Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Will Sri Lankans' basic honesty survive economic hardship?

Something I like most about Sri Lanka is the basic honesty of its people, especially poor people. A good example, one of many, is the watch repairman who occupies a small covered kiosk in the working-class district of Colombo near where I live. The kiosk is tiny. Here is hardly room for its young proprietor to sit down.

I came there one morning with two watches that needed battery replacement. I had brought them from the US, where that kind of service is either unavailable or expensive. In about twenty minutes the job was done. It included not only battery replacement, but a meticulous cleaning of both watches. The cost, including the replacement batteries was 200 Sri Lankan rupees - about $1.90.

This is but one among numerous examples of honest dealing by strangers whose income is very modest and whose living conditions are harsh, by developed-world standards. Others include the newspaper seller, the lunch packet salesperson, the store clerk, the tri-shaw (tuk tuk) driver, the bus conductor. These women and men are meticulous about charging modestly for services rendered and counting out the correct change. The only Sri Lankans I have met who regularly connive and attempt to cheat are a few of those working in tourist areas who deal regularly with foreigners.

I have a concern. Many Sri Lankans are facing severe economic hardships. A costly war has dragged on for more than twenty years. Inflation is estimated to be twenty-five per-cent, though official figures are far lower. Some political leaders have adopted the common tactic of whipping up nationalist sentiment to intimidate political opponents and divert attention from economic realities. Concerns have been expressed that the Central Bank, whose staff was once known for high professional standards is ‘cooking the books.’ Newspaper reports and local gossip tell stories of political, leaders whose primary goal appears to be retaining power and using public office for political gain. These problems are not unique to Sri Lanka, of course. America too, as I have written in other blogs, has political leaders who use public office for political gain, who spew divisive rhetoric as a tactic for clinging to power and whose actions make it clear that there is one “the rule of law” standard for themselves but another for everyone else.

An environment of economic hardship and political corruption, coupled with a widening gap between rich and poor, can over time, corrode the integrity of all but the hardiest. Why should one be honest, the poor are likely to ask, when it is becoming impossible to provide for one’s family and the future of one’s children looks bleak? I fear the erosion of generally high standards of honesty that now characterize most Sri Lankans – and most Americans.

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