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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. 

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Ceyva Fund: Venture Capital to Empower Rural Communities

Daily Mirror: 02/10/2007"

Ceyva Fund, an NGO with the mission of eradicating poverty on the island applies the venture capital model to rural enterprises. The Ceyva Fund invests in village enterprises that provide critical goods and services to the poor, empowering local communities and catalyzing change.

The Ceyva’s Fund’s approach is innovative in Sri Lanka. They invest capital and incubate village companies that provide electricity, water, and healthcare to the bottom of the pyramid period in a sustainable fashion.

“Our rationale is that over 45 % of Sri Lankan lives on less than $2 per day and lack consistent access to electricity, clean water and basic health care. No other NGO in the country is addressing what is considered by the World Bank as a pivotal cause of poverty in Sri Lanka– the complete lack of equity capital and support to rural companies that provide these basic necessities to the poor in a sustainable manner” emphasises Arvind

Navaratnam, CEO of Ceyva Fund. With wide experience in venture capital and private equity investing in South Asia and the US, Navaratnam is well-poised to apply these models to Sri Lankan rural development.

The Ceyva Fund plans to invest in all geographical regions and ethnic segments as it seeks opportunities that are transformative and where significant value can be added by the Ceyva team. Ceyva’s initial projects focus will span energy, basic health care and clean water.
The first investments are focused on providing energy to off grid rural areas in the country. In one of the first projects in Ratnapura district, Ceyva is investing capital in ventures that will provide 175 families with electricity for the first time and where the villagers will be trained to self-manage the facility.

Ceyva’s initial capital commitment will be $500,000 USD with a time horizon of 5-7 years for its investments. All capital invested will be transparent to the donor base and portfolio companies will be regularly audited.

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Monday, October 01, 2007

Sri Lanka falls behind in agri biz - USAID

Daily Mirror: 01/10/2007" By Uditha Jayasinghe

Diverisifaction of agricultural crop is a clear necessity of the present day in a bid to be on par with Sri Lanka’s regional counterparts, a top US official stated recently.

Chief Guest USAID Mission Director Rebecca Cohn pointed out that successive governments have only concentrated on paddy cultivation and as such it was high time for the government to concentrate on other agriculture products.

“Agriculture in Sri Lanka has not kept pace with the rest of the region. Recent studies have shown that small farmers do not have sufficient returns from their output. This is not surprising considering that in spite of 34% of the Sri Lankan population being employed in agriculture only 17% of the GDP comes from it. FAO statistics show that agriculture produce has remained the same in Sri Lanka for the past 15 years,” she said.

This was stated that the National Agriculture Council (NAC) AGM during which it urged to participate more in the agriculture policy formulating process with the government to enable for private sector participation that would give bigger returns to rural farmers and result in crop diversification.

She insisted that reduction of poverty and economic development across the board would depend on how well Sri Lankans can adjust to the changing market and make use of new technologies to link rural farmers with the larger national economy. Stressing that fiscal subsidies in fertilizer have so far only managed to place more burdens on the Lankan economy Ms. Cohn advocated more involvement of the private sector in agriculture.

“The NAC has a duty to lobby with the government to create a more business enabling environment that is driven by the private sector. USAID is keenly interested in working in conflict areas.

The East has opened up as a good opportunity for fresh investments and we should work on developing it further. The Western Province continues to lead the development scales with the Eastern Province lagging behind at 4.7% and the North is probably less,” she said.

Detailing the NAC plan for the next two years newly elected Chairman Sarath de Silva admitted that the escalating costs hamper farmers and have driven away new investors. However, he pledged to continue networking rural farmers and developing new markets such as India. Mr. de Silva also called for the improvement of poultry farming and dairy.

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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Lessons from the vanished tsunami

Sunday Times: 30/09/2007" By Chanuka Wattegama

If the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami was a disaster marked by inaction, what happened on September 12, 2007 was marked by plenty of action, but a dearth of right action. It was certainly not an exemplary implementation of pre-determined and meticulously planned disaster avoidance activities. Did it make the vulnerable communities feel more secure? Or did it merely add to the confusion and chaos? Wasn’t what happened on that crucial evening another good lesson -- how not to react to a disaster? Does this mean we still have lot to learn?

Risk mitigation

Risk mitigation through disaster warning is a serious business. It is not as simple as a politician or a government official calling the national TV station and ordering evacuations or worse, the closure of roads. It is an end-to-end process with the hazard monitors at one end and communities at the other. In between are many intermediaries with defined roles. They are expected to play their assigned roles, not exceed their roles and not to play the role of others. If this balance is broken somewhere, as we have seen, it can lead to adverse consequences.

The prediction of a tsunami is an inexact art that must be practiced in conditions of highly imperfect information and time pressure. In the Pacific Basin, which has had the most experience with tsunamis, 75 per cent of all warnings are false. But this does not cause major harm because the false warnings are contained within the official system and do not get through to the general population for the most part.

The decision to issue public warning should be taken by the professionals after careful analysis. This does not mean that they should always be perfect. Neither does it mean that the decision should be deliberated till all the information is available, which is impractical. On the other hand, there is also no need to compromise accuracy for speed, as shown by the National Disaster Warning centre (NDWC) Thailand.

The Thai authorities could not have underestimated the situation in the light of the fact that their country being the fourth hardest hit nation in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But still they saw no reason to issue a public warning. All that the NDWC did was to broadcast a message telling people there was no cause for alarm, three hours later. NDWC Chairman Smith Dharmasarojana said later the delay was based on a thorough analysis of the situation. The centre followed warning procedures correctly and alerted the government and provincial officials. He also said that though it was the job of the NDWC to monitor earthquakes around the clock, telling people to evacuate arbitrarily would only panic people with no productive results. Therefore NDWC saw no reason to press the panic buttons unnecessarily.

In spite of the NDWC’s superior response, the Thai press still saw plenty of room for improvement.

Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre

‘The worldwide news networks began reporting the killer quake within minutes after it happened. At about the same time, the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre (PTWC) issued a statement that a tsunami was possible and could endanger virtually any littoral countries on the Indian Ocean. The website of the Centre specifically mentioned Thailand, and so did the news reports, which quickly reached the Thai media and all the country. What happened after that was sadly predictable. Thousands of people in the six Andaman coastal provinces left their homes, offices and hotels and headed for higher ground. Many spent the entire night on the hills and in the mountains, fearing a tsunami despite -- or because of -- the lack of official information. Rumours spread, groundless but seemingly authentic, that waves were headed towards Phuket, and would hit at 10pm, nearly four hours after the earthquake.

If this were the media reaction to the sensible and correct response of Thailand, what can be said of the overreaction elsewhere?

Several countries issued public disaster alerts/warnings and (in some cases) evacuation orders. These included not just Asian countries but few African ones as well. Mozambican, Tanzanian and South African authorities warned people living on the Indian Ocean coastal stretch of the possibility of a tsunami but did not initiate any evacuations. Kenya went one step further by starting evacuation. Somalia, the only African country to experience significant losses in 2004 (300 deaths) issued no alert. In Thiruvanthapuram, South India, the district administration kept police and officials on vigil to carry out mass evacuations, the need for which did not arise. At tourist spots, the visitors received information with equanimity. By that time, television news channels had started airing news of the tsunami alert but there was no panic.

In Southern Bangladesh, on the other hand, it was reported that more than half a million people in the coastal areas fled their homes in panic. They took shelter in schools, other buildings, cyclone shelters and relatives' houses. This was after an official warning broadcast via television and radio. Police with loud-speakers were said to be “expediting” the process. People were asked to stay the night at the shelters till the government lifted the warning on the early hours of the following day morning. Officials in Chittagong were apparently satisfied about the efficacy of the evacuation operations.The situation in Sri Lanka was not too different. Perhaps it was even less orderly. Tsunami warnings and evacuation orders came in quick succession. Phone networks were immediately congested. Later local media reported incidents of looting of evacuated houses. The alerts worked – perhaps too well – but the question was whether it was necessary to undergo all this hassle for a hazard which had extremely low probability of converting to a massive disaster, and especially when it was not so difficult to determine the impact.

Alert and warning

The differentiation between the words ‘alert’ and ‘warning’ is important. There is nothing wrong in requesting the communities to keep vigil, even when the risk is minor. That harms no one. The danger is pushing it further and making it a ‘warning’ – an event that requires an action response. Warnings can cause panic and should be avoided till the last possible moment. Possibly the word “watch” which is used in North America, should replace the word “alert” to reduce the likelihood of confusion.

Guardian angels

In some countries it was reported that politicians are at the helm of disaster warnings. This was akin to the donkey who attempted to play the role of the dog to win his master’s favour. Considering the previous experience, their concern is understandable, but this usurpation of roles can cause serious undesired outcomes. Politicians are not trained to judge a prospective disaster. For them, it is more a game of guessing. This could mean evacuations following every earthquake on one extreme or at the other, no warnings when the threat is real. So better not to assign the politicians the role of guardian angels. Qualified and trained professionals must take decisions, of course, in consultation with the political authorities.

According to reports, the level of ICT use in the warning process was not optimal. Multiple media such as fixed and mobile phones, SMS, fax and the Internet can be used more productively. Redundancy improves reliability. Using Common Alerting Protocol (CAP) enabled media can help streamline the process and expedite messages. Where message--length limitations exist, as in SMS, the short message can be used to direct the recipient to the place where the complete message can be obtained.

Community preparedness also helps the national-level decision makers. If they know that the community is prepared and capable of responding quickly and in an orderly manner to an evacuation order, they can delay the ‘strong measures’ until absolutely necessary. It is when that confidence is lacking that there is a tendency to issue warnings and evacuation orders too early. If the general public are subject to too many false warnings, the general public will not respond even to true warnings. If this unsavoury outcome is to be avoided it is essential that the call of the Sri Lanka Minister of Disaster Management for an immediate review of the September 12th response be taken seriously, not only in Sri Lanka, but in the entire region. This article is a first response to the Minister’s call.

(The writer works at LIRNEasia and can be contacted at wattegama@lirne.net).

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