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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. 

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Tsunami: One year after

Sunday Times: 18/12/2005"

One year has almost passed since last December’s devastating Boxing Day tsunami which caused much death and destruction in the island and it is time to reflect on how the nation coped with the tragedy and the recovery effort.
At a time when much of the nation, and particularly its corporate sector, would be engaged in merry-making, there is a need to spare a thought for tsunami survivors. Overall, the results of our efforts to cope with the tragedy and help those who were affected appear to be rather disappointing.

The outpouring of aid that followed the tsunami has not been used with optimum effectiveness. Apart from sheer inefficiency there have even been reports, from time to time, of corruption in the disbursement and use of aid meant for tsunami survivors. Furthermore, the ham-handed manner in which some of the relief and reconstruction efforts were done appear to have resulted in serious social complications, apart from delaying relief to the most needy.

The gravity of the tragedy and its effects can be gauged from remarks made by President Mahinda Rajapakse in his budget speech where he said that about half-a-million people are still living in temporary shelters due to natural and manmade disasters. These include tsunami survivors as well as those displaced by the ethnic war.

The president announced the creation of a new entity to handle tsunami-related reconstruction work. This, no doubt, was in response to reports that the reconstruction work was not proceeding as effectively as it should be and that there were a multitude of organizations, government and private, competing with each other to help tsunami survivors.

In the aftermath of the tsunami a plethora of new government outfits as well as non-governmental organizations mushroomed almost overnight. While many of them have done much good work, there have also been reports of incredible inefficiency and over-lapping of work and aid that would be comic if their repercussions were not so tragic.

For example, competition among NGOs to help survivors have created social complications in coastal villages, created all kinds of distortions in the labour market as well as the market for construction materials, and led to soaring costs.

In the absence of overall guidelines on homes for tsunami survivors, various NGOs have stepped in with different types of housing, creating tensions in village communities owing to disparities in social status and wealth.
Some of these NGOs have become big employers.

This can be gauged from the fact that many of the jobs advertised in recent times came from NGOs. This has created a huge shortage of technical skills, led to poaching, distorted wage scales and disrupted the work of existing NGOs. Some reports say the number of NGOs operating in the country have tripled since the tsunami.

The corporate sector along with sympathetic individuals and organizations abroad gave lavish donations to NGOs doing tsunami work. Private donations were higher than funds that came from foreign governments. But much of it does not appear to have been well spent.

And some of these exercises in philanthropy and charity appear to be largely self-serving – a vehicle for companies and businessmen to show off their generosity and to gain publicity for themselves, either for personal or commercial reasons.

This is where the media is partly to blame. While the media focused with much gusto on highlighting the inefficiencies of government organizations handling tsunami recovery work and the misdeeds of bureaucrats, it did not pay enough attention to the manner in which NGOs were raising and spending money. What is required is more accountability from NGOs as much as the government.

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