Alcohol & Poverty

Title: Alcohol and Poverty

Year of Publication: 2003

Author: Berguot Baklien and Dr.Diyanath Samarasinghe

Subject: Alcohol and Poverty relationship in Sri Lanka

Summary: What is the role of alcohol in different social settings in Sri Lanka? To what extent does alcohol contribute to creating perpetuating or worsening poverty, and to what extent is alcohol a hindrance to development?


This report is on a study of alcohol and Poverty commissioned by the development agency FORUT (Norway). The study ran from june 2002 to june 2003. it covered several settings specified by forut, as the agency commissioning the study. These settings included urban overcrowed communities(commonly referred to as ‘slums’), dry zone and wet zone reral communities, an estate sector community and a setting of persons initially displayed. To provide better coverage, a predominantly Roman Catholic ’fishing’ community was added to the list originally provided.


The methodology was principally an in-depth qualitative inquiry through trained and regularly supervised field assistants. The in-depth component required the field assistant to be in the given community for a period of at least ten days. There were seven locations so studied. This was supplemented by a brief inquiry in three other settings to obtain greater coverage. An ‘informal’ entry was used to study eight other urban settings within the capital Colombo.

In addition a short questionnaire exploring quantitatively some variable connected to alcohol use was administered at the end of the qualitative study.

Principle findings
‘Poverty’ could refer to many things including a limitation in richness of people’s lives, poor income or lack of basic needs. All of those unsurprisingly went together in the most of the settings that we studied. Lives were limited in the range of things to be involved in or to do, in variety of interested, in aspirations to aim for and in comforts and range of opportunities to enjoy leisure. We found that people with poor income generally, but not always, had poorer or more limited lives. But poverty of lives was not always a function of poor income.

Poverty seemed strongly to imply uncertainty and a lack of control over the future. Many had such regular and routine lives, with so little variation, that they could forecast today the routine they would have to follow on any given day in the future, even ten years hence. But such persons too still felt uncertain about the future. They were still at the mercy of such things as drought and other natural disasters. Any possible variation from a routine and unchanging life could occur only due to a calamity!

Among the economically deprived there was a great deal of intra-group differences. The poor of many levels, but some common features that were evident below are listed below.


Many of the most poor in the city are crowded together. Much of the character of their lives stems from unable to ‘wall themselves off’ for example as a family, from what happens in their community. Most of the poor in the village and the not-so-poor in the city have a slightly better defined space, a boundary. But porosity is found in rural settings too, particularly among those living in the line houses, and in the fishing community.

Because of not having a boundary beyond which the rest of the world or community cannot intrude ( or ‘porosity’ of the living space ), the poor in the city’s overcrowded tenements find it difficult to improve economically. Especially so if others around them do not particularly want them to. This phenomenon has major implications for those living such circumstances and for those working for development in such settings.

Porosity has other important consequences too. The lack of private space makes it difficult to resolve conflicts in private. ‘Loss of face’ has to be avoided and, strangely theris probably more fighting and aggression where people cannot have a boundary between themselves and the rest of the world. Or the fighting is more visible.

Envy and jealousy

A feling of ‘envy’ for anybody who rises above the rest was strongly evident. Whether this tendency, to want keep all others no better than oneself, is a feature outside this kind of community has to be studied. But it certainly is a strong element in these communities. Many of our informants have referred to this as ‘jealousy’. This tendency is most evident in relation to money and materials possessions, and was common to both rural and urban settings.

More subtle improvements are envied too. A couple that is happy together will be envied. There may even be attempt to impede their wellbeing. A man who does not consume alcohol daily with the crowd can be targeted in the same way.

Visible consumption

People spend money on things that give them social credit. We found that there are massive expenditure on alcohol for ‘celebrations’ in poor families. It is almost as if they want to be envied their expenditure. At the same time as they complain of others wanting to keep them down because of envy or ‘jealousy’ there is a desire to do exactly the things that others make other envy them. Showoff is a kind of must. The need to be envied, or to get social credit, is probably an important factor that keeps people poor. Families getting into debt, and having to pay interest of over ten percent per month for life, was reported common following even a single celebration such as that for a daughter reaching menarche.

Lack of control

Poor people seemed to have more direct pressure applied on them than the rich, regarding how they should live. Others in the community could directly demand conformity. This applies to how they choose to conduct a ‘private’ event. Parents in a poor community, who did not wish have a party when their daughter reached menarche, could be asked to explain why. Some informants said that they could be forced to change their decision.


Criminals acts and violence appeared rather close to the surface to the poorest communities. Whether similar degrees of violence and criminality in richer communities are somehow hidden requires separate investigation. But the overall impression was that violent and aggressive behavior was always lurking somewhere close to the surface. And it was as if this tendency strongly influenced life in the poorest communities. ‘Everybody’ recognized, for example, that the trade in illicit drugs and illicit alcohol should not be seriously challenged. The undertone of possible organization criminal elements was more evident in the urban settings.

‘Impossibility’ of overcoming poverty

A repeated theme was that people could never emerge from poverty as long as they lived in their overcrowded urban setting, irrespective of the income they were able to earn. One factor underlying this is the ‘porosity’ of living arrangements that we referred to earlier. There is no room for gradual growth or development. Any progress is visible, and others are not keen to see just one family prosper. The sense was that others would not allow people to develop, and that the shared lives allow them to obstruct those who want to develop. There may be other barriers too, common to both rural and urban settings. One of these is that people have not only to overcome their own personal and private poverty. They have to overcome the culture of poverty that is a part of their surrounding and their everyday life. It appears that acceptance of current circumstances is more adaptive than trying to overcome them.

Alcohol and other substance use.

Significant heroin use was almost entirely an urban phenomenon. Cannabis smoking was common in several rural settings. Alcohol was nearly everywhere. Alcohol and heroin are needed as an essential daily commodity by a significant minority of the poor in urban communities. Alcohol, most commonly illicit, is similarly needed daily by a significant minority of the rural. Tobacco is too, but it is somehow less noticed or commented upon. Alcohol and heroin get much more attention than tobacco does.

An apparent discrepancy was found between the qualitative and quantitative study results. In the quantitative study 63% reported that they never consumed alcohol. Only 17% consumed more often than once a week. But the qualitative study yielded the impression that nearly every male wanted to have alcohol at weddings and celebrations and they would all protest openly about not being able to enjoy the event if there was no alcohol. But in the anonymous quantitative study just 32% said that the act of drinking was a pleasant experience while only 14% said that the experience of’ being drunk’ was pleasant.

The data were analyzed separately and could not be clarified with the respondents. There are several possible explanations for this seeming contradiction. One of these is that, during social events, a minority of very vociferous individuals who want to promote alcohol are able to create an impression that becomes somehow the view of the whole group, most whom remain silent.

Perception of ‘alcohol user’ and abstainer.