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Small Business Trade Fairs Promote Social Cohesion in Eastern Sri Lanka

Program Year: 2020

By Johann Rebert

The Eastern Province of Sri Lanka is known for vast paddy fields, a vibrant fishing industry, and picturesque beaches. It is also ethnically and religiously diverse, with Tamil, Muslim, and Sinhalese communities living side-by-side. Since the end of the war, however, the province has been prone to sporadic outbursts of intercommunal conflict that have been driven in part by competition for resources and political power.

A small business owner from the Batticaloa District displays assorted household items for sale (photo: Johann Rebert / The Asia Foundation).

The Asia Foundation has been implementing a project in the Eastern Province, in collaboration with USAID, that recognizes the interdependence between social cohesion and economic prosperity. Since 2018, the Foundation and our community-based partners have been working with small and micro businesses to build economic relationships that bridge ethnoreligious divisions. By fostering understanding and mutual reliance, these relationships will mitigate the residual tensions from intercommunal conflict or violence and build social capital.

Mr. Selvam was proud of the quality of his spicy “gram” snack mixture on sale at the trade fair in Batticaloa (photo: Johann Rebert / The Asia Foundation).

In late September, our local partners organized a series of trade fairs promoting this social cohesion theme to showcase the products of project participants and highlight the links that are being forged between local businesses from different communities. The fairs were also an opportunity for consumers to come together to support this cross-community initiative. The events were attended by senior local and provincial government officials, who emphasized the need for all communities to work together for an inclusive and prosperous future that all can share.

A unique treat, watalappam, made from coconut milk and palm treacle, for sale at the Ampara trade fair (photo: Johann Rebert / The Asia Foundation).

As in so many parts of the world, Sri Lanka has suffered economically from the coronavirus pandemic, and these events were also a moment for project participants to get an economic boost and cultivate new business partnerships and opportunities. The Foundation is planning to hold similar events in the coming year, incorporating feedback from the small and micro business owners who have already participated, and building on our local partnerships and our working relationship with local government.


Clay pots and coconut-shell spoons are essential cookware in Sri Lanka, and much in demand at the fair in Batticaloa (photo: Johann Rebert / The Asia Foundation).

Related locations: Sri Lanka
Related programs: Inclusive Economic Growth

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