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SRI LANKA: U.N. Wants Economic Recovery for Former Conflict Zone

Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Jun 13 2010 (IPS) - With thousands of war affected civilians still without livelihood and an economy still reeling from the aftermath of a decades-long conflict in Sri Lanka’s northern region, plans should be in place to revive local economies and jobs, says a top United Nations official.

UNIDO director general Kandeh Yumkella Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

UNIDO director general Kandeh Yumkella Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

“There needs to be a strategic plan to bring in industries, infrastructure development, investments and jobs into these areas devastated by war,” Kandeh Yumkella, director general of the U.N. Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), told IPS during his visit to the South Asian country last week.

UNIDO is a specialised agency of the U.N. mandated to promote sustainable industrial development.

“All the agencies and government bodies involved in developing and assisting the war affected region have understood how important this is. I am confident that it will be in place. We don’t have much time – this has to begin now,” Yumkella assures.

Yumkella, who hails from Sierra Leone, says the experience of his own country in West Africa, which was devastated by an 11-year civil strife that ended in 2002, has shown the vital role economic empowerment plays in post-conflict recovery.

Generating much needed income for Sri Lanka’s war ravaged northern region is now an integral part of the recovery programme being spearheaded by the government and donor states, says Yumkella, who met last week with high- ranking government officials, including Prime Minister D. M. Jayarathna, to discuss the potential industrialisation of northern Sri Lanka.

A bloody civil conflict with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has left the north devastated and devoid of any major industries or investments. The conflict ended in May 2009, when the LTTE, who had fought for an independent state for the island’s minority Tamils, were defeated by government forces. The war cost the country over 70,000 lives, billions of dollars in damages and lost economic opportunities.

The last phase of the war forced over 280,000 to flee their homes and end up in welfare camps. Since late last year, tens of thousands of the displaced civilians have returned to their homes.

According to the U.N. over 214,000 civilians have either returned to their homes or are living with host families. Around 76,000 still remain in the camps set up for the displaced. The government has earlier announced plans to resettle them by August this year.

UNIDO is already assisting a livelihood recovery programme in the north and east of Sri Lanka, funded by a two million U.S. dollar grant from Japan, says Yumkella. He adds that his agency would begin a new assistance programme to provide jobs to at least 40,000 war widows in the country’s conflict-torn region.

“We have to make these areas attractive for private investments, give hope to the younger generation, the widows, the child soldiers,” says Yumkella. “The next two years will be very important.”

Yumkella warns that if income generation opportunities do not increase in the former conflict zone, frustrations are likely to intensify. “We have to work really hard in the next five years to fulfil the hopes in these people who have survived so much,” he declares.

War affected individuals who have returned to their homes share Yumkella’s view that jobs are crucial in the erstwhile war zone.

Nagarangan Kalaiamuda, 27, is desperate for any kind of work. A native of Puliyankulam, just south of Kilinochchi town, the former administrative hub of the Tigers, Kalaiamuda, she lives in a 10-by-5-foot mud hut with her two young children. Her husband is in government custody for suspected links with the Tigers.

“I find some kind of work, like helping a family that has just returned home or helping an (aid) agency with some work. But I don’t have any permanent work,” she told IPS. She makes about 200 Sri Lankan rupees (about 1.76 dollars) a day when she finds work. But this means she must leave her two children with her neighbours, who are war returnees like her.

Each returning family gets 25,000 rupees (220 dollars) from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and food rations for six months from the World Food Programme.

“The assistance helps, but without jobs, we will not be able to build our houses or do other things that are essential,” Kalaiamuda says.

Anton Gunadayalan, a local official, fears income generation would take sometime. “People have just started to come back; it will take some time for things to revert to normal,” he says.

Gunadayalan, who is in charge of issuing construction permits in the Puliyankulam area, adds that when the reconstruction of houses and other buildings begins, there could be more employment opportunities. “There are no houses standing, so we have to rebuild everything – that is a lot of work,” he says.

The U.N. estimates that at least 160,000 houses need to be rebuilt in the former war zone commonly known as the Vanni. Economists have observed that one other possible way to jumpstart the Vanni economy is to revitalise agriculture and fisheries, which accounted for over 30 percent of the pre-war regional economy.

Economist Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, who runs the Point Pedro Development Institute, a non-governmental social research outfit based in the northern Jaffna peninsula, believes it is not aid but private investments that can rejuvenate the Vanni economy.

“What Sri Lanka requires is not a ‘Marshall Plan’ of any sort. Instead, what we require is entrepreneurial capitalism. Enterprises of modest scale, as opposed to donor or government funded grandiose projects, could contribute to substantive and enduring growth,” he says.

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