Issue 43 - Article 1

Aid and access in Sri Lanka

July 12, 2009
Nimmi Gowrinathan and Zachariah Mampilly

Since the beginning of the decade, Sri Lanka has undergone a number of traumatic events that make the country a particularly challenging environment for humanitarian workers. As the long civil war nears its end, what type of political environment are aid workers likely to encounter in their attempts to help affected civilian populations? What are the legacies of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and three decades of war on civilian administrative structures? To answer these questions, it is essential to understand the convoluted relationship between the government and the Tamil rebellion in the conflict-affected regions of this long-suffering nation.

The structure of local government in the war zone

In Sri Lanka, the district-level Government Agent (GA) is the key local actor in a complicated bureaucracy through which local civil society and international organisations interact with the state. A legacy of colonial rule, every district is assigned a GA (officially referred to as the District Secretary), who is responsible for implementing directives promulgated by the central government. This remained true even in rebel areas during the worst fighting of the war, where a complex arrangement with the government was reached that ensured a relatively high degree of service provision in territories controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). A hybrid administrative system that mixed rebel and government civil and political institutions came to control the lives of civilians living in Tamil-dominated areas. Thus, while security remained under the control of the insurgents, in health, education and other sectors the rebels worked alongside government personnel and institutions. Indeed, the insurgency modelled its own civil administration on the government’s bureaucratic framework, creating a structure that could both control and fill gaps in government provision.

This relationship produced both positive and negative outcomes for the insurgency. On the one hand, it enabled the LTTE to take care of the Tamil population – a key demand among the Tamil diaspora, whose support for the LTTE has been crucial – without diverting resources from military operations. On the other hand, it left civilians in LTTE territory open to manipulation by government forces. For government officials, even a tenuous link to the Tamil population was worth the effort. Had the government refused to provide services to Tamils, nothing would connect the people of the north-east with the state. Thus, both sides reached a compromise that allowed existing institutions to remain in place, while granting the rebels a say in the nature of service provision.

The impact of the tsunami

Following the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004, the Tsunami Affected Areas Program (TAAP) brought together LTTE aid distribution structures with their government counterparts in a reconstruction programme primarily supported by external funds. With more than half of the damage from the tsunami sustained by communities in the north-east (deaths were estimated at over 22,000 and the number displaced was over 500,000), getting aid to affected communities behind LTTE lines posed significant challenges to the international relief effort. Initially, a consortium was established comprising representatives from the government, the rebels and INGOs, designed to give all three a say in regulating the behaviour of aid organisations involved in the reconstruction effort. All sides viewed this as an opportunity to bring the LTTE into the mainstream, and the rebels initially earned plaudits for their effective reconstruction programmes.

Meanwhile, negotiations began between the government and the LTTE on establishing a joint mechanism to distribute the substantial financial resources flowing into the country (close to $3 billion was pledged by various donors). Agreement was reached on a Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS) in June 2005, but implementation was blocked by the High Court due to pressure from anti-LTTE forces, who began to voice their opposition to any settlement that further empowered the insurgents. Bowing to this pressure, the government reneged on the P-TOMS agreement, arguing that the international community should not legitimise a group it regarded as illegitimate. Agencies including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations eventually came round to the government view.

Discontent with the joint mechanism helped to bring the radical nationalist government of Mahinda Rajapaksa to power following elections in November 2005. At the same time, the ceasefire that had come into effect in 2002 broke down, and within a year of the tsunami the two camps had polarised. The rise of Rajapaksa’s regime further politicised the distribution of humanitarian aid. The effect was to undermine all cooperative efforts, compromising the efficacy and coordination of assistance programmes, most of which were financed by foreign aid. For the government, the quality and effectiveness of foreign aid was less important than ensuring the primacy of the district-level GAs in relief and rehabilitation programmes. Thus, travelling through affected Tamil districts (Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Mullativu), one might encounter a group of Scientologists leading chants in an orphanage, or 50 newly constructed homes lying abandoned because the heat-absorbent material used to build them rendered them uninhabitable.

The return to war

The government’s decision to pursue a final military solution to the conflict in 2008 again altered the situation in the north-east. By July 2008, the government had retaken much of the territory once under rebel control. As we have seen, throughout the conflict the government had maintained a skeletal administrative structure in LTTE-controlled territory, retaining some semblance of state control. But this structure was never capable of providing adequate services to the civilian population on its own. While the state re-establishes control over the north-east, the needs of the population have increased dramatically.

Government military victories also changed the rhetoric towards foreign aid organisations. The Rajapaksa regime had become wary of the humanitarian community’s growing involvement in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs in the years following the tsunami. Recognising that foreign aid personnel could act both as monitors and critics of the military assault, the government continued to accept foreign aid but severely restricted the access of aid organisations. Classifying all INGO involvement as ‘neo-colonial’, operational NGOs were required to meet government administrators every few weeks for lectures on national sovereignty and to provide details of their programmes. Over time, many INGOs became frustrated and left the country. In late 2008, the government attempted to eject remaining organisations from the conflict-affected areas of the north-east. Although a handful managed to retain a minimal presence with local staff, those who remained routinely faced harassment. While the situation in the north – the area referred to as the Vanni – was unclear because of the government’s ban on humanitarian workers and journalists visiting the frontline, there were reports of curfews and heavy security measures, even in local schools.

The UN also has had to tread carefully. In late 2008, at the government’s request the UN closed several branches in Killinochi, forcing foreign staff to leave local colleagues behind as they drove past lines of civilians begging them to stay. Since then, the activities of the operational UN agencies (UNHCR, Habitat, UNDP and UNICEF) have been directly linked to negotiations by senior officials on broader issues of access and ‘humanitarian pause’. Special Representatives have been included on a growing ‘no-entry’ after issuing statements of concern, and demands by local UN staff for greater access or increased food supplies are often rejected.

The government’s reliance on foreign aid to fund reconstruction gives donor governments an opportunity to exert pressure for the protection of civilians in the war zone, but such calls have had little effect. Different donors have adopted different approaches. Thus, while the majority of OECD-DAC donors have preferred to attach conditions to their aid regarding international humanitarian norms and human rights, Japan, Russia and especially China (currently the largest single donor, contributing over $1 billion in 2008) have given both military and development aid without requiring assurances on what they deem to be ‘internal matters’.

Meanwhile, the situation in the ‘cleared areas’ continues to deteriorate. Doctors and teachers face harassment on their way to work, and fears of abduction mean that far fewer students are attending school. A reported five abductions take place daily, often perpetrated by government-funded paramilitaries, many of whom were recruited by the Sri Lankan police. Reports also suggest that the military escalation has resulted in a corresponding rise in sexual assaults at checkpoints. Humanitarian agencies can provide medical services, but no foreign groups are allowed to discuss sexual violence with the local population. Conditions in some of the overcrowded internment camps in which some 150,000–200,000 displaced Tamils are forced to live are described by UNHCR as at ‘breaking-point’.

By exerting strong control over foreign aid organisations, the government claims to be correcting the ‘mistakes’ it made after the tsunami. In addition to imposing regulations on INGO activities, it has embarked on a campaign against groups perceived as ‘terrorist sympathisers’. The heads of international aid organisations have been brought before parliament to account for relief operations in the conflict zone. Instead of building the capacity of local civil society organisations operating in the north-east, the government has harassed and threatened them. For example, in March 2009 a YMCA group in Trincomalee gathered clothes and other essential items to deliver to injured civilians at the local hospital. They were prevented from entering the hospital, told to leave the supplies with the military, followed home and questioned about their possible relationships with the injured.


Now that the government has declared a complete victory over the insurgency, it is likely that post-conflict reconstruction funds will flood the island. A strategic plan has been circulated by the government, bringing all INGO and UN interventions under the direct control of the president. Faced with rapidly dwindling cash reserves, the Ministry of Rehabilitation is actively searching out funds, which will have to come from the international community. Humanitarian actors will be expected to assume responsibility for components of the government-drafted reconstruction plan, with all activities and programmes administered and monitored by the state. The humanitarian community must now adapt its approach to relief and rehabilitation efforts in Sri Lanka, remaining mindful of the complex nature of administrative structures in the country. Only by understanding the broader political agenda in the service of which their resources are likely to be used can the international community carve out an autonomous position and contribute to improving the welfare of affected populations.

Nimmi Gowrinathan is the Director of South Asia Programs at Operation USA, and a PhD candidate in the Department of Political Science at UCLA. Zachariah Mampillyis an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Vassar College.


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