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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, January 19, 2006

NGOs come under scrutiny at philanthropy conference

Sunday Times: 15/01/2006" Lot of work but more could have been done –tsunami worker By Feizal Samath

One non governmental organization (NGO) offered refrigerators as an inducement to persuade tsunami victims to take up their offer of housing. In some areas, there was a price war in the labour sector as NGO’s outdid each other to secure labour for the many housing projects for the tsunami-homeless.

At a recent conference held in the beach resort of Phuket in Thailand on the role of philanthropy after the tsunami, one of the issues that was raised was the unhealthy competition between NGOs virtually elbowing each other in – spending money that was secured for tsunami work.

In Colombo, some NGOs – who came here for tsunami work – left with houses and other projects incomplete when the money ran out. The competition to build houses quickly was very intense, creating social disparities. “Social disparities will be a major problem and a challenge in the future,” noted Yu Hwa Li, national director of World Vision Lanka. He said that post-war and conflict housing costs around 400,000 rupees per unit while houses for tsunami victims cost anything between 400,000 rupees and Rs 1 million. Distortions in the labour market were rampant.

Again in Sri Lanka there was a huge battle for staff with the bigger and newer international NGOs enticing skilled workers from small groups with higher salaries and leaving wide staff gaps in smaller NGOs and longer established NGOs. In the three months after the tsunami, the most number of job vacancies in Sri Lankan newspapers were in the NGO sector – drawing experienced personnel even from the private sector.

Aid workers said the tsunami didn’t only uproot communities but disturbed the future of these communities during the post-tsunami reconstruction programme. The Thailand conference, organized by the Asia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium (APPC), brought together some 150 participants, mostly leaders from government, the non-profit sector, private sector, media representatives, disaster response experts, and representatives of the philanthropic community both in Asia and around the world.

Titled “Philanthropy in Disasters: TSUNAMI and After”, the conference discussed critical issues such as effective and cost-efficient forms of collaboration, the challenge of developing community disaster preparedness and response mechanisms, accountability to donors and affected communities, and the role of media and electronic communications in promoting philanthropy and development in a disaster environment.

APPC is a 10-year-old network of grant making philanthropic institutions and organizations that support the growth and development of philanthropy in the region.

The conference was told that sizable funds were raised by inexperienced agencies and badly spent due to lack of coordination. There was infighting amongst NGOs to get the ‘best” area. Some of the bigger NGOs worked in many sectors – housing, sanitation, livelihoods, schools, education, etc – elbowing out the smaller community groups who just couldn’t compete in terms of funds and resources.

NGOs that relied on community support to build houses – projects that took longer to implement – were outpaced by the bigger organizations that bulldozed their way hiring labour at will and paying higher-than-market rates. Naturally victims flocked to these groups. Mismanagement, infighting and turf clashes were the order of the day, which didn’t however sufficiently get into the media draw or public attention.

Another key issue that was raised was the lack of similar global support for the earthquake in Pakistan, which during a discussion was reasoned out because foreigners were unaffected there unlike in the tsunami. “The tsunami impacted on everyone – there was someone’s family member of relative affected – so there was a kind of urgency to help from the world,” noted one participant.

In Colombo, it also raises the question as to whether Sri Lanka’s civil society or business community would have responded so magnanimously if the tsunami – like regular floods or the devastating 1978 cyclone in eastern Batticaloa – affected only poorer and marginally-deprived classes like fishing folk or farmers. If the tourist industry was untouched and the local elite were not holidaying in southern resorts, would the world and wealthy Sri Lankans come to our rescue? While this is not meant to undo the good work and compassion by thousands of Sri Lankans here and abroad and foreigners, it does however raise some pertinent questions.

An example was the eastern coast – worst hit in terms of casualties and homes – which didn’t get that much attention as the south where battered build-up areas with hotels provided excellent pictures to shock the world. The first relief trucks from Colombo hit the southern trail and it was many days later when real relief hit the eastern parts.

Of course, one cannot forget that the scale of the violence was high and much more than any single incident in Sri Lanka that brought the best out of our people. Another area in which the media failed was in not paying enough attention to the work of NGOs and exposing major flaws in their work amidst the clash for locations and communities. This was essential given that a lot of the money that came in – not committed funds – were from private donors and thus made the non government sector an almost equal partner with the government in the reconstruction process.

Thus while the media focused on weaknesses in the government’s reconstruction programme and questioned the process all the way, happenings in the NGO sector were largely ignored. Charlie Ayco, Director for Regional Programmes at Habitat for Humanity, said donors dictated locations and quality standards on housing were based on impractical and inappropriate western standards.

These houses were too costly, too sophisticated and didn’t blend with the rest of the community. There was lack of cultural sensitivity in these processes.
One of the questions posed at the Phuket conference was as to what prompted people and organizations across the world to kindle the spirit of giving.

For decades the UN had asked for funds for humanitarian relief but didn’t get that much. In the tsunami case the outpouring of support, it was discovered, was due to human compassion. People were more sympathetic towards natural disasters than man-made ones.

The Phuket parley saw calls for a Code of Conduct and a humanitarian charter along with humanitarian accountability processes being made to better coordinate the work of the NGO sector.

Cobus De Swardt, Global Programmes Director at Transparency International, said humanitarian relief was particularly vulnerable to corruption and mismanagement because of the speed of work and avoiding standards. “If we have another disaster, people will ask what happened to the money given earlier,” he said.

At the end of the conference, it was agreed that NGOs did a lot of good work after the tsunami that must be appreciated but that it could have been done better and made more effective had they worked together – not against each other.

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