Photo courtesy The Asia Foundation
Since the war ended in Sri Lanka in May, 2009, the wave of sympathy for the victims of the war resulted in philanthropists, members of the Sri Lankan diaspora, individual well wishers and funding organizations providing prospective INGOs, local NGOs and charities with the resources needed to expeditiously help the war victims to resume their normal life as quickly as possible. The war had resulted in the loss of a large number of breadwinners leaving behind thousands of disabled men and women, and, widows and orphaned children. The infrastructure in the conflict zone had been reduced to ruins.
The Government’s efforts to help the war victims has been slow and its priorities are overshadowed by defence concerns against a vanquished enemy resulting in a lion’s share of the financial allocations being given to the Defence Ministry. Comparatively, only a pittance had allocated to provide relief and rehabilitation to the victims of the war. The visible development of roads, railways, construction of buildings, bridges, hotels etc. are more to facilitate the movement of the military and the local and foreign tourists from the South to the North. Any benefits from these to the people of the area is purely incidental. While access roads to and from military camps and strategic points received speedy attention, roads linking the villages to the trunk routes did not receive much attention. Communications between the villages away from the trunk routes are still primitive. Assistance received from friendly countries such as India, the UK and the USA are used more for macro level projects than to cater to the immediate needs of the people such as the renovation of irrigation works, schools, hospitals etc. What happened to the help India so generously promised three years ago to build 50,000 houses for the victims of the war, is no secret.
While many of the plans of the government to help the victims are either still on-going or have fallen on the wayside, many allegations have been made that funds received for their uplift are being used for other purposes. Be that as it may, it is a fact that a large sum of money has been pouring into Sri Lanka from charitable organizations, philanthropists and well wishers living overseas, for various projects and schemes for the war victims in the North and the East in general and in the Wanni particular. While several local NGOs obtained funds from funding agencies abroad based on project proposals to help the war victims, NGOs and charitable organizations among the diaspora often raise funds from members of the diaspora for the welfare projects for the war victims. Often the contributors to such organizations do not know how and for what specific purposes their monies are being used. Besides, neither those in the diaspora who provided the fund nor the organizations which work with their funds, do not have a mechanism by which they could find out whether any given area or set of people have or are already in receipt of assistance for some project or the other from other sources. Consequently duplication of projects and schemes of assistance occur unwittingly. This method also leaves room for unscrupulous persons among the beneficiaries, and even local NGOs not divulging information of any material or financial help they may have already received from some other organization locally or from abroad. In the circumstances there is a crying need for some sort of a coordination among the funders, and or, a consortium of organizations working with and for the victims of the war, both locally in Sri Lanka and countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia from where funds flow for the victims of the war.
During the mass displacement of people from the North and the East in Sri Lanka during the early 1990s many organizations provided relief and other assistance to the displaced persons of the time. These organizations met at regular intervals in Puttalam, Trincomalee and Batticaloa on a small scale, and in Colombo where these organizations had the base, most of the key persons in the relief organizations, met regularly to exchange information on their respective activities. At such meetings they shared information on the areas in which each organization was working and the kind of project in which each is involved. In addition they discussed the progress of their projects and the obstacles they encounter. Even printed leaflets with such information were also circulated at such meetings. Through these informal consortiums of these organizations they were able to co-ordinate the relief and rehabilitation work and avoid duplication.
The absence of such a co-ordinating set up among the NGOs working in and from outside the country with the current war victims has led to waste of funds collected in multiple activities and have even resulted in abuse of resources. It is therefore necessary that the funding organizations in the diaspora should at least take the initiative and have regular transparent meetings at least in their respective lands and share information on their experiences and the obstacles they face to benefit mutually and to avoid duplication. Until a formal consortium is established they should at least communicate with each other and establish linkages.
Another matter that needs to receive attention of these organizations is the need for a proper survey of needs before preparing and launching on any project. Decision to provide grants of lump sums of money or equipment supposedly to enable them to make a living and made without any feasibility study to check if such funds or equipment could actually help them to earn an income. Schools and students are sometimes provided computers without any consideration on the availability electricity, internet connections and teachers who could train them on how to use and benefit from the computers. The cost of maintaining such computers hardly receive any attention by such donors. Consequently within a short time such equipment cease to work and provide the expected results. Often sewing machines are given to persons who do not know any sewing or even without checking whether there is a demand locally for home sewn clothing in that area. Handouts or grants do not shower lasting benefits to the persons concerned but only make them dependants on such relief which makes them keep on longing for more and more such grants. To cap it all, adequate arrangements are not made for monitoring the projects concerned and doing an evaluation after a specified period to see if the expected result had been achieved. Consequently some of the projects get repeated wasting funds on ineffective projects.
Be that as it may, it is regrettable to note that charitable institutions and NGOs hardly think of innovative projects to help the war victims. Many of those who have been re-settled in their own villages find the infrastructure facilities that existed before they were displaced, no longer there. So they have to start from scratch. That provides an opportunity to benefactors to introduce new ideas that could help to improve their living conditions. Some such ideas are set out here in the hope that at least some of these ideas would be picked up for implementation by the organizations working with the war victims.
House-hold bio-gas units
Much has been written on how bio-gas could provide a cheap and convenient source of renewable energy to rural homes. It is a fact that several homes in the villages have livestock such as goats, cattle or even poultry. Many in the villages have compounds around their houses and sometimes their own wells. These, along with usual household refuse, could provide the raw material needed to set up a small house-hold level bio-gas unit that could supply enough energy for their cooking or lighting needs. The installation cost of such a unit is minimal and these have been introduced in rural areas successfully in India, China, Vietnam and such other countries. Information on the construction and use of such cheap bio-gas units are available in the internet. The NGOs could disemminate such information and provide such units to homes that have the essentials needed for such units. The links given below provide more information on such units.
One of the problems faced by residents in the re-settled villages is the inadequacy of transport facilities within the village, village to village and from the village to the nearest main road. Motorised three wheelers could be expensive to avail of by most of them. Bicycles are often used for this purpose, often with a pillion rider. Sometimes school children are transported to schools in these. Why has no one thought of introducing the pedal trishaws to these villages ? We see such pedal trishaws being used as a easy and cheap means of transport in Chennai, Bangkok, Pnom Pen and other places. The cost of a pedal trishaw is a little more than the cost of two bicycles but its benefits and uses are many. It could be a means of livelihood for energetic young men. It could be used to transport the weak and the elderly who cannot use a pedal cycle. It could also be used to transport three or four school children at a time to get to school. Introducing the use of such a vehicle could be tried out by some organization as a pilot project and surely the benefits would make more and more desire to own one as a self employment equipment.
Mobile medical clinics
Access to medical facilities by those re-settled in far off villages is often difficult. Going to a hospital or a dispensary is usually a tedious task. Organizations could perhaps arrange with medical or para-medical personnel in the area to conduct mobile medical clinics during their off hours on specific days in each village. This would enable villagers in need of basic medical assistance or medication to gather at a given point for the arrival of the specified medical personnel and obtain relief. Arrangements could be made for the transport of those in need of hospitalization to the nearest hospital. Such medical clinics should also be able to provide pre and postnatal care to women in these villages. Some organization could consider providing mobile medical clinics to these villages of war affected persons. As a corollary to this, chosen men and women could be given training in providing first aid so that their services could be obtained in an emergency by the villagers.
Baby care centres
The establishment of crèches or baby care centres could be considered to enable parents who have small children to be taken care of while the mothers are at work or have to go out of the village on errands. The local co-operative society or a rural development society could be provided funds to make this service available. NGO’s working in these villages could consider the establishment of such centres in every village in the war affected zones.
Though many villages in the other parts of the country have rural community centres often with a reading room, such centres are hardly available in the war affected villages. Organisations could sider to establish such centres in the villages in the war affected areas in collaboration with the Divisional Secretary of the area. The reading room that is usually associated with such centres could be used not only to make news papers and other reading material available for the villages, but also could be used for village gatherings such as when the proposed medical mobile clinic starts functioning or when the baby care centres are established. Such a centre could be made a common study room for students in the village with facilities for them to sit and use a table for writing purposes. Most rural homes do not have this basic facility to enable children to study.
It is known that many cultivators are having difficulty is watering their cultivations. Water pumps are expensive and no always available. There could be cultivators who are aware of the benefits of the traditional well-sweeps which have been replaced by water pumps. Since owning a water pump is not within the reach of most re-settled cultivators, where a source of water such as a deep well is available, organizations could explore the feasibility of providing assistance to erect well-sweeps where a local farmer opts to have one. These well sweeps provide employment to at least three persons at a time – one to step on the sweep to send the bucket down into the well and step back to draw the water, the other to pour the bucket of water into the channels and the other to divert the water into the channels to reach particular plots. Perhaps someone would take the re-introduction well sweeps seriously and try it out as a pilot project. The idea may catch on and requests for more could follow.
It is hoped that the suggestions made in this article for a more effective use of funds collected abroad and for setting up a mechanism to co-ordinate the activities of the various organizations working with the war victims, would receive serious consideration by those concerned. It is also hoped that some of the innovations suggested would be tried out at least as pilot projects in the respective areas.