Sri Lanka is an island in the Indian Ocean. It lies east of the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, from which it is separated by the Palk Strait, a strip of shallow water 28.8 km across at its narrowest point. Sri Lanka is about the size of Tasmania, with an area of 65,610 km2, including 868 km2 of inland waters.
Sri Lanka has a population of around 20 million and GNI per capita of US$2,290(2010).
From 1983 to 2009, Sri Lanka was badly affected by a civil conflict between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The conflict finally ended in May 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE by the Sri Lankan military.
Despite the immense damage caused by the long-running conflict, including a substantial loss of life, displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians and widespread destruction of infrastructure, Sri Lanka has achieved high levels of literacy, life expectancy and infant mortality that are better than those of its major South Asian neighbours. However there are persistent social inequalities between regions in terms of socio-economic performance and service delivery.
A tea plantation worker, supported under the Australian community rehabilitation program, in Sri Lanka's Central Province. Photo: Sundari Jayasuriya
Sri Lanka is a lower middle-income nation and is currently achieving high economic growth and performing well against most Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) at the national level. However, national achievements mask serious disparities between and within provinces. While poverty is on the decline overall (from 28.8 per cent in 1995/6 to 8.9 per cent in 2009/10), it is still persistently high in some parts of the country. Some serious problems remain, such as under-nutrition in children. In particular, the Government and its international development partners remain focused on the large task of achieving reconstruction and recovery in conflict-affected areas. Heavy flooding in January and February 2011 has also seriously affected already disadvantaged communities in the eastern, northern and central provinces.
The long running civil conflict increased poverty, particularly by weakening economic development and investment. Large numbers of people have been displaced, often multiple times. Approximately 280,000 people were displaced by the escalation of the conflict over 2008–09 and were accommodated in camps in northern Sri Lanka. The majority of displaced people have returned to their original communities or are living in temporary accommodation with host families.
The conflict also worsened regional imbalances in economic growth and created major socio-economic problems in rural areas. More than 75 per cent of people still live in rural areas and depend on traditional lifestyles involving subsistence agriculture and fisheries. This means they are vulnerable to climatic conditions and do not always receive adequate, regular incomes.
While Sri Lanka has publicly funded primary education, there are large differences in learning outcomes across regions. The education system requires reform to help the country transform socially and economically in the future. The quality of primary education is variable and some children have poor access. Similarly, access to tertiary and vocational education needs to be expanded and better aligned to the needs of the labour market. Improved education quality, particularly teaching English and promoting values such as multiculturalism, could help support social cohesion.
Health, particularly under-nutrition in children, is of concern in conflict-affected areas, hill country plantations and remote rural areas. Existing social welfare programs are not always targeted and do not address underlying causes, such as water and sanitation and maternal health. While access to basic public health services is good, there are gaps, such as mental health services in conflict-affected areas.
As an island nation, with many communities dependent on fisheries and tourism for income, Sri Lanka is vulnerable to climate change and natural disasters, such as floods. Sri Lanka has lost more than 50 per cent of its forest cover in the last 100 years. Deforestation and forest degradation contribute to poverty, particularly in dry-zone areas, by reducing sustainable livelihoods and increasing risks related to drought and fire.
Australian aid to Sri Lanka
Australia has played a significant role in Sri Lanka since the beginning of the Colombo Plan in 1950. While we have generally been a relatively small bilateral donor in Sri Lanka, Australia's aid program increased dramatically following the humanitarian emergency after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and has similarly increased following the end of civil conflict in 2009. Australian ODA more than doubled in size in 2009–10 following a large scale up in humanitarian aid in response to the humanitarian situation. Australia's humanitarian assistance, through UN and other partners, is focused on resettling people who were displaced by the conflict. This assistance includes the repair and reconstruction of houses, re-establishing livelihoods and removing landmines. While Australia's humanitarian contribution is now declining, our long-term development assistance is increasing.
Australia will continue to provide long-term development assistance to support job creation, agricultural production and community development for vulnerable communities. Our assistance will support communities to sustainably manage forest resources and provide better quality and improved access to basic education to disadvantaged and marginalised children. Australia will also provide access to clean water, sanitation facilities and hygiene education for schools in disadvantaged areas throughout Sri Lanka, and for newly-reconstructed houses in conflict-affected communities in the North and East.