At the time Marga Institute was set up, it was the first of its kind in the country and probably the first in the region of South Asia. We wish to cover in our story the conceptualization of Marga, the early influences, and its progress from the gestation period to the growth and expansion of Marga to what it is today. The story traces the path that Marga took in gathering knowledge and enhancing the understanding of the development process as it unfolded in Sri Lanka after independence. In defining its approach to development, the Institute was continuously interacting with and responsive to the far-reaching changes and shifts in the concept of development that were taking place at the international level.
The Marga story, therefore, provides a prism through which one views these changes as they apply to the Sri Lankan development scene as well as to the global context. As the story unfolds readers will observe how the main research priorities of the Institute were shaped and how each major strand in the Institute’s activities was linked with a fresh inquiry into key development issues. The mission of Marga has been to provide a forum for reflection and intellectual inquiry into various economic developmental and social issues by concerned Sri Lankans. Marga Institute has not only conducted studies that impacted on public policy in Sri Lanka but it contributed to the global discourse on development and the evolution of the concept of development during the initial years of Marga through its recommendations and prescriptions to UN agencies during the 1970s. In the 2nd decade of its existence, during the 1980s, the scope of work extended from research studies to involvement in forming civil society groups and work on social and political issues. Marga also established strong links with organizations that carry out development studies in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.
- One of the first studies, Welfare and Growth (1972) placed the Institute in the centre of the international search for a unified development strategy and helped Marga to develop its multi-disciplinary, value-oriented framework of analysis.
- Consequently, Marga was brought into close association with UNRISD, ILO ESCAP, and ODC and provided inputs into many initiatives such as the PQLI, the basic needs strategy and poverty reduction.
- Marga’s studies focusing on children’s needs commencing in the first half of the 1970s linked it closely to UNICEF and involved Marga continuously in the national and global strategies for children’s wellbeing.
- WHO’s initiative on the links between health and development from the late 1970s onwards gave Marga a key role, leading to a substantial programme related to the health transition in Sri Lanka and the issues of health and equity at the national and global level.
- Marga’s links with UNCTAD brought the international economic dimension and the North-South relations into its work.
- The Institute’s initiative in developing an institutional network in South Asia in the early 1980s focused on the need for regional co-operation and gave the first impetus to the work that led to SAARC.
- The work with IDRC, SAREC, USAID and ILO helped the Institute to focus on poverty and rural housing and develop the micro-level, community-based part of its programme.
- In partnership with the UN University, it undertook and co-ordinated a programme of regional research into the labour migration to the Middle East, the Transfer of Traditional Technology and Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development.
- The Marga Institute conducted several studies sponsored by the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank. The work supported by the ADB included a wide range of projects covering rural and urban poverty, environmental policy, the Accelerated Development of the Southern Province, the impact of climate change on Sri Lanka and the social and economic impact of the Southern Highway. The studies sponsored by the World Bank included two major projects on the evaluation and restructuring of the Social Welfare Programmes in Sri Lanka and Education and Employment Linkages.
Many of the studies that have been referred to were the first of its kind for Sri Lanka and provided the entry into the strategic policy issues and development problems in a given field. Their impact on national policy, as will be discussed later, was both direct and indirect. Several studies were undertaken in collaboration with government agencies and therefore fed directly into the policymaking process. The country studies supported by multilateral and international agencies had a direct impact on the approaches taken by these institutions to the Sri Lankan development issues and entered into their continuous interaction with government in the formulation of country programmes and policies in their respective fields.