The UN Resident Coordinator Hanaa Singer-Hamdy's interview with UN News on the Sri Lankan Crisis
17 May 2022
UN Resident Coordinator Hanaa Singer-Hamdy spoke to UN News on Friday 13 May 2022 about the political and economic situation in Sri Lanka.
Q: The political and economic crisis in Sri Lanka intensified over the past few days, and there has been news of attacks on demonstrators and mob violence. What is the ground situation there now?
A: The severe economic crisis has made daily life in Sri Lanka, a struggle. Since the start of the crisis, the UN Early warning system has tracked over 1000 protests. Initially, these were peaceful and driven by citizen participation and characterized by calling for a change of the government. They were joined by political parties, trade unions, student unions, clergy and other interest groups. But as the shortage of gas and fuel became more prominent, we started witnessing a new form of protests and clashes around distribution points. But then, the attempt to break the protests and counter-violent demonstration attempts led to the violence that you have witnessed in the media and of course the declaration of a state of emergency. We have had a curfew since Monday, from 2.30 pm that has been periodically lifted and over the past 48 hours we have not seen incidents of violence. But of course, you have all witnessed the violence that happened and the torching of over 60 houses. But over the last day, things seem to have calmed down. Around 8 people have been killed and many others have been injured and our sympathies are with them and their families as they go through these difficult times.
Q: On Tuesday, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights appealed to the Sri Lankan authorities to prevent further violence and urged restraint amid the country’s severe economic crisis. Do you see the situation getting any better? In your assessment, how soon do you see the possibility of a resolution of the ongoing crisis?
A: The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called on the authorities to independently, thoroughly, and transparently investigate all the attacks that have occurred especially on the peaceful protesters. There needs to be meaningful and inclusive dialogue with all parties of societies to find the pathway forward and address the socio-economic challenges faced by the people. Right now, I hope there is a beginning of a political process because political stability is absolutely critical to creating an enabling environment for the negotiations with the IMF which is now critical, which can then set up the way forward for economic recovery. We hope that Sri Lanka will find a peaceful solution to the current crisis soon enough to alleviate the people’s suffering and strengthen democracy and human rights and prevent further violence.
Q: What is the role of the UN amidst this critical situation? How are the different UN agencies stationed in Sri Lanka, working towards helping the vulnerable population?
A: The UN is very well established in Sri Lanka and we have been working consistently for many months to help Sri Lanka manage and recover from the economic crisis we have tried to support and reduce the impact on the most vulnerable groups. So, we have both short term and long term measures to support sustainable recovery. We are working very closely with international financial institutes like the World Bank, the IMF, and ADB to help ensure their support in a coordinated way with the UN approach. I think it’s very important and imperative that we prevent a humanitarian crisis, so we need to be making interventions now. This is a middle-income country and we need to protect the institutions from falling into a humanitarian crisis. For now, the UN has focused its intervention on 4 critical areas - on health, we are supporting the ministry of health to closely monitor the available medical supply and coordinating the procurement of urgently needed medicine and medical supplies from development partners including access through a donation to bridge the immediate gaps to avoid stockouts because, with the complete depletion of foreign currency, the country cannot purchase medicine. On food security, we are working now to augment the production capacity of targeted populations through good agricultural practices, and cash transfers and see the production of important vegetables. The third theme is social protection. We have come together to present and offer to the govt, in terms of the policy support on social protection measures for the short and long terms, basically advocating which social protection programs are to be prioritised including social protections systems, advisory support through digital and targeted basic income, We don’t want to create extra and parallel systems buts how to make the best of the social protection system that is already in place. And opportunities for over 16000 families including, in particular, employment for women, as well as 3200 persons by way of tourist interventions. Sri Lanka is of course a fantastic tourist destination and we need to enhance and nurture this aspect. The fourth theme is macroeconomic policy advice. The UN has provided a policy memo with key measures to support the macroeconomic stabilisation and debt sustainability to support the govt in their discussions with IMF and other international financial institutions.
Q: How is the coordination between the government and the UN agencies at this time? How difficult is it to reach the vulnerable population and coordinate relief work?
A: The technical part of the govt now is still working and functioning and of course only up till last week, before the cabinet was dissolved, I met with the minister of finance, to discuss the UN support and worked with him in the areas of health, social protection, food security and macroeconomic policy advice. And my colleagues from all the agencies are still working with their technical focal points in their ministry, so this is ongoing. Also, we are very closely working with our colleagues in the sustainable development council from the govt, and we just had the mission just before the curfews and all this, we had the mission from ESCAP, United Nations ESCAP, to discuss incorporating the SDG goals into the macroeconomics, modelling and projections, also discussing the thematic bond frameworks and other sources of innovative financing, which will help Sri Lanka recover from the current crisis and build a more sustainable economy. I hope very soon that we will have a cabinet in place and our work will continue, but on the technical level, I think we are all still working quite closely.
Q: Once the crisis is over, what would be the role of UN agencies in the re-building and recovery process?
A: Yes, of course, our work is not only about addressing the immediate needs of the population but it's really about preventing deep crises. So we must help avoid taking steps backwards on key social indicators in which Sri Lanka has been- you know, for example- their access to health and education, they are a model in Southeast Asia. So we need to protect whatever gains have been there and remember, with the crisis, it is not only the traditionally vulnerable groups, you have even other middle class or lower middle class that really have slid into vulnerable groups as well. So we are also working with the govt.to enhance, for example, food security, …my colleagues at FAO, are working to enhance the fertilisers use efficiency, thus reducing the chemical fertilisers burden. And we are also working very closely with bilateral donors to reach the targeted population again focussing on enhancing the production capacity substantiality through good agricultural practices. On social protection, in the long term, we want to see a strong social protection system in Sri Lanka to ensure that all people are financially resilient and have a social safety net and resilience, empowerment and shock and gender responsiveness, While at the same time, empowering, focussing on youth and women leaders to promote peaceful coexistence and build the social cohesion,. We all know the history of Sri Lanka, so with this, we also have to maintain the visions of how we are to ensure the protection of building social cohesion so we can strengthen the resilience at the community level amidst these socio-economic vulnerabilities. On the macroeconomic advice, the UN will support also the establishment of a dedicated policy and research within the ministry of finance focussing on median term policy measures and planning to support the macroeconomic stabilisation and debt sustainability as well as socio-economic impact assessment and surveys, working with the department of census and statistics, Finally, we also recognize, that are some broader political and systematic root causes that have perpetrated this discrimination and undermined human rights and these need to be addressed continuously. So we are just finalising the United Nations Sustainable development Framework, which covers the years from 2023 to 2027 and includes a number of strategies and programmes to help Sri Lanka build a more sustainable and inclusive economy that benefits the people and the planet.