Some background: my month in Sri Lanka

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*This post is a part of a series, vignettes really, meant to capture the work I’ve been up to in Sri Lanka this December & January and my own thoughts and impressions of the changes I’ve seen and the people I’ve met. Check back here daily for more :)

It’s been a really great long month here in Sri Lanka. I’ve been primarily on the ground here working on  GrowLanka, a mobile system Ishani and I co-founded that sends job alerts to job seekers in northern Sri Lanka. You might remember that we were here last year working in the north. Then, we talked to a whole lot of people on the ground – factory workers, UN officials, city commissioners, war widows, young people, employers – and identified an information gap between new employers who were just coming to the region and job seekers. There’s a mismatch you could say: after the war, lots of people are in need of work and businesses are slowly but surely coming in. Despite the labor supply and the new need, vacancies weren’t being filled.

It’s a problem that still exists for a bevy of reasons. Some might tell you that there’s a skills gap – that workers just don’t have the skills needed to fill some of these new jobs. But even for those jobs that require no skills, there has been a lag in recruitment. Some might say that is for cultural reasons: these are jobs people don’t want or after war, people aren’t used to working without constant interruption. Some even argue that job seekers, contrary to what you might think, can wait it out until they can find the job that they want – the ideal job being one in banking or finance or in government. An interesting side note: even in telling you their job of choice, those in the north reveal their basis for job selection – stability, security, and long term benefits. Risks are something they’re not willing to take. They may be entrepreneurial but they’re not necessarily (at least right now) scaling their businesses extensively beyond, say, a family-sized business or what we might call a small/medium enterprise (SME.) Others might say there’s an information gap – those in outlying villages don’t know about new jobs in the town center – jobs that they would have had to have biked to but that now are more accessible with the new roads and bridges the government has built. It’s this last factor that we chose to tackle with GrowLanka.

We offered up a technological solution to the information gap. There’s more than 85% mobile penetration in this region; that means that while people don’t necessarily always have the resources or the means (or quite frankly, the time) to travel to find jobs, they can still access information about new vacancies if they get an SMS about them. Job alerts systems exist in the country but we found quickly that there’s a gap. These systems require the user to interface at some point with a computer screen – that is, to register you need a reliable internet connection and the ability to sign on to get information about how to subscribe to the system. Once you’ve subscribed online, you’ll get the SMSs. These are valuable systems but they service primarily middle income users who have access to wifi and computers in the first place. The average user in the north has a phone but not a computer – meaning they were in essence being excluded from these job networks. That’s where we come in. We designed a mobile system in which every function—subscribing, unsubscribing, getting job alerts, talking to employers—could be completed using just a simple mobile phone. We’ve been developing and iterating the system for a while now but this December/January was our real subscriber push. That means I’ve spent this month criss-crossing between Colombo and Jaffna, Vavuniya, and Killinochchi in the north essentially campaigning, telling people about our system, and getting people subscribed.

In the process, I have learned so much – about the people of Sri Lanka and the transition point this country is at, about the labor market, about technological solutions and what they really need to succeed. I’ll be talking more about these lessons in upcoming posts. What I hope these posts will reveal is that Sri Lanka is an incredible case study for a post-conflict society. Economic success here is not just important to increase the livelihood of the people. Given the transitional state this country is in economic success could mean the difference between the country charting down an authoritarian path or a democratic one. While I don’t think economic development is in and of itself enough to sustain the people in the north (in other words: a political settlement will be needed soon), economic development does serve a valuable purpose: it helps to foster a sense of inclusivity, a perception that a kid being educated in Jaffna has just as good a shot at a good life as a kid being educated in Colombo. Arriving at a lasting peace in Sri Lanka requires then both political reconciliation and the somewhat more novel idea of economic reconciliation. Inequality must be thwarted, the people of the north have to be given a fair shot at integrating into the country’s economy, and the public and the private and the individual have a huge role to play in making sure that happens.

Up next: a post about the technical fails of field work 

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