The Jaffna coastline is full of interesting contradictions. At first sight it is hard not to be transfixed by the clear blue sea and white sand lined with colourful fishing fleets and fishermen pulling in their nets. A closer look though reveals a coastline visibly scarred with the damage and aftermath of both the [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Transforming lives and livelihoods

After 13 years of work the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) leaves Sri Lanka happy with their rehabilitation and sustainable projects implemented in the North


In their new home: Benedict Vincent and his family

The Jaffna coastline is full of interesting contradictions. At first sight it is hard not to be transfixed by the clear blue sea and white sand lined with colourful fishing fleets and fishermen pulling in their nets. A closer look though reveals a coastline visibly scarred with the damage and aftermath of both the tsunami and the civil war – shells of houses and destroyed buildings.

Benedict Vincent, a fisherman living in Vadamarachchi East with his wife and four children was the owner of one of these destroyed and now derelict houses. Displaced more than nine times throughout the war years when his land was occupied first by the military, then the LTTE, and in between when his house was destroyed by the tsunami, when he finally returned his troubles were not yet over. He was forbidden to build a new house on his existing land due to new government coastline restrictions.

This is when the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) stepped in. The SDC is Switzerland’s international cooperation agency within the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs that will be leaving Sri Lanka after establishing and implementing a 13-year humanitarian programme. In these years, they have invested over 80 million Swiss Francs, or the equivalent of roughly Rs. 11 Billion through hundreds of projects impacting on thousands of lives.

The SDC housing project transforms the lives of vulnerable families like the Vincents by giving them the money and guidance to build a new home whilst taking into account long term provisions. Rs. 550,000 was given in instalments to build the new house on a plot of land further inland and the SDC provided help and advice on design and materials to ensure it would withstand potential weather difficulties. Foundations were elevated in case of flooding. The SDC housing beneficiary programme not only means families such as the Vincents finally have a safe shelter but hopefully a shelter that will last.

SDC also looked to build a long term mind-set among the beneficiaries and encourage them to put in extra money to create a house specific to their individual needs. Vincent was also given a new engine for his fishing boat, so that along with his new house he and his family had the platform to rebuild their lives.

The SDC began work in Sri Lanka during the Ceasefire Agreement in 2002 focusing primarily on the thousands of internally displaced people in the Northern Province. Their focus was on developing a programme that would have positive effects on the beneficiaries’ abilities to take control of their own lives. Sustainability and future provision was at the core of all their projects.

Originally a short term programme was begun in 2003 in Jaffna. However, the 30-year conflict coupled with the tsunami in 2005 meant the damage to infrastructure was unprecedented as well as the effects that both had on the lives of people living along the coast. More was  needed. The SDC programme thus grew over many years. “The programme was constantly evolving and the agency learned huge amounts over the years,” noted Rajkumar Kumararajaratnam, SDC Infrastructure Engineer.

The SDC focused on reconstructing and rebuilding in three key areas: housing, livelihoods and community infrastructure. At the centre of all projects were the needs of the individuals in the particular area. Before a project, the team would meet with members of the village and discuss their most important requirements: schools, water supplies or livelihoods, usually a combination of the above. Pooneryn, in the Kilinochchi district for instance, was severely affected by lack of proper drinking water. Located close to Jaffna lagoon their water supplies were badly contaminated with sea water. The SDC’s consultation with the villagers flagged the specific need for safe drinking water and a project was established to repair and renovate the pond.

With communities encouraged by SDC to actively participate in the development of their villages, maintenance of the pond was handed over to the village farmers’ association. They are in charge of all aspects of the pond which at present produces 50,000 litres of drinking water per day which is then distributed to the people of Pooneryn and 15 neighbouring villages. The pond also supplies water for agriculture and currently 24 farmers use this water for their crops.

Well equipped: The school at Eluththumadduval village

The SDC project not only provides the population with safe and reliable drinking water but has also had a positive impact on agriculture in this area. Through guidance and training from the SDC, the villagers themselves now have the skills and knowledge to maintain water levels and have even set up a Disaster Management Committee to prepare for future water issues, especially during monsoon.

The Pooneryn pond is just one example of SDC’s water construction assistance , in fact they have renovated ten ponds and constructed 77 common wells, providing safe and clean water for 5152 individuals.

Education is arguably the most important factor in encouraging families to resettle in a particular area and consequently SDC rebuilt 43 pre-schools and 29 schools as part of the resettlement programme. Eluththumadduval village on the former defensive line before 2000 had 450 students in its school. However, in May 2000 when the region was occupied by the military and became a high security zone all families were displaced. The school in Eluththumadduval that cost the SDC Rs 28.5 million to rebuild is now fully functional with over 100 students from 80 families resettled there. Fully equipped with a science lab, library, IT facilities and a kitchen, most importantly, the school is designed with space for expansion. The school building is large enough to house 300 pupils and the materials used were all specifically chosen to withstand harsh weather. A rainwater harvesting tank has also been built to provide safe water for the students.

The SDC aims to create awareness and educate the community in areas such as water and recycling. Accordingly, the children practise recycling at school and resell the plastic and glass to traders. There is also a compost heap. The hope is that by exposing the children to these new concepts at school they can implement them at home and in turn have a positive impact on the wider community.

The challenge of moving away from cash intervention was not without challenges. Initially aid organisations donated to livelihoods in the form of poultry or animals. However, seeing the importance of creating long term, alternative incomes which were sustainable SDC aimed to wean the local mind-set from relying on cash grants. The Swiss Labour Assistance (SAH) was funded by the SDC to form collective businesses in these struggling areas.

Santhampillai Jesuthasan, project coordinator for SAH explains the importance of working together, saying that “commercial entities rather than individual support not only strengthen the social structure in the communities but increases the economic potential of each individual.”

A Palmyrah fibre processing factory set up in December 2015 currently provides full time employment for 16 women and 2 men. Palmyrah fibre is used as a raw material to make various kinds of brushes for export. SAH brought in a consultant to advise and create a business plan. A trip to India was also arranged to train the women and purchase efficient machinery for the factory.

With women employed at the factory earning Rs. 12,000 – a sizeable sum for this area, the company provides a stable income for 150 families who supply the raw materials. This allows women to be flexible when juggling families and work as they can harvest the leaves around their home and be paid according to the number they pick.

Ithavil Palmyrah Resource (Pvt) Ltd is one of the SAH initiatives which also include seaweed cultivation, groundnut farming and sewing companies. Each company is owned by a number of shareholders who each invest Rs. 25,000. By carefully identifying areas that have the potential to be lucrative, the SAH funded by the SDC has successfully created long-term livelihoods as well as offering skills and opportunities. At the centre of the livelihoods development programme was identifying alternative money earners in the rural areas, rather than relying solely on the land or sea.

The SDC wanted to ensure the sustainability of the projects before they left and now with the resettlement programme completed, SDC’s Programme Manager Martin Studer is confident that sustainability has been achieved. Pleased with the work they have implemented in Sri Lanka, he says they have learned a huge amount themselves and will be using their experience here for new initiatives in countries such as Haiti and Nepal.

Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.