The Gates of Paradise are Open…but Who Benefits? Experiences from Post-War Sri Lanka

A9 highway in Kilinochchi District, Sri Lanka. © Indi Samarajiva


This article is written in response to the theme of “eradicating poverty as a means of conflict prevention”. By asking whether the eradication of poverty prevents conflict, we reflect upon its complexity and interdependence with other aspects of modern day life. To focus solely on poverty reduction as a means of conflict prevention is somewhat reductive. Empirical work done on post-war Sri Lanka shows that the symbiotic relationship between poverty and conflict falls beyond the scope of simplistic analysis. After all, poverty is only one of many contributing factors to conflict. On the other hand, poverty itself is a multidimensional phenomenon. Similarly, conflict exacerbates poverty in many ways, by stunting growth, destroying investments and breaking down service delivery. Firsthand experience provides countless stories of deprivations that people suffer during war. This article looks beyond these binaries to emphasize that conflict and poverty remain interlinked even after armed warfare ends, highlighting the fact that structural inequalities hinder both conflict prevention and poverty reduction. Conflict prevention, we argue, must position itself intersectionally and holistically, with an eye to transforming these structural inequalities.

It is difficult to resist the promise suggested by economic development. At the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, the A9 highway,1  which had been closed for several years, was reopened. S. Sivananthan, a government executive officer, commented that “the gates of paradise [were] now open to the people of Jaffna” (Parameswaram, 2009). What Sivananthan meant was that the connection between the north and the rest of the country would improve infrastructure, transportation, enhance commerce and bring a host of other economic opportunities. At that time of endless possibilities, entrepreneurs, aid agencies, corporations and government bodies rushed to ‘build back better’, and provide the much-needed boost to livelihood and economic recovery deemed necessary at the end of the three-decade long civil war, opening up communities to reconstruction and economic rehabilitation. The Government of Sri Lanka at the time equated economic development with poverty reduction and in fact touted economic development as the mantra to resolve all grievances.

The rush towards economic development, especially in post- war contexts, is linked to the established idea that economically stable and thriving communities are less likely to find themselves in a conflict situation (USAID, 2006; Galster, 2015). ‘Building better’ is understood as prevention, and extant scholarship argues that fragility stemming from chronic poverty and associated inequalities exposes and sustains deep structural vulnerabilities to violence, especially in communities that experience continuous cycles of conflict (Chandler and Sisk, 2013, p. xx). Similarly, the 2011 World Development Report: Conflict, Security and Development and a policy paper of the Department for International Development entitled “Economic Development Strategy: prosperity, poverty and meeting global challenges” argue that stagnation and under- development in the post-conflict phase can easily push countries back into violence (2017).

The investment—both government and private—in Sri Lanka has proved beneficial on paper. “The Sri Lankan economy has seen robust annual growth at 6.4 per cent over the course of 2003 to 2012” (Peiris, 2014). During the period from 2009 to 2013, Sri Lanka achieved a 6.7 per cent target of annual growth, with public investment in infrastructure coming in at an average of 5.5 per cent of gross domestic product. Poverty rates fell from 22.7 per cent in 2002 to 6.7 per cent in 2012. The World Bank Systematic Country Diagnostic proclaims that Sri Lanka is a development success story (2016, p. 21), and the country seems on track for a long-term period of sustained economic growth.

The challenge that the country faces, however, as it attempts to grow further, is to ensure that the projected growth is inclusive, especially for populations that were directly affected by the armed conflict, which resulted in their limited and unequal access to essential services. Additionally, certain challenges to livelihoods limit growth of certain sectors or groups. Even in today’s post-war context, conflict still exists, although it is not necessarily violent. Conflict is seen now in limited access to essential services, when schools are underinvested, and hospitals are overburdened. The civil war left open many social wounds, and current moves towards reconciliation have not addressed pre-existing realities of caste and class that can exacerbate communal conflict. The intense militarization of the immediate post-war years also compounded a variety of social injustices.

Evidence suggests that the principal cause of the internal struggles in Sri Lanka in the north, east and south have been inequality and exclusion. The Household Income and Expenditure Survey by the Department of Census and Statistics in Sri Lanka in 2012-2013 notes that the administrative divisions within the Northern and Eastern Provinces that had been most affected by the conflict are also among the poorest in the nation. The unresolved nature of the causes of conflict and ongoing political uncertainty have resulted in government investment being a principal economic driver rather than private and foreign direct investment. Hence, employment remains in the construction and service industry, with very few employment avenues for the excess labour in the agricultural sector. This results in extremely low agricultural productivity and the high poverty levels among those who continue to work in this sector.

Empirical cases provide challenging stories for post-war development. “The increase in income inequality does not necessarily mean that the poor are getting poorer and rich are getting richer. It is rather, the rich getting richer, at a faster rate” (Nanayakkara, 2016). One example comes from a study conducted by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) in one particular village in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. It was found that the structural conditions of poverty pre- and post-date the war, resulting in the perpetuation of the economic conditions experienced (Jayasekara and Najab, 2016). Limited resources available or accessible to the vulnerable communities affected their ability to change their situation. Another CEPA study found that although internally displaced persons were able to return home after the war, they experienced conditions of debt when constructing their houses and rebuilding their lives. These were not directly associated with construction-related expenses, but rather were due to the limited livelihood opportunities available to them to meet their daily and basic household expenses (Romeshun, Gunasekara, Munas, 2014).

Even with the extent of investment in infrastructure and housing in the Northern Province, limited opportunities to earn a livelihood still account for one of the highest incidences of poverty indicators nationwide. State spending intended to help populations out of poverty is dependent on the types of investments made. The CEPA report noted that 86 per cent of households studied were in debt due to a lack of financial literacy and poor financial management (Ibid., p. ix). This is conflated by the existence of a young, unskilled and relatively uneducated population without the means to increase their earning potential (Ibid.). It could be argued that it is more productive to invest in the future of the population through education, which would have a long-term impact (multiplier effect), with the general understanding that education provides a stepping stone to upward mobility. Arguably, due to limited investment in services such as education and health during the war, a generation has been deprived of the ability to move out of poverty. A 2015 CEPA study noted the positive impact of technical officers and community mobilizers who assisted housing beneficiaries by providing financial counselling and construction advice, working in a participatory manner with the most vulnerable households, allowing for more bespoke housing support (Gunasekara, Najab, and Munas, 2015).

Horizontal inequalities also trouble concrete development, especially in the case of accessing basic services. CEPA recent work on caste hierarchies in the north and east of Sri Lanka ably demonstrates how reconstruction efforts that have not taken seriously the deeply embedded structures of marginalization, discrimination and exclusion within that political culture are in danger of perpetuating power hierarchies and silencing marginalized groups (Lall, 2016, p. 28). This is especially the case when we examine the school system, where children leave good schools because of what is perceived as caste-based bullying. The same study also noted how those providing services to the community under observation reinforced the virtues of their own ‘middle classness’ to distance themselves from those they considered to be from a lesser social stratum (Ibid., p. 23). Therefore, the development markers such as basic services and schools may exist, but what could be said for the quality of care and service if the recipient is already in a place of alterity to the provider? Such attitudes perpetuate inequalities in access to services that can and do challenge the ability of a group to move itself out of poverty.

The fostering of a culture of prevention must also consider psychosocial issues when rushing to ‘build better’. Among the many schemes for development, the encouragement of entrepreneurship has been very popular, with the Government of Sri Lanka proposing an allocation of Rs.500 million to small- and medium-scale entrepreneurs in its 2016 budget. Universities now offer courses to cultivate the necessary technical skills, and a variety of projects to boost entrepreneurs now exist under the National Enterprise Development Authority and the Information and Communication Technology Agency, and the Sri Lanka Association of Software and Service Companies. In March 2017, the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation also launched an Enterprise Based Village Development Project. However, studies note that targeted communities are not yet ready or willing to be entrepreneurs (Mallet and Pain, 2017). They may have different aspirations when it comes to their livelihoods, or are still traumatized from the war. The assumption that the opportunity to be productive will be seized upon is certainly challenged in terms of capacity and ability to take on such work (Van Kooy and others, n. d). Additionally, other entrepreneurs may already have a fixed hold on the market space.

What is the lesson from the stories that have been recounted here? The road to paradise may be open, yet it is laced with potholes. What is required is not only to build back better, but to think radically about inequality. The examples highlighted for this article all point to a variety of inequalities: of access, of social perception, of education and of voice. Reconceptualizing the problem as a focus on reducing inequality may prove to be a more robust method for fostering a culture of conflict prevention.     

With many thanks to Karin Fernando and Gayathri Lokuge for input and edits.


1      The road that links the capital Colombo in the Western Province to the Northern Province, via the Central Province.


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