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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Disaster management — an unmitigated disaster?

The ISLAND Sri Lanka, 24/03/2005, by Amrit Muttukumaru

Though difficult to believe, after more than two and a half months of the most devastating natural disaster the world has ever encountered, Sri Lanka which next to Indonesia’s Aceh Province was the worst affected with the tragic loss of around 50,000 persons and almost two million displaced, destitute and affected is still groping its way in disaster management. There is no consensus even in regard to the numbers affected by the tsunami. Under the circumstances, one would have imagined that in tandem with emergency relief and the initial installation of at least a rudimentary early warning system for natural calamities, the government would have given top priority to the setting up of a national agency appropriately structured with the required checks and balances to coordinate the entire gamut of disaster management consisting of inter alia, early warning systems, law and order, emergency relief, counselling, reconstruction and rehabilitation. Instead of such a structure, what we have is a confused maze of stifling centralisation largely manned by people whose main credentials are servile loyalty to the executive president. The confusion is such that even the poorly structured Centre for National Operations (CNO) which was evidently a mere component of the Task Force for ‘Rescue & Relief’, has now been disbanded after a brief existence of one month amidst a rare instance of public candour by a senior bureaucrat that only 30 % of those affected have received government assistance as at 2nd February. Its functions, whatever they may have been, have been ‘handed over to the line ministries’.
If proof is indeed needed, this clearly indicates that there is little appreciation of what it takes to effectively manage a disaster of this magnitude, made infinitely more complex by the existence of a parallel administration under the control of the LTTE in vast areas affected by the tsunami in the north-east of the country. The country’s administration woefully inadequate in the best of times, just does not have the wherewithal to cope with a disaster of this magnitude. Yet, there has been no meaningful effort to get the required foreign expertise for this purpose.
Not withstanding this, the government insensitively claiming in a cavalier fashion that the relief phase is successfully completed has embarked on a highly questionable multi-billion dollar reconstruction plan with tsunami donor funds hatched by the presidential task force to ‘Rebuild the Nation’. This task force comprising largely of a motley group of businessmen has presented its staggering US$ 3.5 Billion plan for reconstruction and rehabilitation within a mere 10 days! World Bank president James Wolfensohn at a press briefing after his visit to the tsunami hit countries stated, "You’ve got to give the community a chance to heal first, to decide how they are going to live and what their needs are. This is not something that can be done in five minutes." Maybe he had Sri Lanka in mind!
The peril of ignoring such sound advise is seen in the uproar caused when the plan for the Siribopura township in the Hambantota area was recently unveiled by the president on 19 January. This, after all, was going to be the blueprint for the other townships! Surely, this task is far more complex than making unconscionable profits largely as a result of state patronage and the exploitation of a hapless workforce which is the norm in our conflict of interest ridden private sector more intent on extracting concessions for itself on the back of the tsunamis.
As if all this were not enough, there are serious doubts on the integrity of the audit firm selected by the UN to audit worldwide the utilisation of donor funds. The UN is well aware of this and it is hoped that they will do the right thing. In terms of inequity, it is hard to beat the phenomenon where the north-east which has suffered possibly as much as 70% of the damage, being in receipt of perhaps only 25% of the highly insufficient sum expended so far in relief by the state in the context of persistent squabbling on the establishment of a joint mechanism to coordinate this in the vast areas controlled by the LTTE. The hurriedly prepared re-construction plan while only giving at best a token recognition for the views of those affected in the south have dispensed with even this for the north-east. Another mass of confusion with explosive potential is in regard to the coastal buffer zone. Amidst all this there are charges of brazen corruption levelled by no less an entity than a key constituent part of the ruling coalition.
It is noted that in the midst of continued untold immense suffering by the displaced, only a relatively token sum has been committed for relief while a large sum is committed for reconstruction—with new infrastructure gobbling up almost 44 % of the whopping US$ 3.5 billion bill. Can anything be more preposterous? One shudders to think as to how the plan was prepared for the north-east of the country!
Management Nightmare
In the absence of an overall coordinating mechanism with effective decentralisation to the south and substantial autonomy to the north-east, we have a surfeit of institutions involved in disaster management. They include - National Committee on Disaster Management comprising of the leaders of parliamentary political parties, cabinet sub-committee headed by the Prime Minister consisting of eight ministers, task forces of- ‘Rescue & Relief’ / ‘Logistics and Law & Order’/ ‘Rebuild the Nation’, line ministries, District / Local Government agencies and a number of other state agencies which include the UDA, Coast Conservation Department, Ministry of Social Welfare, Ministry of Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Refugees and the Peace Secretariat.
There is also a clear duplication of functions in many instances. For example, The Centre for National Operations (now defunct) set up under the President "to coordinate all operations related to the Tsunami disaster" was a mere component of the Task Force for ‘Rescue & Relief’ while the subject of ‘logistics’ is under a separate Task Force for ‘Logistics and Law & Order’! To make confusion worse confounded, the Cabinet sub-committee consisting of eight ministers, headed by the Prime Minister has a similar objective - "to manage and coordinate disaster relief in the affected areas ".
Both task forces for ‘Rescue & Relief’ and to ‘Rebuild the Nation’ had the function to "coordinate all donor assistance`85in consultation with the Ministry of Finance & Planning, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and relevant Line Ministries" in the absence of the Secretaries concerned in these task forces.
It is, indeed, hilarious that the senior bureaucrat who in addition to being the Commissioner-General of Essential Services and Chairman of the Task Force for Logistics and Law & Order and currently also responsible for Relief had seriously announced on 2 February that he will carry out the presidential directive to increase his self admitted paltry coverage of 30% of relief to tsunami victims achieved in more than 30 days to 75 % within a mere 7 days! It is perhaps not for nothing that the editorial of a prominent English newspaper of 1st November 2004, long before the tsunami, while categorising people as workers, shirkers and jokers, placed this individual in the ‘joker’ category! This is stated only to highlight the pathetic ground reality in the ‘management’ of the most devastating natural disaster the world has ever encountered.
The upshot of this confusion and mismanagement is that the sufferings of those affected who are already traumatised is worsened, due to living conditions of tens of thousands in tents which are like boiling cauldrons during the day. Even the relief being provided is meagre and has political undertones. There seems to be no general urgency to provide the appropriate temporary shelters until permanent homes are built. The same applies to the severely disrupted livelihoods. It is reported that more than 100 containers with relief goods are lying uncleared in the Colombo port due to the consignees mainly consisting of local NGOs being unable to pay the import duties and other charges levied on these humanitarian items. Surely, prior to clearing, couldn’t their authenticity be verified and if genuine released devoid of these charges? We need to be mindful that there could be dire social consequences as a result of all this. Many of those who have lost their loved ones and homes are seen whiling away their time in emotional distress at the sites of their previous homes staring vacantly into the coastal horizon. It is still not appreciated in Colombo that we are sitting on top of a very unpredictable volcano. If not for the selfless services rendered by concerned individuals and community groups particularly during the initial period, the medical services and the potable water being provided by some foreign NGOs without seeking any publicity, the position would have been significantly worse. On the other hand, one suspects that disproportionate sums of donor assistance are frittered away on personnel costs. This includes the UN agencies and some of the larger NGOs both local and foreign.
The UN which has been given the responsibility of coordinating worldwide, the prudent utilisation of the Billions of Dollars received / pledged in Tsunami assistance has still not put in place at least in Sri Lanka the necessary oversight mechanism to ensure transparency and accountability. The utilisation of funds received from countries, multilateral agencies and most importantly from the thousands of emotionally driven concerned citizens of the world, demand nothing less. Going by the sad plight of the displaced, more than two and a half months after the tsunamis, in the context of the tens of millions of dollars already received from various sources and several more in pledges, one wonders as to what is really happening to these vast sums and why the government is seeking donors even for the construction of temporary homes? Are these monies being spent or not spent?
If spent, it is clearly not visible at ground level. What one sees, is continued assistance by individuals both local and foreign, small communities and a handful of NGOs. A commendable service being provided by some foreign NGOs is in respect of water purification and its distribution as well as medical services. One also wonders what the new luxury SUVs with the emblem of foreign NGOs and the UN agencies, cockily crisscrossing the roads in the affected areas with their complement of passengers are really doing? How cost effective is the exercise and cannot people in the locality better accomplish this at a fraction of the cost? It is reported that the monthly rentals of residential properties in affected areas have reached dizzy heights due to heavy NGO and UN demand. Similarly, it is also reported that local labour is being paid sums well in excess of market rates. If these sums really reach our workers without any leakages along the way, it is most welcome! It is hoped that the UN supervised utilisation of the billions of dollars of tsunami donor funds, do not result in another scandal like the Iraqi ‘oil-for-food’ programme. Why cannot the UN on a country basis, have websites with regularly updated data at least in terms of receipts and expenditure? Serious fault lines in the integrity of the audit firm selected by the UN to audit the same worldwide are not a good omen!
The information provided on the websites of TAFREN and the now defunct Centre for National Operations (CNO) are to say the least most superficial. Will the business ‘leaders’ at TAFREN responsible for this tolerate the same in their own establishments? This writer in his article titled: ‘Tsunami Disaster-Reconstruction: Some Proposals for TAFREN’ published in the ‘Daily Mirror Financial Times’ of 28 January 2005, gave his proposals to ensure transparency and accountability through an appropriate website. Unfortunately, TAFREN does not seem to be interested in even considering such proposals.

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