More than a year after tsunami aid flooded the island, studies show ‘build back better’ will never happen unless some corrective action is taken, fast.
“There has been some livelihood recovery but not much evidence of ‘building back better’,” said Paul Steel, associate fellow, Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) at a recent press briefing to launch a report on tsunami recovery.
‘Livelihoods in Post Tsunami Sri Lanka: Building Back Better?’ is the second IPS research report on tsunami recovery and is based on a stakeholder workshop in December last year. The report shows that Sri Lanka’s aspiration to ‘build back better’ could end up nothing more than another catchy advertising jingle.
Over one year and millions of dollars of tsunami aid later, tsunami victims are either as poor as they were before the tsunami, or worse off. The aid dollars have not built a ladder to climb out of poverty.
“A majority of the people affected by the tsunami were poor before the tsunami. Now, at most, they are back where they started,” Steel said.
An estimated 150,000 people lost their jobs because of the tsunami. A majority of these people have now found some type of employment. But, notes the IPS report “incomes are generally lower than pre-tsunami”.
Over Rs 12 billion ($ 126 million) was committed for livelihood restoration and eight ministries and over 100 NGOs are trying to help people return to work – but some have been left behind.
“Some people will fall through the cracks ie, over 20,000 people are estimated to be sick and injured after the tsunami. There are also those who are too traumatised to work, or who need to care for others,” says the IPS report.
Although some, like construction workers, increased their earnings because of a tsunami housing boom, many others have not been able to earn more, even when lost assets were replaced.
In fact, a survey conducted six months after the tsunami, in six affected districts – Ampara, Batticaloa, Galle, Hambantota, Jaffna and Kalutara – indicates a trend showing the worse side. The survey shows the emergence of a new group of people – those people who do not have a regular source of income.
This category of no-income families was particularly high in Hambantota (49 percent) and Batticaloa (48 percent) and cuts across families that fell within rich, middle income and poor categories, before the tsunami.
Monthly incomes of families had also dropped in the six districts.
“The number of families who earned a monthly income over and above Rs 5,000 had dropped by 30-50 percent, with Jaffna district recording the highest drop from 54.1 percent to 2.1 percent,” says a paper by Ms Marit Haug and Mr Chamindra Weerackody.
Brewing social problems
The six-district study also found people were too lazy to work because it’s easier to live off tsunami aid. “In almost all the communities in which the study was conducted, laziness on the part of people, particularly the male population, to engage in productive activities, was reported,” says the report.
“Many are increasingly dependent on aid given, both in kind and cash by aid agencies and are not willing to revert to their former livelihoods. This state of apathy is partly attributed to the trauma that people experienced after the tsunami,” says the report.
The study also notes increased alcoholism, neglect of children and increased incidents of pregnancies among tsunami-affected families. These behavioural changes, says the IPS report will add to economic hardships.
Time for CSR
Tsunami affected micro-industries must get back to business for these families to get off the aid-drip and become self-sustaining. However, the tiny coastal businesses that produced coir, rope, carpets, reed mats, fishery activities, and foods, or ran small pettikades (box shops), are stuck in a low- value, low-income rut.
Tsunami rebuilding, says the IPS, should target boosting these incomes, if Sri Lanka is to ‘build back better’. Small businesses need to be linked up with markets to add value to their produce and to earn more. Input and support from Sri Lanka’s larger companies are urgently needed to do so.
“The lost assets of these families may have been replaced but they don’t understand how markets work. The NGOs also, for the most part, do not have this type of knowledge. So there is a real role for the private sector to play,” Steel said.
“For example, the largest beneficiaries from the low paid coir workers are the blue chip companies,” notes the IPS report. “While the private sector has been active in the relief phase of livelihood restoration, there is a need to extend this by engaging corporate social responsibility (CSR) in longer term livelihood recovery,” the report continues.
To grow, these informal domestic businesses need to come into the formal economy. “We need to create links between the households, companies, chambers of commerce and the banks, to link these household businesses with the rest of the markets,” says Ms Haug.
Learning to act fast
The IPS report highlights three areas that need immediate attention for sustainable tsunami recovery, or to ‘build back better’ in any real sense.
Local government needs to play a stronger role: IPS notes that local governments must do more to steer recovery from grass root level. “Local governments, with households, private sector and other agencies, need to drive local recovery and development,” it said in a statement.
Engage micro entrepreneurs more with the market: To climb out of a subsistence existence, micro businesses need to produce more value added goods that bring higher returns. “NGOs and others should encourage and support households to produce higher value added products that are demanded by the market. This requires more marketing and private sector skills,” says the IPS statement.
Greater fisheries management and investment is urgently needed : “There is a real need for managing fish stocks, strengthening fisher groups and investing in fishing infrastructure, such as harbours, especially in the East where they were lacking even before the tsunami,” the statement added.