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Degree Programs


Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a nation of contrasts.  It achieved high levels of human development with low levels of economic development.  It was the site of a 26-year ethinc conflict, and it was the site of an unprecedented natural disaster.  A number of studies explore different facets of health and human development in this nation.

Disaster, Conflict and Recovery

The Indian Ocean tsunami exacted unprecedented damage in 14 countries in a matter of hours. Yet in Sri Lanka, its impact was profoundly shaped by decades of civil conflict.  Several studies seek to address the role of conflict in shaping vulnerability prior to the tsunami and the subsequent distribution of humanitarian aid.  These studies leverage a unique combination of community surveys, public records, official damage and foreign assistance databases, and archival evidence of historic population movements to address two interrelated questions.

One study addresses how population displacements in the run-up to the tsunami shaped its impact in Eastern Sri Lanka. In contrast to rebel-controlled northern areas, which saw wholesale ethnic cleansing, population movements in the east have been characterized by gradual processes of communal violence, insecurity, encroachment, disparate access to entitlements (e.g., irrigation) and political protection, and temporary military or rebel clearances. The net result was a substantial net migration toward previously unsettled coastal areas, particularly by vulnerable minority-within-a-minority communities.

See Randall Kuhn's presentation, Boxing Day Tsunami: Natural or Political Disaster at Global Vision in Kandy, Sri Lanka.

Motorcycle riders in Sri Lanka

A second study quantifies conflict-related bias in the distribution of post-tsunami relief using new information sources aimed at establishing accountability in humanitarian aid delivery. Hopes that the tsunami would facilitate further rapprochement between the government and the LTTE were soon replaced by renewed conflict, fueled in part by gaps in the delivery of foreign assistance to minority areas.

The study quantifies the limited pace of housing construction in minority areas and the rapid pace of construction in majority areas of the south, best characterized by the construction of 4,000 homes in Hambantota, the president's home district, where only 1,000 had been destroyed.

Financial analysis also identifies the particular extent of pro-government bias in assistance provided by U.S. government agencies. Aid bias findings were featured in the book Natural Hazards, Unnatural Disasters: The Economics of Effective Prevention (World Bank).  Additionally, you can read our background paper on the tsunami and conflict.

This work is part of a larger interdisciplinary study, Sri Lankan Tsunami: Societal Resilience in Two Coastal Regions (Dennis McGilvray, PI), funded by the National Science Foundation program on Human Social Dynamics of Change. To learn more, check out the book Tsunami Recovery in Sri Lanka: Ethnic and Regional Dimensions (Dennis McGilvray and Michele Gamburd, eds.)

Conflict and Population Health

The direct impact of protracted conflict on population health and development are believed to be high, and are held to be well understood. However, the extent of a war's impact on long-term health, and the opportunity costs, are less well understood. Sri Lanka serves as an interesting case study in that indicators for health and human development continued to improve during the 26-year civil war. This study sought to understand whether this was a case where war did not have a negative impact, or whether that impact was 'hidden' in data aggregation, or whether there were opportunity costs not easily captured in national data. This research therefore asked whether or not health outcomes in Sri Lanka would have been better in the absence of a 26-year war than they were in the presence of war.

In order to answer this question, we constructed a counterfactual model using district level health outcomes from before and during the war. The research found that the conflict altered both the momentum of health gains and absolute outcomes both within and outside of conflict zones. The novel methodology provided a tool with which to better understand the opportunity costs of war.

You can access this research here:

Johnson SA (2017) The Cost of War on Public Health: An Exploratory Method for Understanding the Impact of Conflict on Public Health in Sri Lanka.