The Lessons We Never Learn
The second commemoration of the tsunami disaster is around the corner. In the past month or so, I have come to know of many organizations and collectives scrambling to put together all nature of commemorative activities, be they reports, workshops, evaluations etc. While some of these activities will be better, more sincere, more useful than others, across the board, all the exercises are bound to carry a few common traits. They will grossly exaggerate their own achievements, grossly underplay their own failures and most importantly, convince their audiences that they take full credit for everything that had gone well and are not to blame for everything that hasn’t.Â It will be a collective exercise of whitewashing and finger pointing. In the meantime, many hundreds among the tsunami-affected will commemorate the second year of the tragedy while still languishing in transitional shelters and many thousands will do so while still struggling to recover their assets, livelihoods and lives.
Many of these so-called commemorative activities will invariably include some degree of reflection on lessons learnt and ways forward. Looking at some of the documentation that came out after the first-year commemoration of the tsunami, it is not too hard to predict what these lessons learnt will be two years down the road. Of course, there were insufficient early warning mechanisms and disaster-preparedness structures in place and these will have to be put in place in the event of future disasters. Of course, people were not adequately consulted and need to play more meaningful roles in their own recovery. Of course, the needs and interests of women were not adequately accounted for and need to be in the event of future disasters. Of course, the state apparatus was ill-equipped to handle the magnitude of tsunami recovery and will need to be capacitated at every level to handle future disasters. Of course, bribery and corruption is rampant at all levels and more checks and balances will have to be built into recovery processes in the future.
I am always struck at the colossal amounts of time, energy and resources spent on generating lessons learnt in the aftermath of a new crisis, when the same mistakes were made and lessons elicited from the previous crisis. If anyone asked me a day before the tsunami struck what I thought would need to be taken into account if a tsunami struck Sri Lanka, I would have come up with the same list in a matter of five minutes. Better yet, I would have been able to substantiate my list with dozens of lessons learnt exercise originating from all manner of regions, agencies and organizations, each having spent colossal amounts of time, energy and resources to generate the same points. I find it amusing when international aid agencies now purport that the needs of women have not been accounted for in Sri Lanka’s tsunami recovery process; when international aid agencies were on the ground from day one and were for all intents those responsible for designing and implementing tsunami recovery projects!
Â My question is when will we apply the lessons learnt in a previous crisis to the present one?Â If another natural disaster strikes this country tomorrow, are the early warning mechanisms in place? Is the state better-equipped? Will the communities be better consulted? Will the needs of women be better looked after?
Would we have truly learnt our lessons?