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.

Pedal trishaws

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.

Community centres

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.

Well sweeps

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.