Staring into aid abyss in post-tsunami reconstruction
By Somaweera Sirisinghe, New Zealand
Courtesy - The Island - 26/03/2005

Three months have elapsed after the worst natural disaster in recorded history hit this emerald isle and we commenced our triple "R", the relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction but judging from the President's comment on the in-flow of international aid we are going no where. "Not even a cent" she said, perhaps figuratively.
Considering a damage professionally assessed at US$ 1 billion, equivalent to 4.4% of GDP, that requires US$ 1.5 billion for recovery over 3 to 5 year period, the prognosis is truly alarming.
Do we need to panic? That is the question that worries the collective mind of the nation to day. The Treasury mandarins would assure us not to worry saying that there is enough and more aid pledged. Quantification of aid that is in the "pipeline" is difficult, they would say - due to the substantial lead-time required for bi-lateral and multi-lateral pledges to materialize into hard cash through a maize of bureaucratic hierarchies. They would also try to paint a rosy picture eloquently adding that India's rejection of outside aid augurs well for Sri Lanka especially because of our traditional ties with the Commonwealth and Europe. The fact that donors would tend to think that Indonesia and Thailand would be well looked after as members of ASEAN club could be another plus factor.
But the central issue is why our tsunami re-construction bureaucracy that is adorned with a very liberal dose of meritocracy (Mano Tittawella et al) was unable to assess what aid has been committed and what has been pledged to Sri Lanka and then brief the Head of State correctly? Our incapability is compounded by the fact that the UN Office of the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on a request made by Jan Egeland, the Head of the UN relief agency, is using the tracking system built from the ReliefWeb Financial Tracking System to monitor tsunami aid.
A few days ago the BBC ran a story based on information obtained from OCHA that revealed the aid received or committed to Sri Lanka amounts to US$ 249 Million (IMF $ 157 million already granted is included) and the pledges are at US$ 403.5 million. The same news item added that `A3 41 Million from UK Disaster Emergency Appeal launched jointly by the Disaster Emergency Committee consisting of Oxfam, British Red Cross and Save the Children were spent in Sri Lanka to help more than one million people. It may be possible that Sri Lanka Government is totally in the dark about the relief aid spent by these aid agencies in Sri Lanka.
The only conclusion one can draw from the conflicting information is that even after the lapse of three months the government agencies in Sri Lanka are groping in the dark, unable to take stock of the situation.
This is tragic because according to international aid watchers there is a massive shortfall of around US$ 4 billion hampering the tsunami reconstruction; a figure arrived after the pledges are also taken into account. Past experience shows that international pledges of aid after natural disasters has a very poor rate of conversion into hard cash. Once the traumatic visuals disappear from global TV screens, the pipeline has the tendency to dry up. It has been quoted that less than a third of aid pledged after the recent earthquake disaster in Iran materialised.
Analysts and critics echo in unison that we need to panic because we are staring at a vast abyss of aid. The transition from emergency relief to reconstruction and recovery is tough and requires an enormous effort and funding over a longer period. President Clinton estimated that it would take at least 3 to 5 years. The recipe for succeeding in this attempt is to be pro-active in our approach, deploy all possible resources in a coordinated manner to plan out the reconstruction programme while pursuing every possible avenue to secure funds. It requires simultaneous work in so many fronts.
Going by government's post-tsunami experience this is the area where we have failed miserably. If we do not put the house in order terrific consequences in the procurement and utilization of international aid are sure to follow.
The path of the government's post-tsunami efforts is strewn with the ruins and residue of its co-ordinating and supervisory structure built to drive the relief, recovery and reconstruction. The first casualty was the much-heralded CNO (Centre for National Operations). Later the three hi-fi Task Forces were abolished and a TAFOR (Task Force on Relief) emerged. On its heals came the TAFREN (Task Force for Rebuilding the Nation).
While the institutional set up was being forged and re-forged, mixed messages were sent worldwide. Thilakaratne Ranaviraja's infamous statement that relief has not reached even 30% of the victims is a case in point.
On the other hand, it was apparent that the government was oblivious to the efforts of the NGO's and left them in the lurch. In New Zealand a number of Sri Lankan Associations collected private donations and the NZ Government magnanimously matched each dollar raising about Rs 35 million. The partner organizations in Sri Lanka selected to channel these funds (Sarvodaya and Dharmavijaya Foundation etc) had to undergo enormous difficulties in selecting projects due to poor information flow from the government and lack of co-ordination with these NGOs.
Isn't the near collapse or the impotence of the government's institutional structure that had been subjected to constant re-inventing, a symptom of a deep-rooted malady? It certainly would not harm if the topmost decision makers ponder on the following:
Excessive use of the meritocracy needs to be reviewed against the collective results so far achieved. Executive Heads of States who are responsible and accountable to the people for governing tend to turn to the "Meritocracy" rather than the "bureaucracy" driven by the desire to achieve quick and effective results. Meritocracy refers to a form of social system in which power goes to those with superior intellect or a system of government based on rule by ability; merit roughly meaning intelligence plus effort. Unfortunately, this model cannot work effectively in a disaster recovery situation where the meritocracy has to connect up with the bureaucracy, the political and social leaders in the field and a vast number of populace in agony awaiting relief after a traumatic experience. Despite the merits, the intellect and the effort, the meritocracy in this instance is doomed to fail.
Can the management techniques and the experience in the private sector help to make a dent in the situation? The majority in the Task Forces were big names from the private sector. Unfortunately, many in the private sector fail to understand why government is not run the way they run companies. The simple reason is that a government has to deal with many complex matters dealing with a larger number of stakeholders working through a maze of criss-crossing hierarchies. There are no subordinates who will spring into action to deliver results at the command of a CEO. Therefore, it is not surprising that those gentlemen with very good intentions were unable to make an impact in disaster relief, recovery and reconstruction exercise that involved live people trying to pick up pieces of their shattered lives recovering from a historic disaster and not factors of production.
Was the task Force Approach robust enough to handle the situation? Task Forces that are an amalgam of top people working in a committee is appropriate where deliberation and interaction of experts and administrators are aimed towards formulating strategies or roadmaps, working under normal stress-free situations. But it is not a good prescription to direct administrative action in a highly-tensed disaster recovery and reconstruction that demands the mobilisation of the whole administrative machinery and lead the activity with a unity of purpose. The problems are further exacerbated by the marginalisation of the position of the Government Agent (GA) in the field after the advent of the Provincial Council system. The reduction of the role of the GA to a nominal statutory position and the rise of the District Secretary with his primary responsibility to the Provincial Council and its political masters can hinder a centrally directed relief and recovery operation. Dispersed loyalties at district level needs to be eliminated with tact and diplomacy of an individual who is leading the effort.
Whether the aid flows in or not, a recovery and reconstruction programme is not going to succeed without proper connection to the administrative machinery especially at the district and village level. We have a lot to do to put our house in order.



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