Featured image courtesy European Pressphoto Agency

Once again Sri Lanka is in the grip of a natural disaster. Thousands have been displaced and hundreds killed by the floods and landslides. The tragedy is that this time the rains were not necessarily unprecedented and the irony is that the Minister for Disaster Management was in Cancun at that time talking about the capacity of the government to respond. Despite his very impressive speech it was clear that his own disaster management ministry was left wanting of the basic supplies.

For me, this cannot be dismissed as sheer incompetence. This is not only tantamount to a lie but also a crime; a crime of negligence which has had the severest of consequences. As I wrote a year ago, we should have seen this as a pattern that Sri Lanka over the last few years has suffered from rain causing flooding with the situation worsening every year. Last year we should have learned our lesson, yet we are still in a scenario as if we are responding for the first time.

However this is a crime whose responsibility is not just to be borne by the Government. We in academia, civil society and the private sector also need to take a share of the blame. For weeks and months after the floods, we met and talked about what to do differently.   Yet it seems that all of that was for naught. We have always talked about being prepared yet we seem to have largely failed.

The sad reality is that we had a full representation of civil society and the private sector attending the UN’s World Humanitarian Summit, in Istanbul a year ago. Commitments and consensus from the international community for a much more responsive humanitarian structure and system to be developed to address the changing complexity of needs were obtained. Yet like all international processes, Sri Lanka was a mere observer, using the occasion to be seen as opposed to thinking about using it to do something different. The Government had little interest in getting engaged as they dispatched the Minister for Transport and Aviation (hardly an authority on humanitarian responses and disaster management) with a couple of civil servants and a few civil society activists, who had managed to secure financial support from the UN to attend. This in itself is telling that we are still in a system where civil society and NGOs have to gather external funds to support trips being done to discuss issues that are of significant interest in the long run to the country. The mere fact that we are interested to give money when disaster strikes yet unable to provide money for prevention is something we need to seriously discuss.

Having been intimately involved with the preparations for the Summit, I found myself at a loss that there was also little appetite for any comprehensive discussion in country. The sole ‘national’ consultation carried out for Sri Lanka in the run up to the Summit was done by a few national CSO’s and INGOs, and ironically pointed out key issues that needed to be considered some of which have bearings with this crisis:

  • The need to improve coordination in humanitarian response involving a central body at the country level coordinating all humanitarian agencies working in the country
  • The empowerment of local communities
  • The use of GPS and drones for the location of victims
  • The use of mobiles for with a recommendation for telecom operators to operate specialized cross network channels to allow for ease of communication
  • The stockpiling of food and non essential items.
  • The involvement of young people in humanitarian responses

While these consultations got lost within the framework of a UN process, what I have been baffled about is the fact that these national CSOs/NGOs who were part of this discussion and generated these considerations have also failed to implement some of these in their work moving forward.

There should have been better training and preparedness. Yet what I have been struck by is the reticence of Sri Lankan civil society to respond. From a lack of financial and human resources capacity to a more political stance of ‘who was seen to be taking the lead in these conversations’, what has resulted has been a lack of a proactive process of working on contingency planning. But this is not just left to the civil society who have been guilty. Private sector has to ask itself some serious questions. While many private sector organisations have taken it upon themselves to become the custodians of humanitarian response (namely in the absence of a coherent response from the UN/ Civil Society and Government), they have done so largely uncoordinated. They have also been guilty of playing the politics card. For example, the Connecting Business Initiative launched at the World Humanitarian Summit by a Sri Lankan private sector company was designed to transform the way that private sector engages before, during and after crises. Leaving aside the complexities of engaging with 2 UN agencies, this initiative has largely not taken off in Sri Lanka (despite it being one of few focal countries). Private sector has been largely disinterested (choosing to fly their own flags) or when approached have expressed reservations about which particular company and individual was seen to be at the forefront of this initiative. Such petty political stances means that in the absence of a government response, there is no other collective effort to provide a humanitarian response. It is then left to individuals and individual organisations to respond in a haphazard manner without the proper training, advice, expertise and sensitivity which is a bit ironic given the fact that in their day to day business, private sector will not get into something unless they have the necessary expertise and knowledge.

It’s not necessarily rocket science but it is about being aware of what to do and what not to do.It would be wise as well to remember that there is life beyond the initial help following the onset of the disaster. We forget the medium and long term.

People at the center of the crisis will need to be empowered to cope and recover with dignity in the coming days, months and years. The voices and choices of the affected people and the first responders should guide our response even when outside actors are called upon to provide assistance and protection. It is all very well for us who from outside talk about the provision of food or non food items but we have to take into account that surveys consistently show that many affected people do not believe the aid they receive is relevant or meets their priority needs.

Thus it is not just about the provision of goods and services but the rebuilding of services and structures to cope and resume their livelihoods on their own.  We cannot afford to create a culture of dependency. It is now increasingly being recognized that the provision of cash or vouchers in emergencies can support people in ways that maintain human dignity, provide access to food and shelter and help rebuild or protect livelihoods. Of course this is context specific depending on the extent of the disaster, but the aim of such programming allows a flexible response tool that supports the autonomy and choice of these people, while making humanitarian aid more accountable to the affected people. It allows them to recharge their phones for example to communicate with loved ones or even to look after their own specific businesses. It also gives them agency at a time when you have lost everything. It helps them to get engaged. Yet from the appeals that have gone out, we are still making decisions for the affected people asking for things that we think that they need in terms of items, somehow assuming that in the tragedy victims would have lost their rationale to think or worse that they are somehow dishonest and would cheat the system. Such thinking to some extent devalues the worth of our fellow human beings reducing them to being thought of as beggars who should accept what we give because they have lost everything. The issue is not to dismiss the provision of food and other valued items but to also consider how cash and voucher transfers can be used in the best effect. For this to happen we need to have a paradigm shift in terms of our thinking of how we respond to emergencies.

We need to close the gender and diversity gap in our response to those who have been affected. Women, girls the elderly and the disabled often are unable to claim their rights and fulfil their needs in a crisis. This has to start with an effective information management which includes disaggregated data and other key relevant indicators.

Lastly those affected will need support in getting back to their homes so cleaning and return kits are essential. This is where we often fail. They will need help to restart their businesses and rebuild their shattered lives. How can we ensure that we have programmed this in our fundraising as well as our time and resource allocation? What provisions do we have for livelihood support? When the crowds die down and the interest declines, how can we ensure that people are still remembered?

We now also seriously need to think collectively about contingency planning. The government has shown that it is inept at preparing for the crisis. We need to collectively work on better training and being better equipped in areas of preparedness and response to disasters and crisis. We need to strengthen national legislation on emergency preparedness including contingency planning and early warning systems which also identifies the roles and responsibilities of various actors including the private sector. As international aid for humanitarian and development work declines for Sri Lanka due to its middle income status classification, it is left on the shoulders of the national NGOs, Government and Private Sector to respond. We cannot afford to be reacting like this once again in a year’s time because we will have more problems as our thirst for development and urbanisation means we take shortcuts in planning and construction.

If in a year we have not been able to prepare and respond adequately then the blame is not just on the government but on us collectively for the crime of negligence that we failed to learn from our mistakes.

Readers who found this article enlightening should read, “Sri Lanka Floods 2016: avoiding the mistakes of 2004” and “In the aftermath of floods: reflections on Flood Aid and youth-led mobilisation in Colombo.