Caught between two stools: humanitarian aid in the Sri Lanka crisis response

This blog is based on a literature review and interviews conducted with humanitarian actors in July and August 2022 for the UK Humanitarian Innovation Hub with funding from FCDO, as part of an ongoing programme of real-time analysis of emerging issues in humanitarian crises.

September 8, 2022

Paul Harvey

Gayathri Lokuge

2022 Sri Lankan economic crisis, people wait for long time to refill liquefied petroleum gas cylinders

Sri Lanka is facing a political and economic crisis. Massive protests that led to the resignation of the president, wider political upheaval and a complex economic crisis have created mounting humanitarian needs. People are struggling with shortages of fuel and medicines, and with growing food insecurity, exacerbated by rising inflation. A WFP and FAO food security assessment found that 6.3 million people or 30% of the population is food insecure. A Save the Children survey found that more than two-thirds of families do not have enough to eat, 85% have lost income since the onset of the crisis and one in 10 have lost their income completely.

Sri Lanka has been largely off the radar of international humanitarian aid since the Indian Ocean tsunami and the end of the civil war. It is a middle-income country with (until recently) a strong, stable government, a well-developed social protection system and social services. The current crisis is also unusual in that it’s an economic meltdown affecting the whole country and everyone in it, and not a disaster or conflict hitting a specific part of the country. The humanitarian sector finds itself stuck between large-scale economic recovery needs, which is the job of international financial institutions and development donors, and small-scale community assistance needs, which is the appropriate role of smaller local groups. As we are seeing in Ukraine, where international humanitarian organisations have been unable to fund the volunteer efforts that are providing most of the aid, the sector does not do ‘middle’ well. The international humanitarian response has so far been slow to get off the ground. The UN, UNICEF, WFP and the IFRC have launched appeals and have started humanitarian programming. But appeals remain under-funded, and even if fully funded would be scratching the surface in comparison to the estimated numbers of people in need. The latest OCHA situation report has 5.7 million people in need, 1.7 million targeted and 374,000 reached (or 21.7% of the target). Sri Lanka is an example of the sort of relatively neglected (on the international stage) crisis where what aid agencies are able to raise to respond is small in comparison to the needs. The UN and Red Cross appeals combined total roughly $100 million UN Humanitarian Needs and Priorities appeal , UNICEF Humanitarian Action for Children Appeal , Red Cross appeal but so far only $30 million has been raised. Even if all of that (ignoring operating and overhead costs) reaches the 1.7 million the UN assesses as the biggest priority from the 6 million people needing help that works out at $15 of assistance per person. That is less than half of the rapidly eroding in value monthly minimum wage.

Quicker to get up and running was support from international financial institutions. The World Bank was able to re-programme existing support to top up social welfare benefits to 4 million people for an initial three months from May to July. The funding over the three months – $160 million – dwarfs current levels of international humanitarian support. But it still only provides 7,500 rupees ($20) per month per household, a tiny fraction of what agencies estimate is required to meet basic needs. 

Civil society volunteers, community groups, faith-based networks, local organisations and informal networks of family and friends have been mobilising to support vulnerable people through initiatives including soup kitchens, community meal share programmes, provision of uncooked food items, support to schools to restart school meals, support for pregnant women and help accessing medicines for health facilities. When the ambulance service was affected during the height of the fuel shortage in June–July 2022, offers to transport patients to hospital were shared on social media.

The main challenges faced by food-related support programmes, such as the ‘community kitchens’ run by organisations like Voice for Voiceless Foundation, relate to sky-rocketing food prices. With food inflation as high as 90%, sourcing ingredients for balanced meals through an informal network of well-meaning volunteers and supporters is increasingly difficult. This, combined with the lack of coordination or support from international aid actors, makes it extremely difficult for community-led initiatives to sustain operations, let alone scale them up.

This upsurge of local, volunteer-led action needs sustained support, but international aid systems just aren’t set up to do this. The diligence, compliance and contracting requirements of international aid agencies mean that international and local humanitarian action once again seem to be largely divorced from each other. If local organisations aren’t acting as sub-contactors to international agencies the two spheres of action struggle to intersect and local action is just not visible enough to the formal aid system. The local response is much less well documented and analysed and is invisible in the situation reports and appeals of international aid agencies. Local actors meeting needs that international actors can’t could mean that efforts are complementary. But opportunities are being missed to enable local actors to expand and sustain their work through more direct support from international actors.

As well as more direct support to local efforts, what’s also needed is much larger-scale support to the government from international financial institutions and bilaterally from other governments. Like Ukraine and now Pakistan, what Sri Lanka needs is budget support to enable scale-up of welfare benefits, increased coverage as more people become food insecure and the maintenance of basic services and funds to import essential items such as food, fuel and medicines. That’s something that the current international humanitarian system isn’t set up to provide, and would need to involve wider discussions with donors and international financial institutions. 

If international humanitarian organisations are to add value in this emergency, they must be prepared to depart from operating modalities that focus on direct response. They cannot be on the ground delivering small-scale household assistance in every community in Sri Lanka, but they need to be doing more to support locally led responses and doing more to advocate for IFIs and bilateral donors to take humanitarian needs into account as they respond to Sri Lanka’s economic crisis. More direct, multi-year, flexible and core funding to local civil society organisations to enable them to sustain and scale up local action would make a difference. At the macro level, advocacy is needed with the IMF, World Bank and key governments for large-scale support packages for social assistance and basic services. Sometimes, having a good intermediary can make a big difference. But this means the humanitarian sector needs to respond to these and similar unconventional crises with both clarity of purpose and relevant capabilities – neither of which can be left to chance.

Paul Harvey is a partner in the consulting firm Humanitarian Outcomes.  

Gayathri Lokuge is a Senior Research Professional at the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA).

Crisis-affected people


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