Treading Water, or Moving Forward? Humanitarian versus Development Aid

Shop in Sri Lanka
Microcredit loans have helped entrepreneurs expand their businesses, including this shop near the southern town of Matara. Photo: Zoë Chafe

If there is one thing that everyone seems to agree on, here in Colombo, it is that the conflict between Sri Lanka’s government and the rebel Tamil Tigers (LTTE) is getting markedly worse—and civilians are caught in the middle. The main road that connects Tiger-controlled areas in the north to the rest of the country has been closed, restricting trade and transportation. Recent bus bombings have targeted civilians. Thousands have been displaced by fighting. This upsurge in violence has dire implications for the work national and international NGOs, bilateral donors, and UN agencies are doing across the country.

The present situation is starkly different than even a few months ago; and when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit Sri Lanka’s coasts in late 2004, the country was enjoying a period of relative calm. Despite some isolated incidents, at that time, a ceasefire signed in 2002 seemed to be holding. But the last few months have greatly changed the security situation—and the nature of the aid work being done here has had to change course as well.

According to many of the NGO workers that we’ve spoken with so far, after initial relief work, the post-tsunami period represented a time to look forward—to focus on long-term development goals, rather than immediate humanitarian imperatives. As international donations poured in, for example, projects focused less on delivering emergency food aid, and more on building roads or irrigation systems and reestablishing livelihoods.

Over the past few months, however, much of the aid work being carried out in the northern and eastern sections of the island has reverted to humanitarian-level endeavors—mainly centered on food aid, from what we’ve heard so far. This means that the broader development programs started after the tsunami—such as microcredit programs, infrastructure improvement, and skills training—have been put on hold indefinitely.

One project manager described how small-scale construction endeavors in the affected districts were slowed to a halt as building materials became unavailable and logistical challenges overwhelmed progress.  Another project director described a system of triple taxation, which is hindering micro-enterprise development: goods being transported into or out of the conflict areas are taxed by the various controlling entities (national government, Tigers, and split-away Karuna faction) encountered along the way.

While reconstruction, small business development, and disaster preparedness efforts proceed in the more peaceful South, those caught in the conflict-ridden North and East are living in limbo. For many civilians, a return to conflict here in Sri Lanka means a return to temporary reliance on humanitarian assistance. The momentum towards long-term development—built in the relative calm of the past two years—seems too quickly like a relic of a past era.

*Worldwatch researchers Michael Renner and Zoe Chafe are completing a two-year project on peacemaking in the wake of disasters. Their visit to Sri Lanka follows on an earlier field trip to Aceh.