Published: September 6, 2005
Filed at 9:10 a.m. ET
Eric Schwartz, former U.S. President Bill Clinton's deputy United Nations special envoy for tsunami recovery, said he was encouraged by Sri Lanka's tsunami reconstruction and recovery efforts, but said there was a long road ahead.
Sri Lanka has built about 50,000 temporary shelters for families displaced by the tsunami, while tens of thousands of people are still living with family and friends, but fewer than 5,000 permanent houses have been completed.
``It's hard to say to somebody be patient, but I think it's better to get it right than to get it fast,'' Schwartz told Reuters in an interview after traveling to the island's tsunami-battered south coast to see relief and shelter projects.
``Building back better does not mean building back faster and it's a tremendous challenge,'' he added. ``If you want it bad, you're going to get it bad.''
Sri Lanka has essentially outsourced its tsunami reconstruction to a host of foreign donors and non-governmental organizations, but has had trouble securing land for some resettlement projects and some relief agencies say bureaucracy is slowing down implementation.
Many fishermen whose houses along the coast were washed away by the tsunami are loathe to move to proposed sites miles inland, and planning reconstruction and negotiating with affected communities is taking time.
``I look at some of these housing sites in areas far away from the coast and I think that in 10 years are these going to be communities or are these going to be abandoned houses?'' Schwartz said.
``The answer to that question I am firmly convinced is going to be a function of how deliberate the planning effort is in terms of identifying beneficiaries who want to be in those places, creating services ... having confidence the people who are there can get jobs,'' he added.
One of the biggest challenges ahead will be for Clinton and Schwartz to keep world attention focused on the plight of millions of people affected all around the Indian Ocean rim as other disasters such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina take their toll.
While the international community pledged around $3 billion in aid to Sri Lanka alone, it is not yet clear how much of that amount has actually been firmly committed. Around $750 million of that figure has actually been spent so far.
``As in all similar situations, there's going to be some disconnect between pledges and obligations,'' Schwartz said. ''Right now we're OK on funding. However, the compelling importance of sustaining the concern of the rest of the world increases in the months to come.''
Schwartz's visit comes as Sri Lanka heads into a presidential election, which many diplomats and analysts fear will divert attention and energy away from thousands of tsunami-displaced who are still surviving on food handouts.
The tsunami killed nearly 40,000 people along Sri Lanka's shores, wiping out entire towns and villages from south to north and across the island's ethnic divide, and political squabbling has temporarily scuppered government plans to share aid with areas controlled by Tamil Tiger rebels.
``A political season, when you're competing for peoples' votes, it always creates pressures, and statesmanship and leadership -- it's my hope and expectation that would prevail in this environment,'' Schwartz said.