Let's rebuild our nation together
Sri Lanka today is akin to a mass funeral house. As the country continues to mourn the death of more than 40,000 men, women and children lost to the deadly tsunami in just under three fateful hours on Boxing Day, VIPs from faraway lands have been dropping in to shake hands and sympathise with our leaders.

The thousands upon thousands who did survive, but were injured or displaced, now have to face the dismal prospect of rebuilding from the rubble while living with the trauma of having seen their loved ones swept away before their very eyes.

Handsome envelopes of cash have been given or pledged to meet the expenses associated with rebuilding the nation from the devastation caused by the seaquake off Indonesia. At last Thursday's summit in Jakarta, solemn pledges were made. Billions of US dollars were pledged and it was agreed that an early warning system be quickly set up so that the nations affected by the most recent post seaquake-tsunami, would never be caught unawares again. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, however, has seen it all before. He has seen many countries, especially western nations, pledge princely sums for earthquake victims before, only to translate their words into beggarly amounts when it came to actual aid reaching the victims. He cited the recent example of Iran, where these same nations did not really put their dollars where their mouth was.

Some nations are already engaged in some mathematical gymnastics and are converting their pledges into partly cash, partly debt-relief measures. The stark reality is that in the modern world, these never-never 'soft loans' are mere book entries that economically poor nations like Sri Lanka, hardly repay anyway. The US once even tried a new method by tying these never-never loans to the upkeep of our natural rainforests like the Sinharaja, so that they can have a firmer foot-hold in this country.

Still, two weeks to the day the tsunami hit this country with a vengeance, the outpouring of support from the ordinary people of the world, as well as foreign governments continues. Some more than others, perhaps because nationals of western countries were victims themselves. The scale of giving has nevertheless, been stupendous. Yet very soon, the world will move on and we will be left with the burden of re-building our nation. World attention will turn in a different direction and focus on a different issue.

Are we then moving in the right direction of nation rebuilding?
The government has just appointed a task force called TAFREN to re-build the nation. This organisation, as we have been told, is going to be the centre of national reconstruction, with the President's Office as the epicentre thereof. Unfortunately, national reconstruction has not got off to the right start. The different committees appointed by the President for relief and rehabilitation and reconstruction, and law and order have all been disappointing. Some of those in these committees have no known expertise in any of these areas. Some are even businessmen of questionable repute, albeit well connected with the ruling party. Some of them are the Haliburtons of Sri Lanka, smacking their chops and hoping they can play a part in the construction contracts that will come with the re-building programmes.

Giving fat cheques to the President must not be the qualifications for these committees. They can be placed on the Presidential honours list and such ranks, but why has the Public Service for instance been all but sidelined.

Engineers and architects, scientists and urban planners have been ignored and professional institutes have not even been considered. At the first news conference of the new TAFREN high-ups, there was no suggestion of a bipartisan approach, politically, by TAFREN which is engaged in ear-marking areas for future planning in the wake of offers by foreign countries and the private sector, both local and foreign indicating their willingness to adopt ravaged towns.

Nor have we been told, for instance, who is going to be ultimately responsible for TAFREN. Is it going to be the President of the Republic? And if it is the President, whether she will be immune from being questioned.

In the wake of the 1983 race riots, the Government of the day appointed a Rehabilitation Commission to see that those who suffered damages were able to apply for funds directly from the Commission. TAFREN must not be seen to be a political outfit run by the President's Office, by all the President's men and women, where largesse is dispensed only to those who subscribe to the ruling party. Confidence in the Government, not just this Government, but in Governments of contemporary times, has not been healthy. Even the President has acknowledged that widespread bribery and corruption exist in the country. There is thus, a great need for transparency and accountability in all activities connected to the reconstruction effort.

The country must also be alert to the influx of foreign NGOs and the continued presence of foreign troops. We need to be sure too that local input and ground experience are foremost in rebuilding the country. Blindly accepting every handout, even those with strings attached is not the answer. All of us Sri Lankans need to get our act together and along with foreign help see this nation rise again, a stronger, more united Lanka. That is the challenge facing us in this new year.

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