How did social welfare provision (de-)legitimise the post-colonial state in Sri Lanka?

Nayana Godamunne

Type: Sri Lanka, Theme 3: Services and legitimacy, Working Paper

Country: Sri Lanka

Date: 16/08/2019

Full summary

How did expectations of state welfare become so entrenched in people’s minds in Sri Lanka? And why did the country experience a protracted civil war and two insurrections despite its long history of social welfare provision? This study aims to reach a deeper understanding of the relationship between social welfare and violent conflict in Sri Lanka.


The paper is based mainly on an extensive literature review supplemented with key informant interviews to trace legitimacy claims and practices related to post-independence social welfare provision. The analysis explores the state’s commitment to upholding the core values of social justice, and the subsequent changes in its norms and values as a result of political, socioeconomic and conceptual changes to offer a more nuanced understanding of the process of transformation and (de-) construction of state legitimacy in Sri Lanka.


Through an analysis of literature and key informant interviews, this study shows that social welfare in Sri Lanka is rooted in its colonial past and came to represent the post-independence state in 1948. Its values of justice and equity informed the independence struggle, following which came the universal provision of health and education and special assistance for the poorest and most vulnerable sectors. From the 1950s, however, the original values of social justice were reinterpreted in a new language of Sinhala nationalism, ignoring the multi-ethnic character of the Sri Lankan state. By the late 1970s neoliberalism influenced new legitimacy claims in the language of ‘development’, and state policies drew on symbols of Sri Lanka’s ancient irrigation-based civilisation to make new claims to make the country prosperous again. Veiling cutbacks in welfare spending in new promises enabled the government to pre-empt mass dissent and carry forward a programme of market reform. External aid for mega development projects enabled patronage networks to mediate access to state resources, creating new forms of marginalisation and exclusion.


The Sri Lankan case offers compelling evidence that state legitimacy can be undermined when it is perceived to be acting on the basis of unfair rules and practices that contravene shared values.