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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. 

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Six Months On - GeoLanka Editorial

GeoLanka Editorial, RecoverLanka/GeoLanka Adminstrators

When we developed these websites, the day after the Tsunami, we hoped to find a way to contribute to an epic tragedy. This tragedy affected a dozen countries and the death tolls had only been surpassed by cyclones and floods in Bangladesh and China. The impact of the earthquake and the Tsunami was the most severe in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu in India. Those who were affected were largely the poor, the marginalized and those already suffering from extended conflict. Many gave their all to bury those who died, and to provide succor to those who survived.
The good intentions and the humanity of many were brought out. Many who were closest to the tragedy, who worked directly with the affected, were heroic in their devotion, with little publicity or resources. These website archives a few of their stories. Some worked with their bare hands to excavate the dead and extricate the living. Others, consoled and counseled the poor, undertook personal fund raising and helped in maximizing the use of the funds collected. Many as individuals reached deep to provide assistance to those who claimed to help the afflicted. Some choose to focus their efforts for the long-term recovery of specific villages or particular families.
Yet if we take stock, six months after, in Sri Lanka, the relief, recovery and reconstruction is below our lowest expectations. The generous response of many has not translated into helping the communities that were affected rebuild, individuals to recover their lives and for institutions to be rebuilt. The tragedy garnered greater media attention and fund raising than we anticipated. The attention on the disaster stayed longer than we expected. Savvy fund raisers garnered much. There was a reorganization of many foreign agencies who work in Sri Lanka - they retooled to raise funds and disburse them. Yet the fund raising also drew in those who were not genuinely concerned. There has been many reports here of gross misappropriation including some reported here.
While many religious people contributed, we have several reports of missionaries took advantage at the opportunity to collect funds and to proselytize the shocked, inflaming tensions. At the central government level, the government of Sri Lanka and its creditors has fared distressingly poorly in aiding the afflicted, ensuring that tensions are not raised and that fair play is respected. The government went through too many changes in terms of task forces, organizations that were responsible and to this day have done poorly in including representatives of the affected. There were multiple agencies that were competing with each other to harvest the funds coming in. Yet, it was the lower ranks of government officers who managed to stay true to purpose - we had a report of a Grama Niladhari in the Ampara district, a refugee himself, make government work for the rest, enduring the preening of officials from Colombo. The medical establishment in Sri Lanka has done well in providing services. Notwithstanding the unwise claims of the risk of epidemics doubling fatalities by a WHO official, we did not witness any such epidemics. Yet, these fears that were festered led to many violations of rights and subsequent problems as there was an unnecessary rush to bury the dead, without identification, without burial in accord with rites of the living and without accounting.
The disaster management community has got tied up in knots not knowing how to proceed. Some of the associated officials and scientists and engineers are stuck in officialdom, understanding little of the needs of those in the remoter regions and proceeded to announce a coastal buffer zone of various widths. Yet, there are also the officials who have worked professionally for decades and educated and instructed but have been ignored for too long by the Sri Lankan government.
The Non-Governmental Organizations have proliferated in Sri Lanka after the Tsunami - many who have set up shop to harvest relief funds and to provide local reports and photo-ops for the International NGO's. We included a report of one International NGO, which fired a local official to coordinate local staff and replaced her with a $7000 a month import, all the while claiming that local labour laws did not apply. We have reports of the proliferation of new $50,000 SUV's after the Tsunami all bearing the brand of one or the other of the INGO. Yet, some of the NGO's and INGO's were crucial in providing sustenance to many community efforts. There remains poor monitoring of the work of the NGO's and a lack of transparency in public accounting of the funds.
The political establishment in Sri Lanka has acquitted themselves poorly. The government has intensified its infighting among its constituent parties and has failed to lead efforts to provide for the afflicted. Individual politicians have used the Tsunami aid to burnish their own images. The UNP has failed to provide a principled alternative to reflect the tragedy of the people. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Tamil Relief Organizations (TRO) are reported to be running its relief operations better but there have been reports of recruitment of children for fighting, of increased dependence of the population on the LTTE and of continued assassinations of opponents. Some report that the efficiency of LTTE/ TRO in the delivery of Aid is propaganda for the consumption of the international community. The JVP which mobilized its cadres for relief work in an extraordinary effort including in Batticaloa and Ampara could not translate its resources into building an effective front for relief.
The foreign debtor organizations providing guidance to the government too have a mixed record. Debt has been postponed but no relief has been provided. They offered themselves to mobilize funds but often only a small fraction of these funds reach the beneficiaries. The larger share of the funds seems spent on salaries, hotels, perks and travels rather than on relief. Many nations providing aid have rules that require as much as 75% of the Aid to be spent locally or on local resources, yet there is no verification of all this.

The debtor organizations have used the funds they have to require changes in administrative structure, relinquishing of sovereign control over administration, over access to relief planning and by their very dominance have ensured that local and particularly regional expertise has been marginalized. Taken together, all of these shortcomings, the bitterness, the inequities and corruption may have a longer-term effect on Sri Lanka much more than the Tsunami itself. Much of the good and the bad that happens are neither monitored nor recorded. Here in these websites, we continue to see the need for an independent venue to record information, to provide information to the many who need it, for the task of Tsunami relief is far from done, the rehabilitation and reconstruction may have barely commenced. What we do is meager and we hope that others join us in developing a response of all of us in true proportion to this tragedy.

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