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Keywords:

  • aid;
  • faith-based development;
  • gift;
  • patrimonialism;
  • Sri Lanka;
  • tsunami

This paper analyses the commodification of post-tsunami aid in Sri Lanka, a process that ‘contaminated’ the ‘purity’ of good intentions with the politics of patronage and international aid. It argues that gifts are not just material transfers of ‘aid’, but also embodiments of cultural symbolism, social power, and political affiliations. The tsunami gift re-enforced and reconfigured exchange relationships among different patrons and clients in Sri Lankan communities, perpetuating the political economy that has driven social conflict and discontent in the post-independence years. Beyond dominant rationales of ethnic or political party patronage, the paper finds that gifts by disingenuous patrons not only became patrimonial, but that the patrimonial rationale emerged as much from above as from below—a dynamic that became nearly inescapable and self-reinforcing. Through three case studies, we explore the intricate chain of relations, obligations, and expectations pertinent in the co-evolving, but often contradictory, gift rationales that permeate the practices, performances, and discourses of tsunami aid.