After the tsunami, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies led all donors in Sri Lanka with a pledge to build 15,000 new homes.
Some 13 months later, the Red Cross has completed only 62 homes by the government's figures — 162 by the relief organization's tally. By either count, the number is frustratingly small in a nation where temporary shacks still line coastal areas and pockets of the interior.
"We have totally lost confidence in them," said Gemunu Alawattegama, chief executive officer of the government's Tsunami Housing Reconstruction Unit (THRU). "The people living in shelters have lost confidence in them. We have been let down because of this."
Red Cross officials are now backing off the initial pledge, citing a shortage of government-donated land and escalating construction costs.
"The original commitment is under review," said Colombo-based Red Cross spokesman Patrick Fuller. "You can make a pledge. When reality sinks in a few months down the line, you have to reassess the situation."
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse's goal is to put all tsunami victims in permanent homes by year's end. Reaching that mark depends on Sri Lanka's big donors living up to their pledges. That doesn't appear likely soon.
Not only the Red Cross but also the rest of Sri Lanka's top 10 nongovernmental donors are far short of their mark. The top 10 relief groups have been given land on which to build 18,175 new houses toward their pledges. But they have completed only 412, Alawattegama said.
More than a dozen national Red Cross societies are taking part in the international movement's new-housing construction program in Sri Lanka.
While the American Red Cross is not building or paying to build new houses, it has money to do so. It still has $400 million in unspent tsunami-relief donations, part of $570 million raised for the Dec. 26, 2004, disaster.
Alawattegama disputed the Geneva-based federation's explanations about lacking land and money.
"It's strange," Alawattegama said. "They've already committed to 15,000 houses. What happened to all that money? Even if the price has almost doubled, let them do 8,000."
Alawattegama said the Red Cross has had enough land for months on which to build thousands of homes. But he said the government became so unhappy with Red Cross performance that it reassigned some sites to other donors.
"We're prepared to give them more land if they expedite the construction," Alawattegama said. He called the Red Cross bureaucracy "more tedious than even the government's procedures."
Sri Lanka needs nearly 100,000 homes built or fixed to replace those lost to the tsunami, which killed 35,322 people and initially left more than a half million homeless.
Of that total, the goal is to build more than 32,000 new homes under the donor-driven program overseen by the government agency that Alawattegama leads, known by its THRU acronym.
Another 67,000 homeowners are expected to receive direct cash grants from the government and non-government donors to fix their damaged houses.
The latest government estimates are that Sri Lanka is 21 percent of the way to its overall housing goal.
So far, 7,461 new homes have been built, while homeowners have repaired another 13,737 homes. These statistics are from the government's Reconstruction and Development Agency, which is coordinating the tsunami recovery.
That means several hundred thousand Sri Lankans are still without permanent homes, by government estimates. Some 33,000 families, or at least 150,000 people, remain in transitional shelters. Others are living temporarily with relatives or friends.
Fuller said the federation is increasing its commitment to the homeowner-grant program, to $56 million from $25 million, to help compensate for the lag in new construction.
Laxman Chhetry, coordinator of Red Cross housing construction in Sri Lanka, expects enough contractors will be found to build 6,000 units this year and 12,000 altogether.
Chhetry acknowledged the program got off to a slow start.
"We are a big organization and working in partnership with 14 national societies with 14 different ideas," Chhetry said. "Now, we're taking a common approach and we're on our way. We are on the right track. I am confident of that."
Still, obstacles remain. Costs for a basic, 600-square-foot house have risen from $6,000 each to $11,000 on parts of the island, Chhetry said. That means meeting the original commitment would cost $165 million at current prices, compared to $90 million.
"There's a lot of uncertainties," Chhetry said. "I'm just wondering if there's going to be enough skilled labor and materials."
The slow pace affects other tsunami relief programs.
The American Red Cross might supply basic household furnishings to the federation-built homes, said Randy Ackley, the agency's Sri Lanka-based senior regional representative.
Thus far, the American group has furnished 10 homes in the village of Peraliya and will supply water and toilets to 2,500 homes when they are built, officials said.
But American Red Cross officials said housing construction is not their strength, so the national organization focuses on other areas, such as psychological support to disaster victims.
Ackley and 22 others with the American Red Cross recently took part in a weeklong planning and training conference at a seaside hotel in the southwestern resort city of Hikkaduwa.
Meanwhile, frustration over the slow housing construction pace is widespread in Sri Lanka.
Parliament is investigating allegations that nongovernmental organizations have squandered or misappropriated tsunami donations.
Tsunami victims who lost their homes echo their president's call that housing is the nation's No. 1 priority.
"Any amount of counseling is not going to help if you're still living in a shack," said Anil Kalupahange, who recently moved into a new home near Hikkaduwa.
Alawattegama, the THRU chief executive officer, said some of the "smaller donors who have come to help us have performed much better."
He cited, as an example, the Minnesota Sri Lanka Friendship Foundation. The group raised $350,000 to build 50 houses in a planned 1,000-unit development south of Hikkaduwa.
Srilal "Lal" Liyanapathiranage of Woodbury said the charity is led by natives of Sri Lanka who understand the island's needs. "We know the people. We know their needs," Liyanapathiranage said.
Others took notice. In particular, the charity's major donors, Apple Valley couple Dan and Kay Shimek, cited slow spending by the Red Cross as a reason why they gave to the Minnesota group.
But the dozens of small donors like the Minnesota group don't have the wherewithal to solve the island's housing needs. Liyanapathiranage said the charity has no money and no plans to build more homes.
Lalith Weeratunga, secretary to President Rajapakse, cautioned against blaming the Red Cross or other well-intentioned relief agencies. He said Sri Lanka remains grateful for an estimated $3 billion in international pledges to help the nation's recovery.
At the same time, not all of the pledged money has been received, and "housing is the priority," Weeratunga said. "The time frame to complete all the housing is before the end of the year. That's the president's goal."
Brian Bonner can be reached at email@example.com or 651-228-2173.