Today marks the start of my Fulbright. For the next nine months I will be living and working in Sri Lanka.
My monthly stipend of 125,000 Sri Lankan Rupees ($976). The average household income is Rs. 36451 ($704). So I will be earning roughly 38% more than the average family every month.
I’m curious to learn what kind of life this buys someone in Sri Lanka, and I’m especially interested in seeing how someone lives off of the average wage.
This nation’s economy was stalled for nearly 30 years, due to their civil war. Since the war was ended in 2009 the country has begun to flourish once more; tourists have begun to explore the island while the global garment trade has embraced Sri Lanka. For 2012 the country is expected to grow at 7.2%, which ranks among the top growth economies in the world. Growth can easily be assumed to be a wholly positive event, but economic growth presents unique challenges. Sri Lanka is especially vulnerable to energy shocks, as it imports all of its oil; many Americans know the pain they feel as the price of petrol increases, imagine if your income was 10% of what it currently is.
As a nation develops stresses begin to emerge within its social fabric. One of my great takeaways from China was that as a country develops the divide between rich and poor grows at an exponential rate, and this can lead to a great deal of social unrest. Growth at this rate presents many challenges for governments, from containing inflation to constructing infrastructure.
Sri Lanka has a number of things going for it. It claims one of the highest literacy rates in South East Asia (over 90%), along with some of the highest Human Development Index scores. Sri Lanka also has some of the lowest infant mortality rates in the developing world, due in large part to its extensive network of publicly funded hospitals. All doctors are required to spend at least one day a week working in these institutions.
From the reports I’ve read it seems that Sri Lanka is a fairly equitable society on the rise, I look forward to investigating this for myself.
In contextualizing China’s recent growth, many in the nation refer to historical precedent. For a great deal of the world’s history, China was the largest economy in the world. India and China combined made up roughly half of the world’s GDP. To many in China, the last two centuries were an economic anomaly which is on its way to being corrected.
Ceylon, the Pearl of the Orient is reestablishing itself. Once one of the wealthiest nations in the world, it was said a man could walk across the island with just the clothes of his back and not just survive, but thrive off of the local vegetation. Historical evidence suggests that Sri Lanka traded with the Egyptians as early as 1500 BC. Some of the most prized spices in the world originated on this island: cinnamon, cardamom, and citronella. And many other spices flourished in this tropical climate, such as rubber. It might be difficult to imagine today, but for the vast majority of global history wars were fought over the spice trade. To this day Sri Lanka produces over 90% of the world’s cinnamon.
I’m beginning this Fulbright with many questions, and if experience has taught me anything I’m sure that my time in Sri Lanka will raise more questions than it answers.