Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has enjoyed a more robust economy, less extreme poverty and a higher level of welfare than many of its neighbouring countries. The country has also endured several decades of civil war.

Facts about Sri Lanka

The flag for Sri Lanka
Life expectancy
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GNI pr capita
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Percentage poor people (below 1.25$)
The flag for Sri Lanka
The flag for Sri Lanka

Bilateral assistance million kroner

Bilateral assistance million kroner

Bilateral assistance million kroner

Ceylon gained its independence in 1948, and in 1972 it changed its name to Sri Lanka. At the same time it became a republic, having until then been a Dominion of the British Commonwealth. Norwegian development aid began in the late 1960s, with support to the organisation Cey-Nor, which worked with the development of the fisheries industry. Sri Lanka became the main partner country for Norwegian development aid in 1977.

From the time of its independence, the country enjoyed a higher living standard than many of its neighbouring countries in South Asia. However, in the 1970s Sri Lanka underwent an economic crisis. Prices for traditional export products from colonial times, including tea from its plantations, had been falling on the world market for a long period.

From 1970 to 1977, Sirimavo Bandaranaike led a left-wing coalition which emphasised state control of the economy. This was Bandaranaike’s second period in government, the first of which began in 1960 when she became Sri Lanka’s – and the world’s – first woman prime minister. The centre-right wing opposition won the election in 1977. Under J. R. Jayewardene it liberalised the economy, and in the 1980s Sri Lanka underwent a period of considerable economic growth.

Commodity assistance and rural development

A Norwegian-supported programme for rural development in the Hambantota District in the south of the country began in 1979. Rural development programmes were an important aspect of Western development aid in the 1970s and 1980s, and were tested out by the World Bank, among others. Norway supported programmes of this type in several countries, and not all were equally successful. However, the programme in Sri Lanka was considered a resounding success.

The aim of the Hambantota programme was to increase incomes and living standards in rural districts, and included rehabilitation of irrigation systems, forestation and development of agriculture, fisheries and handicraft production. The fact that Sri Lankans themselves largely managed the programme was one of its success factors. Norway later supported similar programmes in two other districts, Monaragala and Batticaloa.

Norwegian development aid also included commodity assistance. This meant that Norway paid for the procurement of goods that Sri Lanka needed, including newsprint paper. Until the mid-1980s, commodity assistance constituted around half of Norwegian development aid.

Civil war and Norwegian mediation

Sri Lanka’s majority population is Sinhalese. Tamils constitute the largest of the minority groups. Relations between the two groups were periodically fraught with conflict, the conflicts escalated into riots in the 1980s, and from 1983 a prolonged civil war was fought at great cost to the civilian population. The most important of several militant Tamil groups was the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who waged an armed struggle with the aim of establishing a separate Tamil state.

Norwegian development cooperation with Sri Lanka became the focus of criticism in Norway following condemnation of the Sri Lankan authorities’ alleged human rights violations during the unrest. In this period, abuses were committed by both sides in the conflict. Some of the aid was reallocated to provide more aid for refugees and rehabilitation of victims of the hostilities.

A peace agreement was entered into in 1988, to be monitored by Indian armed forces. These withdrew in 1992, after being involved in battles with LTTE guerrilla group.

From 1990, Norway was involved as a facilitator of peace negotiations, based on contacts established in the context of Norwegian development cooperation with the northern regions of the country. In 1999, Norway was asked to assume a formal role as mediator between the authorities and the LTTE guerrilla group.  The ensuing peace negotiations led to a ceasefire agreement in 2002.

As part of the agreement an observer force was set up – the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), headed by Norway. It consisted partly of personnel from the Nordic countries, and partly of locally recruited personnel. The observer force, for which Norway contributed a total of NOK 350 million or 40 per cent of the costs, helped to resolve local conflicts to prevent them from escalating. The SLMM also helped to ensure the release of children who had been forcibly recruited.

During this period, the specific aim of Norwegian development cooperation was to support Norway’s role in the peace process.

In 2003, the LTTE withdrew from the negotiations but the ceasefire held. In 2004, the centre-left wing alliance won the parliamentary election. The new government under Mahinda Rajapakse was less inclined towards a peaceful solution than the previous government headed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe from the United National Party. Rajapakse was also elected president in 2005.

The tsunami and the end of the peace process

In December 2004, more than 30 000 people were killed in Sri Lanka as a result of a tsunami that affected a number of countries in Southeast and South Asia. The tsunami also led to major material destruction. In January 2005, the Storting (Norwegian parliament) allocated an extraordinary grant of NOK 1 billion to assist tsunami victims throughout the region, including Sri Lanka.

2006 saw the escalation of the military conflict between the LTTE and the government and the failure of new peace negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland. Possibilities for the SLMM observer force to operate worsened, and it was disbanded in 2008.

In 2008, the Sri Lankan authorities withdrew from the ceasefire and launched a full military offensive. In May of the following year, the government forces were able to declare victory in the war when they conquered the last area that the LTTE guerrilla group still controlled. In the aftermath of the defeat of the guerrillas, numerous accusations of human rights violations were made. In 2011, the UN requested an inquiry into possible war crimes, and in 2015, Sri Lanka entered into an agreement with the UN on a national reconciliation process. Today there is close contact between the international community and Sri Lankan authorities on implementation of this process.

Aid for war victims and economic growth

Norway has supported initiatives for the settlement of those who were internally displaced as a result of the war, as well as peace and reconciliation initiatives. Norway has also contributed to several projects for economic growth in regions of the north that were most severely affected by the civil war. Since 2016, this has included a project under the auspices of the International Labour Organization (ILO) for value creation in value chains for fruit, vegetables and fish. The project targeted 2000 small-scale producers.

Parts of Sri Lanka are subject to landslides. Since 2012, Norway has supported a collaboration between the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute (NGI) and a corresponding institute in Sri Lanka on risk mapping of vulnerable areas, and possibilities for landslide warnings. Norway has also supported Sri Lanka in the development of a national fisheries policy, through a cooperation between fishery authorities in the two countries. The economic cooperation between Norway and Sri Lanka showed an increase in 2017, and many collaborative projects have been created, particularly in the field of ICT (information and communications technology).

Sri Lanka became a middle-income country in 1997. Revenues from migrant workers have been important since the 1980s, in common with the export-oriented textile industry. In the years following the end of the civil war, the economy grew more rapidly. The proportion living in extreme poverty represents 4.1 per cent of the population, which is significantly lower than most other countries in the region.

Moreover, Sri Lanka had lower infant mortality than most other Asian countries (figures for 2012) and in 2013, maternal mortality fell to the same level as more prosperous countries such as Malaysia and South Korea.

Published 28.08.2014
Last updated 04.09.2018