limit myself to same reflections which are common to Sri Lank and the marginalized poor. Covid 19 crisis has dealt a significant shock to Sri Lanka’s economy and its citizens. This has impacted on poverty and inequality in the country. Prior to the pandemic poverty was relatively law in Sri Lanka. However the vulnerabilities were high and new after the pandemic and it is at different rate. Many workers are not covered under the social protection benefits and employment protection; this has led most of the private and co-operative sector workers vulnerable during 2020 – 2021. Added to this the daily wage workers have been the most affected class of people. Sustainable development goals which replaced by millennium development goals, look unrealistic with the catastrophic impacts with the pandemic situation in the globe. Perhaps a better way of being realistic and sustainable would be to extend the timeframe works and redefine to negotiate with realistic achievements and fulfillments.

Social protection is deeply embedded in safeguarding principles and policies of a country. Sadly, governments have a history of contradictory forms of engagements with policies as with the change in the government from time to time. This has resulted in bringing miseries and adversities to the marginalized and the poor. Is there a way forward? SDGs look to be only in a mirage. The gap between the rich and poor is ever widening. As at 2021 the poor in the island is calculated to be roughly 2.5 million. (Less than 3$). The poor in Sri Lanka are the rural domestic farmers, the native community, plantation workers, slum dwellers, distant rural folk, etc,.

Social protection is closely associated with distributive justice, a concern for just allocation of resources, outcome driven in its focus proposing a justifiable economic, political, and social framework with effective laws, institutions, policies, for the assurance of equal distribution of benefits in a society, also the burdens. A Theory of Justice, John Rawls expounds the concept of justice as farness and a social responsibility. The theory consists of three core components:

  • the equality of people in rights and liberties;
  • the equality of opportunities for all; and
  • an arrangement of economic inequalities focused on benefit maximization for those who are least advantaged.

Moral consciousness should guide the political processes and administrative structures promoting a better structure that benefits each and every citizen. Social protection is a right of ensuring people’s access to basic services and facilities in a society with greater diversification in terms capabilities and resources for wellbeing.

The definitions of Social protection

The set of public measures that a society provides for its members to protect them against economic and social distress that would be caused by the absence or a substantial reduction of income from work as a result of various contingencies (sickness, maternity, employment injury, unemployment, invalidity, old age, and death of the breadwinner); the provision of health care; and, the provision of benefits for families with children. – World Bank, 2015

Social protection, is concerned with preventing, managing, and overcoming situations that adversely affect people’s well-being – United Nations Research Institute for Social Development

The Social Protection Floor is a global social policy approach to ensure universal access to at least the following guarantees adopted by UNCEB

  1. Access to essential health care, including maternity care;
  2. Basic income security for children (eg. family allowances);
  3. Basic income security for persons in active age who are unable to work (eg. social protection benefits for persons with disabilities, unemployed, maternity);
  4. Basic income security for older persons (eg. pensions).

Sri Lanka – Socio-economic structure and disparity in the distribution of income 

Growth Model is contrary to common assumption that when the poverty decreases, inequality subdues.

Sri Lanka’s poverty levels have seen a significant reduction. The poverty headcount ratio was at 4.1% in 2016, compared to 15.2% in 2006/7 (Department of Census and Statistics,2016). Despite the decline in income poverty, income inequality continues to remain unchanged. More than half the total household income of the country is enjoyed by the richest 20% in Sri Lanka while the bottom decile (poorest 20%) gets only 5%, with the share of household income being just 1.6% for the poorest 10%. (CEPA,2021) Sri Lanka’s Gini-coefficient of household income was 0.45 in 2016 which shows that inequality is still a concern. (CEPA, 2021). Contributing factors for income inequality, a) regional disparity, b) infrastructure investments on regional wise, c) access and opportunities for higher education, d) lack of employment opportunities

Social protection arrangements in Sri Lanka are composed of free education healthcare system, pension-based and lump sum retirement benefits, and various poverty alleviation and financial assistance programmes.

Deficiencies of social protection programs in Sri Lanka

  • Aspect of vulnerability in Informal employment – Accounts for 70 percent of total work force in Sri  Lanka, and is not included under retirement benefits (Employees Provident Fund and Employment Trust Fund, and pensions),  medical and maternity benefits
  • Public health system is in par with international and regional standards, the failure to increase investment is threatening that performance. One resulting issue that is of concern is the role of out-of-pocket expenditures on healthcare that has a substantial negative impact on the welfare of poorer households – an equity and also poverty issue.  (ILO, 2016)
  • Lack of unemployment insurance (UI) system to address unemployment risks, and subsequent fallout to economic and social issues, (the unemployment rate for the first quarter 2020 is 5.7 percent. The number of unemployed persons is estimated as at the first quarter 2020 is 483,172 . Unemployment rate between the age group of  15 -2 4  and 25 – 29  are respectively 36.3 and 18.9)
  • According to Census and statistics department 2016, 25.8 % households are headed by women (one in every four), Social assistance programs for FHH is not holistic and sustainable and majority of women headed households in North and East are not covered under the scheme as they are being categorized as war widows, a nationally accepted definition is a necessity
  • Lack of comprehensive and sustainable programs for Child nutrition  with lower income categories, According to the recent Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) 2016, more than 20% of children and nearly 15.7% babies born were underweight; whereas respective figures were around 21% and 16.6% in 2006 (Department of Census and Statistics, 2007, 2016) (IPS, 2020)
  • Access to territory education: The gross enrollment rate of tertiary education is 18.9% in Sri Lanka, which is considerably lower than that of upper middle income countries (average of 50.7%) and is even lower than the lower middle-income average (23.5%). Only 18.7% of qualified candidates who attained minimum requirements at general certificate of education at advanced level are admitted to higher education (ADB, 2018)
  • Samurdhi programme – the benefits of the Samurdhi programme is considered small when compared with the actual transfer needed to move households out of poverty. From 2004 to 2018 in the lapse of 14 years, there was a decrease in the number of families receiving the grants from 1,864,058 to 1,384,021, which represents a drop of 25.8% of coverage. (MPRA, 2020)
  • Gaps in the coverage of existing schemes in terms of the range of contingencies set out in ILO Convention 102 on Social Security, and the number of persons effectively protected. Many contingencies are covered on a universal basis (health care) or covered under one scheme or another (old age, disability, survivorship). Some contingencies are only partially covered (disability, maternity, workmen’s compensation) and others not at all (unemployment). (National Human resources and employment policy, 2021)

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought up new vulnerable groups leading to an increase in poverty through subdued economic activity and decline in labor market outcomes. Job losses are highly concentrated in the lower middle income categories. The Impact of COVID 19, to vulnerable groups including emerging groups or the segments needs to be analyzed to effectively structure the social protection schemes with evolved context.

Conventional indicators fail to take into account real vulnerabilities within existing socio economic structure and with its challenges especially within evolved social context due to the pandemic, and it is of vital importance redefining measures for assessing vulnerabilities with a new perspective based on research work for strengthening social protection policy and measures.

Rev. Fr. Mahendra Gunatilleke 

National Director – Caritas Sri Lanka – SEDEC



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social protection, United NationsEconomic and Social Commission for Western Asia, (2020),
Social protection, ILO, Updated by Victoria Giroud-Castiella , Clara van Panhuys (2021),
Review of Social Protection Policies and Programmes Strengthening Family Well-being, Sri Lanka Country Report, Prepared by A. T. P. L. Abeykoon and Ruwanthi Elwalagedara, IHP, 2008,
Female headed households by sector, province and district – 2016, department of census and statistics,,ProvinceAndDistrict2016.pdf
A Proactive Path to Combat Malnutrition in Sri Lanka, by PRIYANKA JAYAWARDENA June 2020,
Secondary sector education program, PROGRAM SOUNDNESS ASSESSMENT,(2018 – 2022)
Social protection in Sri Lanka: An analysis of the social, economic and political effectiveness of the Samurdhi program, Sánchez Ramos, Karen Melissa and Karimi, Abdul Matin Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft (HTW) Berlin, 24 July 2020,
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