Batticaloa, Colombo, Disaster Management, Galle, Hambantota, Trincomalee

I/NGOs: Mea Culpa… Your Culpa… or Our Culpa?

Shanaka Amarasinghe

Nearly three years have passed since the devastation of Boxing Day 2004. Those three years should have sufficed for grief to transform into resolve, for shock to become measured response and for altruism to become tangible benefit. It is impossible to quantify, despite the diverse and often varied reports available, how much has been done, and by whom. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile considering the societal impact that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs), and the good and/or evil that has been precipitated by their presence.

The aftermath of the tsunami saw a global outpouring of shock and dollars. The amount of tourists and expatriates affected in the South Asian region saw the world unite in its reaction to one of the worst natural disasters in mankind’s history. South Asia, and specifically Sri Lanka was flooded with aid from various donors. Well meaning individuals sacrificed their beer money and larger organisations mobilised their vast resources – both human and financial – to assist the recovery process. Despite the swiftness of the disaster itself, the repair of damage caused in little over half an hour, has been sluggish. To say the least. The immediate cries for help from the entire region were almost too well received. A horde of (sometimes inappropriate) items found themselves into the country as aid. Money was being transferred feverishly to accounts belonging to individuals, companies and charity organisations. The Tsunami Evaluation Coalition (TEC) report under the patronage of Bill Clinton, suggests that Sri Lanka was over-aided in the allocations made to affected countries. Consequently, Sri Lanka should necessarily be the best and most efficiently reconstructed country.

The government stepped in – as they do – to take charge of the situation. The President immediately set up TAFREN (Task Force for Rebuilding the Nation), the Task For for Relief (TAFOR) and the Transitional Accommodation Project (TAP). All the catchy acronyms were succeeded by RADA (Reconstruction and Development Agency). By all accounts TAFREN was staffed by some of the sharper tools in the shed and actually came up with a workable plan to rebuild the coastline from Jaffna to Kalutara. RADA was also staffed by younger, qualified technocrats. Much money it seems, was spent in setting up these bodies but the tangible work carried out by them leaves room for improvement.

That improvement however, is unlikely to be seen. In researching this piece it was attempted to access the information available on the TAFREN and RADA websites. Much like the organisations themselves, the websites too have died a slow bureaucratic death having been strangled by a red tape. As such, information about their work either past or present is not available to the public. Both TAFREN and RADA reached the bill stage in parliament. Strangely though, neither were ever passed. It would seem that a national need of this nature would urge legislators to ensure that projects of this nature were provided for. However, the necessary approvals never came. Instead an act to establish the National Disaster Management Council was established as the was the Tsunami Act to streamline the documentation process for those who had lost their legal documents.

According to a report published at this time last year by the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and its Development Partners, the estimated damage in terms of loss of human life stood at 35,322 with 21,441 people injured. The report estimates 100,000 houses destroyed. Furthermore, over half a million people were displaced while 150,000 persons lost their livelihoods. These are official figures. While human life cannot be monetarily replaced the houses and livelihoods were the immediate target for reconstruction. The initial expenditure estimate made in 2005 stood at US$ 2.2 billion to complete this rebuilding. The amounts pledged at the Donor Forum held in that same year amounted to US$ 3.3 billion with commitments of US$2.99. However, the government reported in December of 2006 that there remained a funding gap of US$ 252 million. The initial mathematics make this hard to stomach. With almost a billion dollars extra pledged to the country, we still manage to have a deficit. This of course without calculating the debt relief and trade benefits also granted to Sri Lanka to ease its financial burden at the time. This shortfall is attributed to the sharply increased cost of goods in the last two years coupled with the inability to accurately calculate operating costs in the tsunami affected areas. Much of these areas largely remain in war-torn parts of the country.

The report goes on to say that the total expenditure in relation to foreign commitment in December 2006 was 35%, while government loan expenditure performance was at 40%. Once again the report attributes this slow disbursement to the ‘need to balance legitimate demands for speedy reconstruction with the more time consuming processes to ensure quality work; bottlenecks created by lack of capacity; poor management and bureaucratic delays’. This admission by the GOSL itself is a sad reflection on the response to probably the one national issue that does not involve ethnicity and/or party lines. To acknowledge its failings is probably half a step in the right direction. To remedy them is yet another matter. Hopefully the report of 2007 will make for better reading.

The revisions to the buffer zones on the coastal belt led to a revision of the initial housing plans. This reportedly raised the requirement for housing from 98,525 to 114, 069. This remarkable increase is more than slightly due to the exploitative nature of the true Sri Lanka resurfacing after the initial trauma of the tsunami. Anecdotal evidence speaks of instances where members of some families received a house each. Cronyism and corruption in the handling of beneficiary lists have contributed vastly to this unconscionable rape of the system.

The GOSL report states that 61,019 houses which were either fully or partially damaged have been reconstructed while 47,995 are in progress under the owner driven and donor driven housing projects. These numbers too are from last year and more recent official figures are not readily available. One of the main problems is the perceived inadequacy of the funds provided by the GOSL for the owner driven housing schemes. Many families have found it difficult to reconstruct based on the amounts received. Whether this is due to their squandering of the capital or due to legitimate hardship and improper infrastructure is impossible to quantify due to the vastly divergent phenomena in the different districts. The district level progress also makes for interesting reading. The gap between required and completed/in progress houses is erratic. In Hambantota for instance, the celebrated hometown of His Excellency the President (and this maybe just a coincidence) the amount of houses reconstructed vastly exceeds the number of houses initially damaged. The overflow is less apparent but still existent in Galle, Matara and Kalutara, largely Sinhala areas which are relatively unaffected by the war and the traditional voter bases of many parliamentary kingpins. Similarly Batticaloa and Mullaitivu (which also is coincidentally the abode of another moustachioed madman) the provision to requirement ratio is 1:1 although Mullaitivu too, shows an excess.

The influx of aid organisations in the aftermath of the tsunami was unprecedented. The I/NGOs mushroomed both in Colombo and in the affected areas. Existing I/NGOs such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Sri Lanka Red Cross Society (SLRCS), Sarvodaya and the United Nations (UN) enhanced their operations and made housing the primary focus of their longer term relief efforts. All I/NGOs do not have the same structure and accountability processes to their donors. As a result the system is ripe for corruption regardless of whether the corruption actually takes place. While it functioned optimally RADA was the unifying body which co-ordinated the reconstruction efforts. However, with it being de facto inoperative, the I/NGOs are left with little guidance and even less places to turn to if things go horribly wrong.

It is fair to say that the common perception of I/NGOs and their officers is not complimentary. Whether this perception is deserved is a different matter altogether. The GOSL never had the resources to conduct the reconstruction effort independently. Foreign aid had to be mobilised and naturally foreign donors would like to know what is happening with their money. The only feasible means of meeting those two these two ends would be to channel the funds through I/NGOs accountable to a larger governing body or state. That is the matchbox version of I/NGOs have become necessary. However, whether it is also necessary to spend donor funds on housing their staff in 5 star hotels is another matter altogether.

No doubt the system is replete with bugs. However, to use an everyday office analogy – is it prudent to not use your computer because it crashes occasionally? The UN – Habitat report for September 2007 confirms completion of 75% of the housing requirement. The figures are slightly at divergence with the GOSL reports cited earlier but not by much. However, even those figures seem slightly incredible as the fluctuations between occupied and unoccupied houses change monthly. The report mentions an excess of 4,531 houses – 75% of which is in Hambantota. A shortfall of 11, 702 houses exists overall mostly in Colombo, Trincomalee and Jaffna. The report also states that over 12,000 families are in limbo. It can only be inferred that houses are not permanently occupied or that more than one house is being occupied by one family. Even so, if I/NGOs are aware of this obvious deviousness of the beneficiaries they are powerless to make any sanctions without the same being legally enforceable via the state. Especially if the said houses have gone to the benefit of henchmen. This though, is a mere speculation.

I/NGOs lament that the owner driven schemes are also faulty, with several beneficiaries claiming the money due to them and squandering it, thereby giving the impression – deliberately or unwittingly – that the I/NGOs are at fault for not completing the housing requirements as promised. Instances like these are cannon fodder for the opponents of I/NGOs. Instantly labelled as ‘peaceniks’ the I/NGOs have taken their fair share of flak for ‘helping’ the Tigers. From a different point of view however, I/NGOs by their very definition are non-aligned, and according to most of their charters are bound to provide assistance to whomsoever it is needed. Both sides, namely the GOSL and the LTTE, are aggrieved by this. The desire to claim the greater piece of the I/NGO was certainly exacerbated by the scuttling of the P-TOMS. It was widely believed that the P-TOMS was the only chance of some togetherness brought out via adversity. That too die a natural political death.

It is no secret that I/NGO staff travel in petrol guzzling jeeps, occupy exhorbitant office spaces and are generally spendthrift. Or at least this is the image that sections of the media would portray. Due to the lack of first hand evidence either way it is difficult to opine as to which version is most accurate. Nevertheless, it is also a fact that far more money than is allegedly wasted by these I/NGOs, is actually spent on the projects for which the monies are donated. Some I/NGOs also have restrictions on the disbursements of funds. If a project becomes unfeasible, the money allocated to the project is frozen and cannot be disbursed in any other way. This is a fine safeguard, but in a country such as Sri Lanka where the needs of the populace are fluid, it could operate as a counter productive safeguard. Be that as it may the chances of siphoning off money is difficult if not remote.

Litigation with regards to land already divested to the I/NGOs by the government is another huge problem. Large projects have shuddered to a halt in the face of enjoining orders and injunctions granted ex parte by Court. Title to land and various possessory problems have left a large swathe of the affected areas unsheltered. Who grants land? Why don’t they grant it properly?

The main area of concern however, is the spiralling construction costs. Contractors are making the proverbial killing while some I/NGOs are also reportedly being paid huge kick backs for allocating projects to specific contractors. There is a sore lack of checks and balances to ensure the discontinuance of these age old practices, thus necessarily equating a humanitarian response effort to an ordinary third world industry. While small scale inexperienced NGOs may not be able to prevent corruption of this nature, the more established, experienced actors must necessarily put in place a system which makes the disbursement of funds more transparent. There is no doubt whatsoever that pockets are being lined due to the gullibility or lack of circumspection on the part of the I/NGOs. Fast recruitment and inappropriate recruitment criteria, have meant that undesirables have embedded themselves in authoritative positions in most of these organisations. The fallout is obvious. The TEC report mentioned above condemns the ad-hoc allocation of funds and states that local NGOs may not have been the best vehicles for funds to be channelled through.

Having received these funds and put themselves in almost a fiduciary position to those affected by the tsunami, the lack of proactivity on the part of I/NGOs is apparent. Whether they like it or not, their assumption of responsibility for donor money has meant that the I/NGOs have a ‘duty of care’ toward their beneficiaries. Are they doing enough to discharge it? It is easy, and sometimes inevitable, to blame the renewed war efforts for the stopping of relief operations. The indiscriminate shelling has also further destroyed houses that were partially or fully constructed, thereby playing havoc with the numbers of houses accounted for in various reports. The TEC also abhors the lack of financial reporting by I/NGOs. It is virtually impossible, the report says, to trace back what proportion of a pledge has ultimately found its way to the ultimate beneficiary. In a financial environment where billions of VAT rupees go missing in a regulated government departments, it boggles the mind to imagine the possibilities in an unregulated non-governmental sphere.

As it stands, the people in the East – which is the area mainly affected – have a shortfall in housing, they have an uneasy relationship with the sea which is a source of life, and not too long ago a source of untold misery. In addition they live in constant apprehension of shelling by either side which may destroy their newly constructed home. The plight of these people does not seem to fuel the altruism of the GOSL or I/NGOs. The impossibility of actually carrying out any sort of work is hampered by the obvious need for survival in a war zone. I/NGOs are not generous to the point of self sacrifice and cannot be expected to work in their hard hats among falling mortars. Life is tough.

Tragedy after tragedy strikes the non-combatants that must wonder what plethora of sins they have committed in a past life. I/NGOs parade themselves as doers of good. While it must be admitted that some good has come of their existence, it also needs to be acknowledged that there is enormous room for improvement. GOSL also needs to look at humanitarian assistance as something more than a vote buying tool. After all they are the only ones with any sort of direct democratic accountability towards the electorate. And while people tend to forget…the tsunami affected are part of electorate too.

This article written for Montage, published by Counterpoint. To get in touch with or to subscribe to Montage, please email montagesrilanka [at]