of work but more could have been done –tsunami worker
NGOs come under scrutiny at philanthropy conference
By Feizal Samath
One non governmental organization (NGO) offered refrigerators as
an inducement to persuade tsunami victims to take up their offer
of housing. In some areas, there was a price war in the labour sector
as NGO’s outdid each other to secure labour for the many housing
projects for the tsunami-homeless.
a recent conference held in the beach resort of Phuket in Thailand
on the role of philanthropy after the tsunami, one of the issues
that was raised was the unhealthy competition between NGOs virtually
elbowing each other in – spending money that was secured for
Colombo, some NGOs – who came here for tsunami work –
left with houses and other projects incomplete when the money ran
out. The competition to build houses quickly was very intense, creating
social disparities. “Social disparities will be a major problem
and a challenge in the future,” noted Yu Hwa Li, national
director of World Vision Lanka. He said that post-war and conflict
housing costs around 400,000 rupees per unit while houses for tsunami
victims cost anything between 400,000 rupees and Rs 1 million. Distortions
in the labour market were rampant.
in Sri Lanka there was a huge battle for staff with the bigger and
newer international NGOs enticing skilled workers from small groups
with higher salaries and leaving wide staff gaps in smaller NGOs
and longer established NGOs. In the three months after the tsunami,
the most number of job vacancies in Sri Lankan newspapers were in
the NGO sector – drawing experienced personnel even from the
workers said the tsunami didn’t only uproot communities but
disturbed the future of these communities during the post-tsunami
reconstruction programme. The Thailand conference, organized by
the Asia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium (APPC), brought together
some 150 participants, mostly leaders from government, the non-profit
sector, private sector, media representatives, disaster response
experts, and representatives of the philanthropic community both
in Asia and around the world.
“Philanthropy in Disasters: TSUNAMI and After”, the
conference discussed critical issues such as effective and cost-efficient
forms of collaboration, the challenge of developing community disaster
preparedness and response mechanisms, accountability to donors and
affected communities, and the role of media and electronic communications
in promoting philanthropy and development in a disaster environment.
is a 10-year-old network of grant making philanthropic institutions
and organizations that support the growth and development of philanthropy
in the region.
conference was told that sizable funds were raised by inexperienced
agencies and badly spent due to lack of coordination. There was
infighting amongst NGOs to get the ‘best” area. Some
of the bigger NGOs worked in many sectors – housing, sanitation,
livelihoods, schools, education, etc – elbowing out the smaller
community groups who just couldn’t compete in terms of funds
that relied on community support to build houses – projects
that took longer to implement – were outpaced by the bigger
organizations that bulldozed their way hiring labour at will and
paying higher-than-market rates. Naturally victims flocked to these
groups. Mismanagement, infighting and turf clashes were the order
of the day, which didn’t however sufficiently get into the
media draw or public attention.
key issue that was raised was the lack of similar global support
for the earthquake in Pakistan, which during a discussion was reasoned
out because foreigners were unaffected there unlike in the tsunami.
“The tsunami impacted on everyone – there was someone’s
family member of relative affected – so there was a kind of
urgency to help from the world,” noted one participant.
Colombo, it also raises the question as to whether Sri Lanka’s
civil society or business community would have responded so magnanimously
if the tsunami – like regular floods or the devastating 1978
cyclone in eastern Batticaloa – affected only poorer and marginally-deprived
classes like fishing folk or farmers. If the tourist industry was
untouched and the local elite were not holidaying in southern resorts,
would the world and wealthy Sri Lankans come to our rescue? While
this is not meant to undo the good work and compassion by thousands
of Sri Lankans here and abroad and foreigners, it does however raise
some pertinent questions.
example was the eastern coast – worst hit in terms of casualties
and homes – which didn’t get that much attention as
the south where battered build-up areas with hotels provided excellent
pictures to shock the world. The first relief trucks from Colombo
hit the southern trail and it was many days later when real relief
hit the eastern parts.
course, one cannot forget that the scale of the violence was high
and much more than any single incident in Sri Lanka that brought
the best out of our people. Another area in which the media failed
was in not paying enough attention to the work of NGOs and exposing
major flaws in their work amidst the clash for locations and communities.
This was essential given that a lot of the money that came in –
not committed funds – were from private donors and thus made
the non government sector an almost equal partner with the government
in the reconstruction process.
while the media focused on weaknesses in the government’s
reconstruction programme and questioned the process all the way,
happenings in the NGO sector were largely ignored. Charlie Ayco,
Director for Regional Programmes at Habitat for Humanity, said donors
dictated locations and quality standards on housing were based on
impractical and inappropriate western standards.
houses were too costly, too sophisticated and didn’t blend
with the rest of the community. There was lack of cultural sensitivity
in these processes.
One of the questions posed at the Phuket conference was as to what
prompted people and organizations across the world to kindle the
spirit of giving.
decades the UN had asked for funds for humanitarian relief but didn’t
get that much. In the tsunami case the outpouring of support, it
was discovered, was due to human compassion. People were more sympathetic
towards natural disasters than man-made ones.
Phuket parley saw calls for a Code of Conduct and a humanitarian
charter along with humanitarian accountability processes being made
to better coordinate the work of the NGO sector.
De Swardt, Global Programmes Director at Transparency International,
said humanitarian relief was particularly vulnerable to corruption
and mismanagement because of the speed of work and avoiding standards.
“If we have another disaster, people will ask what happened
to the money given earlier,” he said.
the end of the conference, it was agreed that NGOs did a lot of
good work after the tsunami that must be appreciated but that it
could have been done better and made more effective had they worked
together – not against each other.