Access and Empowerment: Literacy and Development in Rural Sri Lanka

September 11, 2018

Literacy is the ability to read and write. More than that, it also grants access to knowledge and information in a broader sense. Literacy is empowerment, employability, security, and independence. It includes skillsets like digital and financial literacy, and it is an essential requirement for socio-economic development, self-determination, and effective participation in society and economy.

Sri Lanka has the highest basic literacy rate in South Asia, and its education system has continued to improve despite 26 years of civil war. However, the country still has a long way to go regarding literacy in the broader sense: especially in rural areas and the estate sector, the low rates of digital literacy, financial literacy, and English literacy are alarming.

This gap between urban and rural areas brings harsh consequences: it hinders the development of rural Sri Lanka and denies rural communities access to advanced education, higher-paid jobs, and a better quality of life.

A Closer Look at Literacy

According to government data and the World Bank, Sri Lanka has a youth literacy of almost 99% and adult literacy of over 92%. However, this only counts literacy in the basic definition, which comprises someone “who can both read and write with understanding a short simple statement on his/her everyday life” (UNESCO).

To participate and succeed in a globalised and digitalised world, a broader, functional literacy is essential. The overall rates of digital literacy (38.7%), financial literacy (35%), and English literacy (22%) are still low, and the ones in rural communities (and also among women and disadvantaged groups) are the lowest.

Today, eight out of ten Sri Lankans (82%) live in rural areas, and almost 27% of the labour force work in agriculture. Many of them are small-holder farmers that are severely threatened by the impacts of climate change, including rising temperatures, erratic rainfall patterns, soil degradation, saltwater intrusion, and more frequent and intense extreme weather events. For them, economic diversification, capacity-building, and infrastructural development are crucial for survival in the long run.

Digital Natives and Analogue Outsiders: Digital Literacy in Rural Sri Lanka

According to the Department of Census and Statistics, digital literacy in Sri Lanka in 2017 is 38.7%, with digital literacy denoting a person’s ability to use a computer, laptop, tablet, or smartphone without assistance. In the rural and estate sectors, the digital literacy rate is 36.4% and 16.4% respectively.

A main reason for this is inadequate information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure. In 2017, only 21% of rural households and only 5.1% of households in the estate sector had a desktop computer or a laptop, compared to almost 40% in urban areas. Most rural and estate sector households actually rely on smartphones and not on desktop and laptop computers, with almost 60% of rural households that connected to the internet and accessed e-mails using a smartphone to do so.

Internet adoption in rural areas of Sri Lanka has been rising, but many rural areas still don’t have sufficient infrastructure despite development initiatives by government and NGOs, including President Sirisena’s 2015 “Free Wi-Fi for Regional Towns” initiative and Google’s “Project Loon” (which aims to use high-altitude balloons to provide Wi-Fi across the country).

A closer look at the Department of Census and Statistics data reveals that computer literacy is higher for men (42.5%) than for women (35.2%). Age-wise, it is highest for those between 15 and 29 years (64.5 to 71.4%), then drops till it reaches its low point at the group of 60-69-year-olds (9.1%), the oldest group represented in the survey.

The main source of computer knowledge is school/university (56.4%), followed by friends and relatives (32.9%), private courses (27.8%), family members (22.2%), and self-acquired (21.1%). Since the formal education sector seems to be the primary source of computer knowledge, further investment in this area could go a long way to raise digital literacy.

Managing Money: Financial Literacy in Rural Sri Lanka

Financial literacy describes the skillset and knowledge necessary to make sound financial decisions, manage personal finances, and understand financial products and concepts.

The Standards & Poor Global Financial Literacy Survey 2014 found an adult financial literacy rate of 35% in Sri Lanka, well above almost all other South Asian countries except Bhutan. Sri Lanka has also one of the largest gaps between basic literacy and financial literacy in South Asia, owing in part to the high rate of basic literacy but also indicating a need for change in financial education.

Financial literacy would enable more people to make use of microfinance, grant, and insurance opportunities, to better manage their existing finances, and to start small-scale businesses. It could lead to a broader economic foundation and livelihood diversification, reducing the dependence on subsistence agriculture and therefore reliable weather patterns (which is an increasing problem due to the impacts of climate change).

According to research by the Asian Development Bank, pre-paid calling cards have provided access to mobile phones for people in rural areas. It is likely that SMS-based banking in the local languages could do the same for e-banking.

All About Access: English Literacy in Rural Sri Lanka

Despite English being taught as a second language in school, only 22% of Sri Lanka’s population are literate in English. On the EF English Proficiency Index, Sri Lanka places 61st out of 80 countries with a score of only 47.84. The National Educational Research Centre’s 2015 and 2016 assessment of grade 4 and grade 8 students across the country reveals a significant divide between urban and rural schools, with mean scores of 61% (grade 4) and 45% (grade 8) in urban schools compared to 49% and 33% in rural ones.

According to the Labour Demand Survey 2017, insufficient English literacy is a major constraint for employability in the private sector. Without proficiency in English, many job opportunities remain out of reach for youth and adults from rural communities, limiting them to low-paying and partially unsustainable work in the agricultural sector, as drivers, and as day labourers.

The government’s 2018 budget allocates 50 million to establish a training centre for English teachers, but the data suggests that the problem might not be a shortage of qualified English teachers but rather their unequal distribution among public and private schools and urban and rural areas.

Outlook and Solutions

The data paints a clear picture and suggests the most promising path to improvement. Already, Sri Lanka is on the right track and well above its South Asian peers regarding basic and complex literacies. The existing formal primary and secondary education system, which is responsible for the high rates of basic literacy, provides a solid foundation for development in rural Sri Lanka.

A bigger investment in ICT and banking infrastructure in rural and estate areas would provide the technical prerequisites while a stronger focus on literacy in formal and informal education would allow people from rural communities to make use of them and diversify their livelihoods. Financial literacy should be included in the formal education syllabus, and special attention needs to be paid to literacy among women.

If Sri Lanka manages to improve the digital, financial, and English literacy of its rural population, the resulting access to knowledge, jobs, and socio-economic participation will do much to develop rural areas, build capacities for a globalised and digitalised world, and adapt to the impacts of climate change.


Department of Census and Statistics (2017). Computer Literacy Statistics – 2017 (First six months)
Department of Census and Statistics (2017). Sri Lanka Labour Demand Survey 2017.
Karunathilaka, K. T. S. (2016). A Study on Financial Literacy of Rural Community in Sri Lanka: With Special Reference to Kurunegala District. Submission to International Postgraduate Research Conference, University of Kelaniya.
Kelegama, S., & Tilakaratna, G. (2014). Financial Inclusion, Regulation, and Education in Sri Lanka. ADBI Working Paper 504. Tokyo, Japan: Asian Development Bank Institute.
Madhubhashini Galagedarage, G. T. (2015). Issues in Internet Adoption and Rural Empowerment in Sri Lanka. Journal of Humanities & Social Sciences, Vol. 9/2015.
National Education Research and Evaluation Centre (2015/2016). National Report – National Assessment of Achievement of Students.
Oxford Business Group (2016). Sri Lanka’s government expands telecoms connectivity in urban and rural areas. In The Report: Sri Lanka 2016.
UNESCO (2006). Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2006: Literacy for life. Paris, France: UNESCO Publishing.
World Bank (2017). World Development Indicators 2017. Washington, DC: World Bank.

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About the Author
Dennis Mombauer

Dennis has close to a decade of experience working in research, and management and administration in the private sector as well as two years in coordination in the development sector. His research focuses on ecosystem-based adaptation, sustainable development, climate migration, and other topics related to climate change. He has published articles about these topics in numerous places, for example Earth Island Journal, Mongabay, The Environmental Blog, Daily FT, and Colombo Telegraph. He holds degrees in Education, English Studies, and Philosophy from the University of Cologne, Germany, and has additional qualifications in GIS mapping, video editing, translation, and publishing. ‍