Monday, July 11, 2005

Six Months On - An Editorial from GeoLanka/RecoverLanka

Lareef Zubair, Neil Devadasan, D.H.S. Maithripala, Manoharan Philips

and Vidhura Ralapanawe (RecoverLanka/GeoLanka Adminstrators)


We launched the websites http://www.recoverlanka.net/ and http://www.geolanka.net/ the day after the Tsunami hoping to find a way to contribute to the recovery effort. The content in these sites serve as a valuable repository of the critical material relating to the Tsunami that was painstakingly collected. Created and run by a volunteer team the websites form an independent archive that has been cited by agencies such as the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the New York One television stations, the United Nations Agencies and the Institute of Earthquake Engineering Research.

People affected by the earthquake and the Tsunami were largely the poor, the marginalized and included many who were already suffering from extended conflicts. Six months have lapsed, we attempt to evaluate whether relief efforts have met the reasonable expectations of the affected.

Many who were closest to the tragedy and who worked directly with the affected gave their all to bury those who died and to provide succour to those who survived. Some worked with their bare hands to excavate the dead and extricate the living. Others, consoled and counseled the victims, undertook personal fund raising and helped in maximizing the use of the funds collected. Many as individuals, reached deep to provide assistance to those who claimed to help the afflicted. Some choose to focus their efforts for the long-term recovery of specific villages or particular families. Most of them were heroic in their devotion with little publicity or resources and these websites archive a few of their stories.

Yet if we take stock, six months after the devastation, the relief, recovery and reconstruction in Sri Lanka is below our lowest expectations. The generous response of many has not translated into helping the communities that were affected, individuals to recover their lives or for institutions to be rebuilt.

The tragedy garnered greater media attention and fund raising than we anticipated and the attention on the disaster stayed longer than we expected. Savvy fund raisers garnered much. There was a reorganization of many foreign agencies who work in Sri Lanka - they retooled to raise funds and disburse them. The fund raising efforts also drew in those who were not genuinely concerned. While many religious people contributed, we have several reports of missionaries taking advantage of the situation to collect funds and to proselytize the shocked by inflaming tensions. There are many reports of gross misappropriation; some of these reports are archived in the websites.

The government and its creditors have fared distressingly poorly in aiding the afflicted, failed to ensure that tensions are not raised and fair play is respected. The government went through too many changes in terms of task forces and organizations that were responsible, and to this day have done poorly in including representatives of the affected. Though there were multiple agencies that were competing with each other to harvest the funds coming in, it was the lower ranks of government officers who managed to stay true to purpose - we had a report of a Grama Niladhari in the Ampara district, a refugee himself, make government work for the rest, enduring the preening of officials from Colombo.

The Non-Governmental Organizations have proliferated in Sri Lanka after the Tsunami - many who have set up shop to harvest relief funds and to provide local reports and photo-ops for the International NGO's. We featured a report of one International NGO, which fired a local official involved in coordination work and replaced her with a $7000 a month import, all the while claiming that local labour laws did not apply. We have reports of the proliferation of new $50,000 SUV's after the Tsunami all bearing the brand of one or the other of the INGOs. Yet, some of the NGOs and INGOs were crucial in providing sustenance to many community efforts. Governmental monitoring of the work of the NGOs is poor. The lack of transparency in accounting of funds is disturbing.

The medical establishment in Sri Lanka has done well in providing services. Despite the unwise claims of a WHO official regarding the risk of epidemics we did not witness any such epidemics. Yet, these fears that were festered led to many violations of rights and subsequent problems as there was an unnecessary rush to bury the dead, without accounting, without identification, and without regard to traditional burial rites.

The political establishment in Sri Lanka has acquitted themselves poorly. The government has intensified its infighting among its constituent parties and has failed to lead efforts to provide for the afflicted. Individual politicians have used the Tsunami aid to burnish their own images. The UNP has failed to provide a principled alternative to reflect the tragedy of the people. There are reports of recruitment of children for fighting, increased dependency of the population and continued assassinations of opponents in the areas under the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Although there are glowing reports of the efficiency of the Tamil Relief Organization (TRO) in the international media, there are increasing doubts about the accuracy of these reports. The JVP which mobilized its cadres for relief work in an extraordinary effort in affected areas including in Batticaloa and Ampara could not translate its resources into building an effective front for relief.

The foreign lending organizations providing guidance to the government too have a mixed record. Debt has been postponed but no long-term relief that can provide enduring services to the affected has been provided. They offered themselves to mobilize funds but often only a small fraction of these funds reached the affected. A very large share of the funds seems spent on salaries, hotels, perks and travels rather than on relief. Most of the International Aid comes with strings attached. Many nations providing aid have rules that require as much as 75% of the Aid to be spent on local resources such as equipment and expertise.

The lending organizations have used the funds they have to demand changes in the administrative structure, without regard to the sovereign rights of nations. Local expertise has been ignored; relief planning and implementation have been dominated by International agencies.

The disaster management community has got tied up in knots not knowing how to proceed. Some of the associated officials, scientists and engineers are stuck in officialdom, understanding little of the needs of those in the remoter regions and proceeded to announce coastal buffer zones of various widths. Yet, there are also the officials who have worked professionally for decades and educated and instructed but have been ignored for too long by the Sri Lankan government.

Taken together, all of these shortcomings, the bitterness, the inequities and corruption may perhaps have a greater damaging effect than the Tsunami itself.

Much of the good and the bad that happens are neither monitored nor recorded. Here in these websites, we continue to see the need for an independent archive to record information and to provide information to the many who need it; the task of Tsunami relief is far from done, the rehabilitation and reconstruction have barely commenced. What we do is meager and we hope to persist in keeping record and in telling the stories, independently.