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Sri Lanka: Too many jobless youth in former war zone

Oct 03, 2012

Finding paid work, especially for youths, is still difficult in Sri Lanka’s former conflict zone in the north even after three years of peace and massive infrastructure projects, experts say, pointing to the region’s anaemic private sector as a main cause.

Although official employment data for the region is unavailable, experts in the area estimate that up to 30 percent of the north’s population is unemployed, as opposed to a national rate of 4 percent. Based on the most recent census in 2001, 28 percent of the country’s population is between the ages of 10-24, and there are some 280,000 youths in the former war zone, according to a 2012 government estimate.

Most people who work in what is known as the Vanni - which includes the districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu plus parts of Jaffna, Vavuniya and Mannar - do so only sporadically, according to a March 2012 report released by the government, UN Children’s Fund and the World Food Programme.

“Daily labour was the most common income generation activity [when the study was conducted], this being the main source of income among 37 percent of the population,” it said.

The main problem is a near non-existent private sector there, said Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, the principal researcher at Point Pedro Institute of Development, based in Jaffna District.

“[The] bulk of the development activities are large-scale public investments in infrastructure… employing skilled and semi-skilled labour from the south, as well as under-employed Sri Lanka Army personnel.”

Private companies have reported a “wait-and-see” strategy on investing in the north, still viewing it as a risky frontier, given the shortage of skilled workers, lack of investment incentives and unknown returns.

Sivathambu Navarathanaraja, secretary of the Kilinochchi District Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture, said while government and humanitarian agencies provide vocational training and other assistance like farm equipment and seeds, youths in the Vanni still struggle.

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