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May 30th, 2017

The Samurdhi Programme in Sri Lanka

The Sri Lankan government launched its Samurdhi (or Prosperity) Programme in 1995 with the main goal of reducing poverty in Sri Lanka. It had a wide network of national and local level officials administering its activities and was led by its own Ministry and the Samurdhi Authority. However, it lacked a structured mechanism for management, monitoring and evaluation that made the programme vulnerable to politicisation.  In addition, its welfare activities have been criticised for promoting dependency rather than aiding the socioeconomic development of Sri Lankan citizens.

The initiative

The Samurdhi (or Prosperity) Programme was launched in 1995. Its main goal was to reduce poverty in Sri Lanka through development based on public participation. By the end of the 1990s, the programme was fully functioning in 21 out of the country's 25 districts. As the programme's main goal was to alleviate poverty, most of its resources were distributed to households as food stamps, testing for eligibility based on need. In 1998, the household eligibility threshold was set at approximately one-third of the national poverty line.[3]

The key components of the Samurdhi programme included:

  • The provision of a food stamp to eligible households, accounting for approximately 80 percent of the total Samurdhi budget;
  • A savings and credit programme operating through the "Samurdhi banks", with loans destined for entrepreneurial and business development;
  • The rehabilitation and development of community infrastructure through a number of workfare and social (or human) development programmes - productivity development training, training in accounting functions, training of executive committees, and material resource development.[4]

In response to a request by the Sri Lankan government, the World Bank has been providing non-lending technical assistance for Samurdhi welfare reform since 2003.[5] The programme has gone through considerable transformations over the years. More recently, it has been modified to consist of two main components - the relief programme and the empowerment programme.

The relief programme encompasses the cash transfer programme, social security fund, and nutrition programme. The Department of the Commissioner General of Samurdhi (DCGS) implemented a kerosene relief programme in 2008 and is also involved in the distribution of dry ration stamps for internally displaced people (IDPs), for which the financial allocations come from separate ministries and departments.

The empowerment programme consists of five sub-programmes: the rural infrastructure, livelihood, social development, and Samurdhi housing programmes, and the microfinance programme through Samurdhi Bank societies.[6]

The challenge

During the 1980s and 1990s, Sri Lanka made significant progress in increasing life expectancy and in reducing rates of child mortality. The proportion of the population living below the poverty line declined during that time as the country’s GNP per capita gradually increased. However, poverty remained a serious problem, with poor families representing 27 percent of families in 1986-7, rising from 19 percent in 1978-9.[1] In the mid-1990s, poverty rates in the country remained relatively constant at a level of 25 percent.[2]

The public impact

Overall, poverty rates in the Sri Lanka have been reduced since the programme started in 1995. On the other hand, the main failure of the programme has been in the targeting of beneficiaries. It has been criticised for having a bias in the distribution of resources, and thus failing to address the population in most need of support, while providing aid to households that do not fit the poverty criteria:

  • In 2007, the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) found that the Samurdhi food stamp programme, “which constitutes 80% of the total programme budget, misses about 40% of the households in the poorest quintile while almost 44% of the budget goes to households in the top three quintiles.”[7]
  • A review of the project by the World Bank concluded that: “Based on the empirical analysis of the distributional outcomes, Samurdhi does not emerge as an efficient transfer programme. It is modestly successful in reaching the intended beneficiaries, but it transfers a large portion of its resources to the non-poor.”[8]
  • As of 2012, the World Bank reported that public spending on social safety net programmes in Sri Lanka decreased as a percentage of GDP from 2.2 percent in 2004 to 0.3 percent in 2009. As a result, Sri Lanka moved from being a country with relatively high safety net spending to one with limited resource allocation for safety nets. “Sri Lanka's main safety net programme, Samurdhi suffers from poor targeting and benefit adequacy.”[9]

Stakeholder engagement

The main government stakeholder in the Samurdhi programme is the Ministry of Samurdhi, Youth Affairs and Sports (see also Management below), which works with other government ministries to administer relief programmes. The Samurdhi concept is based on participation, and all decision-making processes during implementation are focused at the village and cluster levels.

A Samurdhi Task Force was formed to implement the programme, comprised of various governmental stakeholders, NGOs and members of the public. “Samurdhi as a programme is premised on participatory development principles. By design, all aspects of decision-making centre around the balakaya (village) where the programme is planned and implemented by the organisations set up for this purpose.”[10]

The Samurdhi balakaya - or Samurdhi Task Force - is the grassroots-level organisation formed to implement the Samurdhi Programme. It is formed by all villagers aged from 18 to 35 years, who elect an Executive Committee of seven persons, two "animators", and seven other members representing government and non-government agencies engaged in youth, sports, and rural activities in the village. The Task Force is advised and assisted by an advisory council appointed from older residents.[11]

Political commitment

The Samurdhi programme is fully funded by the Sri Lankan government, and seems to have strong support at national and regional level. It has a large network of officials running from national to village levels, one of which is the Samurdhi Bank, which extends loans to individuals or groups. The macro policy environment is also supportive of Samurdhi.

However, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has identified as one of the main weaknesses of the programme the fact that government officials and politicians were reluctant to adopt approaches other than providing direct welfare support, for fear of political repercussions.[12]

Public confidence

The Samurdhi programme is a voluntary scheme, therefore only those who apply (and qualify) for the programme benefit from its subsidies and activities. On the other hand, there is widespread dissatisfaction with the politicisation and favouritism that influences the allocation of resources.

A report by the CEPA, referring to a survey about the programme, found that: “perceptions of bias, discrimination and political interference in the delivery of programmes emerged as a principal cause of dissatisfaction with the delivery of state social protection programmes. Both recipients and applicants of the Samurdhi programme voiced their dissatisfaction in the way beneficiaries were selected. A few respondents referred to specific cases where Samurdhi recipients owned consumer durables and trishaws and questioned how these people were selected when others in the same division were noticeably poorer but were not receiving benefits."[13] Individuals from across the country who had applied for, but not received, benefits took the view that this was down to discrimination and favouritism.

The selection of the beneficiaries of Samurdhi has been reported to be biased towards individuals of particular political affiliations. “The primary abuse appears to be the inclusion of large numbers of ineligible households as a reward for political loyalty to the governing party... Reports were heard of party organisers attracting voters to the party with the promise of Samurdhi benefits. In some villages eligible Samurdhi recipients who are not supporters of the ruling party were told that if they ventured to vote in an upcoming election, they would be removed from the Samurdhi lists and their benefits would be terminated.”[14]

Clarity of objectives

The main objective of the Samurdhi programme is to eliminate poverty in Sri Lanka, mainly through the inclusion of low-income households and the provision of resources to support economic improvement. The sub-objectives to reach this goal are:

  • “Broadening opportunities for income enhancement and employment;
  • “Organising youth, women, and other disadvantaged segments into small groups and encouraging them to participate in decision-making activities and developmental processes at the grassroots level;
  • “Assisting persons to develop their talents and strengthening their asset bases through productive employment;
  • “Establishing and maintaining productive assets to create additional employment opportunities at the rural level."[15]

Strength of evidence

There is no information available on the use of previous experiences or data from similar programmes for the implementation of the Samurdhi programme in Sri Lanka. On its official website, the programme describes itself as "a pilot project towards sustainable development"[16] indicating that it did not draw evidence from other development programmes.


The programme is fully financed by the Sri Lankan government, and claims about half of the total welfare budget (excluding education and health), which represents almost 1 percent of the country's gross domestic product (US$139 million in 1999).[17]

In terms of legal feasibility, the Samurdhi Authority Act No. 30 of 1995 established the Sri Lanka Samurdhi Authority, implemented in accordance with the Social Charter of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).[18]

In terms of human resources, the initiative has over 25,000 officers contributing at the national level, operating at different layers of the initiative.[20] However, despite these high numbers, "officials believed that in issues of child welfare and protection, penetration was still limited to urban areas, with reduced penetration in rural areas where the real issues existed due to human and financial resource constraints".[21] These constraints had a negative effect on the programme. "The number of beneficiaries per DS [Divisional Secretariat] also varies depending on the poverty level and on resources allocated by the government. Consequently, GN [Grama Niladhari or village officer] divisions with a substantially high number of households that might be eligible were not getting benefits due to resource constraints."[21]

Despite being officially a development programme for economic integration, Samurdhi has been criticised by international actors such as the FAO as being an approach to welfare that promotes dependency rather than aiding the socioeconomic development of Sri Lankan citizens. The FAO sees it as a mechanism that makes the initiative difficult to sustain over time.[22]


The programme has a structured framework set up across national and regional units.

The Ministry of Samurdhi, Youth Affairs and Sports was set up for the administration of the programme, with three departments, each managing one of the major components of the programme:

  • The Department of Poor Relief manages the food stamps;
  • The DCGS, manages the savings and credit programme and Samurdhi Banks;
  • The Samurdhi Authority manages the development programmes.

There are district, divisional, and zonal level Samurdhi authorities. They have the following management structure:

  • District Level - District Secretary, District Director, District Samurdhi Office
  • Divisional Level - Divisional Secretary, Deputy Director
  • Zonal Level - Zonal Managers.[23]

Despite having a comprehensive structure operating across the country, the programme does not have a transparent control system or mechanism for management, monitoring and evaluation, making it vulnerable to politicisation. “The political dimension could affect not only whether an evaluation should be carried out, but also how it is implemented. Sometimes governments do not want to invest scarce resources in evaluation of projects. Samurdhi is a classic example.”[24]

Similarly, the Samurdhi programme has been criticised for poor targeting, inadequate benefits and the lack of clearly defined eligibility criteria and an entry and exit mechanism. Although reforms over the years have helped improve the programme, its cost has increased substantially. The rising costs over time also emphasise the need to improve the management and targeting of the programme in order to bring down the number of beneficiaries, while ensuring that the benefits are received by the groups most in need.[25]


The programme implemented a simple self-monitoring mechanism at the local level which enabled it to keep track of some of its advances, such as the number of families participating in the compulsory savings scheme, the number of Samurdhi Bank societies established throughout the country, as well as feedback on social programmes.[25] On the other hand, a review report by the World Bank observed that Samurdhi did not have a reliable monitoring methodology and no system of accountability and transparency embedded in the design of the transfer programme.

The self-monitoring mechanism was designed to monitor the progress of household activities in the programmes' key components, including:

  • Compulsory and voluntary savings
  • Human resource development (productivity development training, training in accounting functions, training of the executive committee and material resource development)
  • Establishment of Samurdhi Bank societies
  • The community development programme
  • Labour-intensive people's projects
  • Small industries development and social development programmes.[26]

However, there are no instruments to monitor the administration of resources, and the financial institutions are not properly accountable.  “Samurdhi banks are not supervised or audited by the Central Bank and do not fall under the Finance Act. Supervision and auditing is carried out by the Samurdhi Authority. There are no uniform rules governing the financial instruments of these banks."[27]


The Samurdhi initiative is led by central government in collaboration with local officials and citizens at a community level. It has been affected, however, by the inability of local actors to influence the selection and reach of the welfare services, which has compromised its effectiveness. The programme has been criticised for being strongly influenced by local and national political factors.

The Samurdhi programme has strong support structures from national down to village level and has its own financial institution, the Samurdhi Bank. The local nature of activities encourages families and households to participate directly in all parts of the programme - from planning to monitoring.

At the community level, the Samurdhi Task Force has an elected Executive Committee and other members representing government and non-government agencies. The Samurdhi Task Force has the following spheres of activity:

  • “Conduct family profile surveys to determine the number of families in need of welfare;
  • “Identify community projects that will address the economic and social needs of the village and provide employment opportunities on a casual basis;
  • “Form small groups of beneficiaries who will then be encouraged to participate in small savings and credit activities in the village;
  • “Encourage and assist persons to undertake self-employment projects;
  • “Implement nutrition, health and other relevant programmes.”[28]

On the other hand, the structure of the system makes it vulnerable to political influence as there is no scheme of checks and balances to monitor the execution of the programme. "The absence of strict rules for programme eligibility does not help the cause either. Politicisation is embedded in the design and influences both the selection of Samurdhi administrators and the selection of beneficiaries. These design flaws lead to implementation problems and compromise the system of social assistance at large."[29]

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