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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. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Tsunami victims still wait for aid to arrive

Telegraph: 28/05/2005" By Peter Foster in Colombo

The generosity of millions of Britons who gave money to help the victims of the Boxing Day tsunami is being betrayed by Sri Lanka's army of bureaucrats.

They have reduced the international aid effort to "a complete and utter mess", The Daily Telegraph has established.

Five months after the tsunami struck, killing 40,000 and leaving 500,000 homeless in Sri Lanka, more than 100,000 of the poorest victims are still living in tents or crude temporary shelters.

Despite almost unlimited resources - the relief fund stands at more than £1.75 billion for Sri Lanka alone - victims are cooped up in camps waiting for news of progress that never seems to come.

Aid agencies keen to press on with rebuilding are being frustrated at every turn by the tangled and all-embracing bureaucracy of the central government. Shipping containers remain stuck at ports, vital building plans await approval and incompetent officials ignore the advice of specialists.

This week, as the first monsoon rains arrived, agencies were striving to move thousands of people out of their tents and into solid shelters before camp sites turned into quagmires.

After months during which the situation has deteriorated and no one has spoken out for fear of upsetting the highly sensitive government, the World Bank finally broke cover this week.

Praful Patel, its vice president, said: "There is impatience on the part of everybody, including the government and the donors, about the pace at which things are moving.

"The pledges that were made and the money that was made available are not moving fast enough."

A charity boss described the situation as "a complete and utter mess" which will deteriorate further if swift action is not taken to improve the flow of aid.

The case of Merlin, the charity backed by Telegraph readers, is typical of the daily frustrations that aid agencies encounter. Despite signing an agreement two months ago to rebuild seven health facilities, the government-appointed committees required to give the final say-so have yet to meet for the first time.

Michelle Brown, Merlin's tireless country director, spends her days grinding through the system.

"We are doing everything we can to move towards the building phase," she said. "We are making some progress but it is fair to say that things move slowly around here."

Corruption is also holding things up as cartels of builders demand exorbitant "UN prices" for work that should cost half as much. Charities face a tough choice: either pay the inflated rates or keep desperate families waiting for the houses and hospitals they so badly need.

The Irish Sri Lanka Trust Fund is even considering withdrawing its money after receiving a £300,000 VAT bill for engines to be fitted in 890 new fishing boats.

Chandre Monerawela, the trust's Sri Lankan-born director, said: "This hard-earned money was raised by schoolchildren and old folk to help the people of Sri Lanka. It was not raised for the Sri Lankan government to swipe 15 per cent for itself."

The almost 90,000 needed new permanent houses have been further held up by a decree forbidding any rebuilding within 100 yards of the coastline.

As well as the absurdity of fisherman being offered houses five miles inland, the rule has thrown up yet another impenetrable layer of bureaucracy for donors offering to build houses.

All plans must be approved by the excruciatingly slow offices of the urban development authority, whose officials often fail to attend meetings, according to an internal UN memo seen by the Telegraph.

The frustration among the victims is almost palpable as carpenters, masons and rickshaw drivers who once lived with dignity now sweat it out in tents and huts, waiting for promised ration coupons that often arrive late, if at all.

This morning Bill Clinton, the former American president and the UN's special envoy for tsunami recovery, arrives in Sri Lanka with a mission to encourage the government to buck up. However, no one is holding out much hope.

"The UN and the charities do not run this country," an official said. "The government does. We have to work at its speed, to its rules. At the moment I do not see much flexibility."


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