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Wednesday, March 4, 2015
- When the first trains in almost two and a half decades started running through this war-ravaged town in Sri Lanka in mid-September, Sinngamuththu Jesudasan could not resist the temptation to go and have a look – repeatedly.
The last time the 62-year-old had seen a train on the track in Kilinochchi was somewhere in the late 1980s. “They suddenly stopped,” Jesudasan told IPS, staring motionlessly at the blue train speeding on the track towards Kilinochchi.
He was not alone. The first trains on the Kilinochchi track, declared open by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, attracted dozens of fans every time they sped by on the northern line.
Fathers brought young kids on bicycles closer to the track to see the train, and at least during the first few days, schoolchildren lined up at the newly refurbished Kilinochchi station, the train’s final destination on the northern line, to get on to the carriages.
“It is impressive isn’t it,” Jesudasan asked as he watched the train pass by.
Impressive indeed – the northern rail track is part of a multi-billion dollar infrastructure development undertaken by the government. By the Central Bank’s account, since the end of the war in May 2009, over three billion dollars have been spent in the North on infrastructure development.
The changes are visible to all. The A9 road that runs through the Northern Province is a six-lane highway, a far cry from the pot-hole infested dirt track it was for most of the last three decades. There are new hospitals, new electricity distribution systems and new banks.
Two recent U.N. surveys, one by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and another by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), finalised in June this year also found impressive progress in the former war zone, especially in infrastructure works.
Similar sentiments were expressed by U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay soon after she toured the region in August.
But just beneath the veneer of development lie the lingering issues of unemployment, poverty, food insecurity and mass debt. There are new roads, but they don’t seem to have brought in new riches.
Despite the impressive development spending, in the last three years, Sri Lanka has been struggling to harness donor funding for humanitarian work in the former war zone.
Since 2010, three successive joint appeals for work in the region have run into a collective shortfall of 430 million dollars. The U.N. has undertaken a new needs evaluation and the next appeal is likely to be released during the first quarter of 2014, OCHA officials in Colombo said.
“The era of cheap aid is over. Increasingly it will become tougher and tougher for the government to look for development aid at concessionary rates,” said Anushka Wijesinha, research economist at the national research agency Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka.
Part of the aid slowdown has actually been blamed on the country’s economic progress. In early 2012, the World Bank categorised Sri Lanka as a low middle-income country, effectively limiting access to concessionary funding.
“The middle-income status directly affects donor contribution towards post-war reconstruction, rehabilitation and remaining humanitarian assistance,” stated the OCHA survey that is yet to be made available freely.
It also pointed out that there were regions of extreme poverty and vulnerability in the island. One of the most vulnerable regions is the war-hit north.
The UNHCR survey that interviewed 917 of the 138,651 families that have returned to the six northern districts since the war’s end found that only nine percent had regular wages. Over 55 percent said their income was based on irregular work, and over 43 percent of the families earned a paltry Rs 5000 (38 dollars) a month – less than one-sixth of the national average monthly income.
And debt seems to be rampant: “52 percent of the respondents report a total household debt of Rs 50,000 [380 dollars] or less, and a total 47 percent of respondents [report a] total household debt at Rs 100,000 [760 dollars] or more,” the survey found.
Experts say the slowing down of funding now puts the onus on the government to step in to carry out the remaining humanitarian assistance work.
“The issue of assistance is definitely one of the current dominant problems to addressing the IDP [internally displaced persons] problem,” said Mirak Raheem, who recently authored an extensive research study on protracted war displaced in Sri Lanka. “Donor financial support has played a crucial role in humanitarian work and now it will be incumbent on the government to fill the gap.”
Chandana Kularatne, an economist with the World Bank in Washington, told IPS that the government should first use the massive investments in infrastructure to foster growth in the region and build transport links.
“Development projects such as the building of roads are expected to improve connectivity and hence economic activity,” he said.
Attracting new investors would work as a great boost to the two main income generators in the region – agriculture and fisheries. Over 90 percent of the provincial population’s income is linked to the two sectors, and over 50 percent of the provincial economic output comes from them as well.
However, both sectors still crave outside buyers who can negate the impact of middle-men who drive down prices.
Wijesinha said that government should be much more astute with development spending and should also look at ways of expanding domestic tax revenue so that more funds could be generated within the island.
The OCHA survey said that its ongoing needs assessment survey will give a clear picture on the most vulnerable communities to help set priorities for aid and assistance.
It also said that things should change from the last three years, when there was a distinct separation between development and humanitarian work, with the government taking over the bulk of the former, and the humanitarian agencies taking the lead in the latter.
“The remaining and current humanitarian needs should be addressed concurrently with the development assistance,” the survey said.
But before all that, there should be sufficient funds to carry out the work, something that has been lacking.