Alcohol and Poverty





This report is of a study on ‘Alcohol and Poverty’ commissioned by the development agency FORUT (Norway). The study ran from June 2002 to June 2003 and covered several settings. These included urban overcrowded communities (commonly referred to as ‘slums’), dry zone and wet zone rural communities, an estate sector community, a predominantly Roaman Catholic ‘fishing’ village and a setting of people internally displaced.



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 variables connected to alcohol use was administered at the end of the qualitative study.


Principal 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 these, unsurprisingly, went together in 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 interests, 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.  But even such persons felt uncertain about the future.  They were still at the mercy of such things as droughts and other natural disasters.  Any variation from a routine and unchanging life was due to a calamity!

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



Many of the most poor in the city are crowded together. Much of the character of their lives is derived from the fact that they are unable to ‘wall themselves off’, for example as a family, from what happens in their community.  The poor in the village and the not-so-poor in the city have a slightly better defined space, a boundary.  But porosity is also found in several rural settings, particularly among those living in ‘camps’ for the internally displaced, the estate workers 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 find it difficult to improve economically, if others around them do not particularly wish that they do.  This has major implications for those trying to work 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, there is 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 feeling of ‘envy’ for anybody who rises above the rest was strongly evident.  Whether this tendency, to want to 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 material 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 attempts 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 expenditures 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 make other people envy them. Show off is a kind of must.  The need to be envied, or to get social credit, is probably an important factor that keeps people poor.


Alcohol and other substance use 

Significant heroin use was almost entirely an urban phenomenon.  Cannabis smoking was common in several rural settings.  Alcohol was everywhere.  Alcohol and heroin are an integral part of the lives of a significant minority in poor urban communities.  Alcohol, mostly illicit, is an integral part of the lives of a significant minority of the rural.  Tobacco use is too, but it is somehow less noticed or commented upon.  Alcohol and heroin have much more happening ‘around’ them than tobacco does.  Tobacco use does not call for any lifestyle or ritual.

An apparent discrepancy between the qualitative and quantitative study results was the number reported to be consuming alcohol.  In the quantitative study 63% reported that they never consumed alcohol.  Only 17% consumed more often than once a week and only two thirds of this group reported that they felt happier after drinking alcohol.  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.

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 a minority of very vociferous individuals is able to create the impression that appears to be the view of the whole group, most of whom are silent.


Image of alcohol use

The quantitative component of this study included a focus on how people saw alcohol use and users.  In this, fifty nine percent of the total number of respondents rated alcohol users as less attractive than others (vs 20% who found them more attractive).  Similar ratings were obtained for whether alcohol users were seen as stronger or weaker than the others, more or less intelligent than others and whether they enjoyed life more or less than others.

On nearly all of these parameters the occasional drinkers and abstainers had close to identical proportions holding the same opinion, quite different from the proportions given by frequent (twice week or more) drinkers.  The classification of people into ‘alcohol users’ and ‘abstainers’ is often used in Sri Lanka.  This division may be artificial.  The more ‘natural’ division appears to be between the occasional users and non-users on the one side and the frequent users on the other.


Cost of alcohol

The effect of alcohol on the community was enormous.  It was not just the money spent on alcohol, but also its impact on norms of behaviour.  But the monetary cost too was high.  The findings of our quantitative study correspond to what has generally been known and reported about the monetary expenditures on alcohol.  Over 10% of male respondents report spending as much as (or more than!) their regular income on alcohol.  An additional number probably comes close to this.  From a community development perspective this is a frighteningly large group – as they are probably the most abjectly poor and the most difficult to help.

In our qualitative study we discovered that such ‘calculation’ of the expenditure on alcohol grossly underestimates the real cost.  And this is not only because of people deliberately or unwittingly ‘underestimating’ the amount of money they spend on alcohol.  There are two other mechanisms which came to light.

One of these is that heavier drinkers make others pay for their alcohol using a variety of tactics.  And this expenditure is not registered by either those who consume the subsidized alcohol or by those who subsidize it.  Subsidization is enforced through several means.  Heavier consumers ensure, for example, the rule that every ‘fun’ occasion must be an alcohol occasion.  The feeling that much alcohol must be served for a ‘proper’ party or occasion was strongly established.  People who were new to a group or junior in a workplace or boarding were made to take up much of the bill for alcohol when they went out with heavier drinking seniors.  Collecting money from light alcohol users and non-users too, when events were organized was common.

The second source of some alcohol expenditures becoming invisible was the inattention to the amount spent during special occasions.  Weddings, ‘big girl parties’ and other celebrations called for large expenditures.  The heavy alcohol component of this was not included in calculations of ‘average’ alcohol expenditures.  This money was considerable.  People reported becoming indebted, and having to pay high interests to ‘loan sharks’, sometimes for life.  Property, jewellery and other possessions were reported to be lost to the family in this way.


Behaviour and alcohol use

People in the settings studied appeared to be allowed freely to transgress personal boundaries after consuming alcohol.  This was probably more evident than in ‘wealthier’ settings.  Those who wanted to control what others say, do and think were found to be allowed, in the drinking setting, to tell them forcibly what they should do.  The stronger person, during the drinking event, was given the right to comment and criticize the conduct of others in the community.  Some informants claimed that people said to be ‘jealous’ used this opportunity to ensure that others didn’t surpass them.

Domestic violence and gender based violence was almost taken for granted in nearly all settings as an ‘automatic’ consequence of alcohol use.  Deprivation of the needs of children due to the father’s heavy alcohol use was simply a misfortune of the children concerned, and not a matter for special concern or mention.  Women being abused in the home by ‘drunken’ husbands was known, and even heard, but it was accepted as fate or as an evil caused by alcohol.

Striking differences too were visible in the way that alcohol affects behaviour.  In an urban hotel, a wealthier group consuming alcohol behaved very differently from a group of poorer workers who came there to drink as a special treat.  Only the poorer drinkers became noisy and conspicuous.  Similarly, when alcohol was used surreptitiously in places where it was prohibited, people did not become loud and aggressive.


Alcohol and public norms

Many informants highlighted the impact of alcohol on public norms.  The ‘license’ afforded by alcohol to say and do things without too much concern about social consequences has consequences.  It allows the physically strong or aggressive to dominate others.  And it permits ‘unacceptable’ behaviours to be openly admitted.  Previously unacceptable behaviour that people learn to brag about in drinking settings was said to become gradually more socially acceptable with time.  These ceased to be things causing shame or embarrassment, even in non-drinking settings, after they were publicly boasted about while intoxicated.

Norms relate to alcohol too.  It is almost shameful, for instance, to drink kasippu publicly but it is not so shameful to be seen drunk on kasippu. Another example is the creation of strong norms commanding people to serve alcohol on special occasions.



Criminal acts and violence appeared rather close to the surface in the poorest communities.  Whether similar degrees of violence and criminality in richer communities are somehow hidden requires debate.  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 organized criminal elements was more evident in the urban settings.


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 even how they choose to conduct a ‘private’ event.  Parents, in a poor community, who did not wish to have a party when their daughter reached menarche could be asked to explain why.  Some informants said that they may even be forced to change their decision.


‘Impossibility’ of overcoming poverty

A comment that struck us was that people could never emerge from poverty as long as they lived in the overcrowded urban setting in which they lived, 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 in visible.  And others are not keen to see just one family prosper.  The sense of this comment was that others would not allow people to develop, and that the shared lives allows 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 surroundings and their everyday life.



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