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Nara Sritharan


February 8, 2022

Using GIS mapping to reframe post-conflict aid distribution – Sri Lanka as a case study

Everything looked dry as I gazed out from the porch – sandy with blood-red streaks. "Here's your tea, sister," said the woman. I ended up on her porch in the course of my fieldwork. "We're strong, you know," she paused. "We never left. We were right here when the army came to kill the Tigers," she said, referring to the effective elimination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE, which ended the civil war in 2009. My family fled Sri Lanka in the 80s, and I was back, asking questions about the war and postwar experiences. She didn't like that. "After the war, the government helped us rebuild our house. But after that, we haven't seen any improvements – except some roads. The government is taking over with heavy military, and none of our children are able to get a decent job out here. Nothing has changed." I heard her sentiment echoed throughout Tamil areas, and this is where my research starts: why hasn't anything changed since the war?

The Conflict

Sri Lanka, an island off India's southern tip, experienced a protracted ethnic and territorial conflict from 1983 to 2009. The Sri Lankan population of 20 million can be sub-grouped into 75% Sinhalese, 11% Sri Lankan Tamil, 9% Moors, 4% Indian Tamils and other groups  The national liberation struggle was primarily fought between Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government – a conflict fought over the independence of the traditional Tamil homelands in the northern and eastern parts of the island. Horizontal inequality was a major cause of the Sri Lankan conflict as it impacted access to education, employment opportunities, disparities in urban development, distribution of benefits from agricultural development, and political exclusion of Sri Lankan Tamils. The conflict ended in 2009 when the Sri Lankan military defeated the LTTE. Subsequently, the government focused on rebuilding and developing the entire island with help from international loans and donors. However, the country still deals with many of the issues which existed in the pre-war period, such as high youth unemployment and Sinhala resettlements to the Tamil Homelands. In 2018, nine years after the violent conflict ended, around 8,000 Sri Lankans applied for asylum in other countries. A deductive estimate would be that more than 200,000 Sri Lankans (mostly Tamils and Muslims who were targeted) left their motherland during this 26 year-long violent conflict.[1] More than 40,000 civilians died[2] during the last two weeks of the Sri Lankan conflict, which is now being called a genocide. The end of the war also caused an additional 300,000 Tamils to be internally displaced and detained in camps.

Why Study Sri Lanka?

Given the nature and scale of the conflict, the role of international aid in rebuilding the Sri Lankan economy became pivotal. Yet, would that aid flow to areas most in need of post-conflict rebuilding? My research shows that aid did not flow to areas affected by the conflict and inhabited by politically and economically marginalized ethnic groups. A reason for this lack of aid in the districts that need it the most could be due to ethnic bias, lack of access to those districts because of bad infrastructure, or donors' ignorance about how different regions were affected by the conflict. I argue that the reason for unequal distribution of aid during the post-conflict period is a combination of ethnic bias and donors not doing their diligent research on the intricacies of the grievances and inequalities initially leading to the war.

Investigating aid allocation within a postwar country is not easy. How can you determine which areas were most affected by the war and who would need aid the most? There are five characteristics of the Sri Lankan conflict and the postwar politics that make it a unique case study for country aid allocation. First, the Sri Lankan conflict did not end with a negotiated peace settlement; it was a 'winner-take-all' end to the war - not a common scenario. Most contemporary conflicts see an end with a negotiated peace (Sigdel, 2014). For example, conflicts in Zambia, Namibia, and El Salvador ended with a negotiated peace.

Second, The Sri Lankan conflict was relatively contained in particular geographical areas (North and East). Hence, the districts affected by the conflict are easy to determine, which makes my identification strategy easier for empirical analysis. Third, marginalized ethnicities live in the districts that mostly overlap with the geographical areas affected by the war. Fourth, in December 2004, Sri Lanka and several South Asian countries were destroyed by a tsunami. In Sri Lanka, there is substantial overlap between the areas affected by the Tsunami and the areas that were the center of the conflict (Figure 1). This overlap offers the opportunity to use the aid allocation post-tsunami as a natural experiment. If aid is not allocated equally across the affected areas regardless of ethnic composition, it could indicate a pre-existing bias in the aid allocation. Finally, one of the biggest donors in Sri Lanka at the moment is China. Other donors include the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, OECD, Iran, and India. The more 'traditional' donors from the West have conditionalities such as economic performance, governance reforms, and human rights conditionalities. However, donors like China have little or no aid conditionality, or their conditionality is different than Western donors.

Given these five conditions of the Sri Lankan context, mapping and comparing the spatial distribution on post-tsunami and post-conflict aid allows for some essential insights into the makeup, effectiveness, and ability of aid to construct a dignified post-conflict future for all Sri Lankans.  The method of choice here is a mapping tool called Geographical Information System (GIS) combined with political economy analysis. All findings are supported by econometric analysis in my paper "The Role of Aid on Peace Consolidation in Postwar Sri Lanka."

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Where is the aid going?

Using the reconstruction efforts in Sri Lanka after the Tsunami in December 2004, I establish a baseline pattern of aid distribution. I start with aid projects committed after the Tsunami (2005) until the war ended (2009). Figure 3 shows the location of aid project commitments, irrespective of money committed and categorized by donor source, in that time frame. Since the Tsunami's devastation was concentrated in the Northern, Western, and South-Western coast, we should expect that aid projects would be concentrated in these regions. This expectation is confirmed given the high concentration of aid projects in the South, Central, and the Southwest regions, but few Chinese projects on the Northern coast. Surprisingly, there are fewer coastal projects than I expected after the Tsunami, even when population density is considered. However, an increase in coastal donor projects is apparent, and thus my post-disaster baseline pattern doesn't reveal a clear political bias in aid distribution.

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However, political parity in aid distribution is not the case when I examine the distribution of aid projects after the end of the civil war. Figure 4 shows the location of projects committed from 2010 to 2014. My analysis did not show a significant increase in aid projects in the conflict-affected areas in the North and East, relative to the distribution of aid projects immediately after the Tsunami.  A common explanation in aid literature for why aid does not reach certain geographical spaces is a lack of infrastructure: a dynamic called tarmac bias. If one reason for the Sri Lankan aid allocation is tarmac bias, one would expect to see a significant increase in aid projects in the North post-2009, with the highway's reopening from South to North (A9) immediately after the war. The substantial cluster in donor projects in the Colombo district follows the logic of post-conflict aid allocation: many capacity-building projects would be allocated to the public sectors, and most public sector headquarters are located in the capital city of Colombo.

Furthermore, an increase in Chinese projects in the South is obvious (Figure 4). This can be explained by the crucial role played by the then President (now Prime Minister), Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his cabinet in bringing in Chinese aid, influencing the location of the Chinese and other donor projects.  (New York Times, 2018). Patronage politics and corruption are essential factors in how aid was allocated during the post-tsunami period. Patronage and corruption continue to influence aid allocation in the post-conflict period and today. The Sri Lankan patronage political system allows powerful politicians to funnel money to the individuals, groups, and places that most benefit them. Since most Sri Lankan powerful politicians are Sinhalese, they assured that the majority of aid was allocated in the South and West of the country (McGilvray and Gamburd ed., 2010). Since then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa is from the South, in particular from the Hambantota district, he ensured that district's development with Chinese money. In Hambantota, the Chinese have built a port that allows them access to the Indian Ocean. Additionally, the Hambantota airport (which is empty with almost no flights today) was also a project funded by China. China became an involved donor in Sri Lanka when relations with more traditional donors in the West turned sour due to accusations of war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan government in the last stages of the conflict (Forbes, 2016).

Concluding Thoughts

My research has clearly demonstrated that donors do not follow the needs of war-affected districts. Some might say that these districts' geographical location makes it hard for donors to reach those areas – tarmac bias. Yet since there has been at least one highway and railway road going from the Southern and Western parts of the island to the Northern and Eastern regions, that narrative leaves researchers wanting. The war-affected districts should have been a priority for donors and the central government in the post-war environment.

It is evident from the news, from discussions in the war-affected districts, and with activists working in those areas: that local and central politicians have neglected these districts. In the aftermath of the war, the government is focused on infrastructural rebuilding and high-cost beautification development projects in Colombo city and has paid less attention to the reconciliation of the ethnic groups and rebuilding the war-affected districts.

Even with its unique characteristics, Sri Lanka is only one country of several post-conflict countries where within-country aid allocation is far from ideal. My maps reveal that donors follow ‘the path of least resistance’ when deciding aid allocation. Donors need to know a country's history and understand the context that exists after a conflict and need to work with both central and local governments to identify where they can make a difference. Assuming that aid is given to improve or maintain within-country relations, reconciliation needs to be a priority for donors when allocating aid in post-conflict countries.  

[1] The estimate is the author’s estimate based on the 8,000 Sri Lankan asylum seekers in 2018 multiplied by the years of conflict (26) gives 208,000. A realistic assumption is that during the height of the conflict a lot more than 8,000 Sri Lankans sought asylum in other countries.

[2] This number may vary depending on different estimations. There are no official numbers. The estimate ranges from 1,000 to 40,000. UN estimates 40,000 (Al Jazeera, Nov. 28th 2013).

Nara Sritharan

Narayani Sritharan is a Ph.D. Candidate in Economics at the University of Massachusetts - Amherst and co-founder of Diversifying and Decolonising Economics (D-Econ).

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