Point of View
Rebuilding Sri Lanka after the Boxing day disaster
By Ajith Nivard Cabraal
It's time for us Sri Lankans to focus on how to rebuild, revitalize and reconstruct this battered nation. At such a time, we must remind ourselves that the responsibility of re-building this country does not necessarily rest with the President, government, military and Task Forces alone. This landmass of 65,525 sq. km called Sri Lanka is our country too. We all have a stake. We all have voices and resources. This is therefore the best time for us to examine how best to put our shoulders to the wheel to get the nation on its feet.

It has been almost impossible for successive Sri Lankan governments to enforce coast conservation measures or to implement the existing laws for the protection of the coral reefs in the vicinity of the shore lines, due to the stiff resistance from people and politicians of the areas.

We all know that many political problems would have arisen, if anyone dared attempt to clear the vast number of sub-standard houses that had been illegally and/or ill-advisedly built in close proximity to the country's coast line. But today, the tsunami has, while causing great misery, "cleared" these areas and we finally have a great chance to re-locate the many thousands of our people in proper and safe housing, and utilize the coastal areas in a planned manner with proper provision being made for highways, roads, railtracks, communication lines, community facilities, etc., whilst also ensuring that the existing coral reefs are not destroyed any further. At the same time, we also have the wonderful opportunity to completely revitalize our fishing industry to bring it on par with international standards.

The fisheries habours could be re-designed and re-built to accommodate large ocean-going fishing trawlers, and fish canning factories. The industry could also work towards replacing the lost and damaged fishing boats with bigger, safer and more sophisticated fishing trawlers, gear and equipment.

One should expect 2005 to be a tough year for Sri Lanka's economy. A suitable rehabilitation and reconstruction program would consume huge sums of money over the next 2 to 3 years, and it is unlikely that international aid and grants alone would be sufficient to meet the requirements. At the same time, the banking, leasing, insurance, transport, retail and tourism sectors would probably suffer a few setbacks as a direct consequence of the tsunami damage.

Such setbacks would necessarily be reflected in reduced earnings and slower growth in many companies, which twin factors would obviously exert a lot of pressure on government revenues, balance of payments and other fiscal measures. These challenges would of course, need strong, bold and clear responses by the government to cleverly manage the changing economic circumstances, and the success of the entire revival effort would, to a great extent, hinge on these responses of the government. Rebuild we must. So, if we are to rebuild to international standards, what should we do? Within the next few weeks, the macro-level master plans must be made to lay out the new roads, railway tracks, communication lines, bridges and townships.

It is imperative that these be designed with an eye on the Year 2,100 rather than just re-tracing the pre 26th December 2004 status. Town planners with a vision for the future should be engaged to design these new cities, roads and other developments. Thereafter, engineers who would take into consideration the challenges of the 3rd millennium, while skillfully using the new energy sources such as wind, wave and solar power, should be entrusted with the re-building and re-construction operations.

In the meantime, financial experts with a flair for creating innovative funding schemes and having the ability and energy to develop exciting new financial instruments to obtain the required funds should be entrusted with the task of finding the required funds.

At the end of the day the best of schemes would fail miserably unless the funds needed to implement such plans and programs are not found. It is in that light, that we should examine our current options to source and generate the substantial funds needed for the ambitious development programs that are likely to be proposed by the planners over the next few weeks.

We should, at this stage be encouraged by the manner in which the international community is responding to what has been described as a truly global disaster in modern history. There have been a series of magnanimous gestures on the part of governments and individuals alike, which is indeed heart-warming. But, as we all know, the coverage in CNN and BBC about the tsunami damage would soon give way to other world news.

We must realize that thereafter, it would be difficult for us and for our region to sustain the interest and the co-operation of the international community. A few days ago, I listened to a comment made by the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan where he reminded the world that pledges made by donors in the past have not always materialized. So, it is clear that if we want to obtain long term international support and assistance, we need to do so quickly, while the disaster is still fresh in the minds of all concerned.

If so, what should we do to secure the required funding needed for the re-building exercise? Firstly, we should subtlety but clearly bring it to the notice of the international community that the funds pledged by them so far is quite insignificant in terms of the scale of the disaster and the capacity of those countries to provide assistance.

According to the most optimistic estimates and projections, Sri Lanka is not likely to benefit by more than US $ 1,000 million as aid and/or relief and/or development assistance. Most of such aid/relief/assistance may also be committed or granted in the form of technical assistance or disaster relief according to the donors' own agendas and hence the actual benefit to Sri Lanka on a long term basis, may not be as much as we are now made to believe.

May be if we all read Graham Hancock's "Lords of Poverty", we will understand this better. Further, if the current tsunami pledges are viewed in the context of (say), the US government's initial allocation for "Operation Iraq" which was US$ 78,000 million, it would be very clear that the amount pledged for this largely Asian disaster is a mere fraction of what was appropriated for the Iraqi operation. Already, Pope John Paul, President George Bush, Prime Minister Anthony Blair, and many other world leaders have identified the 26/12 Tsunami as one of the worst and horrifying global tragedies. If so let the "cash" at least to some extent match the "words".

This is not to say that we do not appreciate and value what the world community has pledged and done so far. The genuine feelings of love and compassion of our human brothers and sisters world wide, has been wonderful. In fact I was greatly touched by an Eisenhower Fellow colleague of mine a few days ago. Who not only offered monetary assistance to rebuild the affected areas but also offered to adopt a Sri Lankan child who has been orphaned as a result of the tsunami! While we should value and admire these extraordinary human qualities displayed by foreign Governments, NGO's and individuals, we should nevertheless also carry out a gentle but focused appeal for more assistance towards the re-building effort while backing such requests with clear plans, cost estimates, and other project details.

Secondly, Sri Lanka should ask for at least a partial write-off of her foreign debt. At present, Sri Lanka's foreign debt exceeds US$ 10,600 million, while the annual interest payments amount to approximately US$ 230 million.

On that basis, the interest and capital repayments consume a huge proportion of the government's revenue leaving very little resources for the much needed development work. In order to financially withstand the devastation of the tsunami and to gather the strength to face the massive development challenge in it's aftermath, Sri Lanka would now need to break free of one of the most debilitating influences strangulating the country in the form of this large foreign debt.

Our country should therefore request from the donor community, that all interest payments due for the next 5 years be cancelled on the basis of a government undertaking that the funds so saved would be strictly diverted to rebuilding work.

At the same time, Sri Lanka should lobby for the write-off at least 50% of the foreign debt so that as a nation, we would be more "bankable", and able to enjoy better cash flows which would surely propel the country to embark on an accelerated re-building exercise.

Thirdly, Sri Lanka should use whatever media opportunities that arise now as a result of the international media interest, to promote new investment into the country. We should make use of the connections that are now being developed, and media publicity that we now enjoy at no cost, to project a positive image and persuade the international community to invest in Sri Lanka in due course and thereby benefit by the many advantages that Sri Lanka could offer. In this context, once the development projects have been identified in a master plan that should be drawn up soon, projects based on the "build operate own" or "build operate transfer" models should be made known to international financiers and contractors so that Joint Venture Partners and other Strategic Alliances to undertake such rebuilding work is promoted and processed quickly and efficiently.

Over the past 2,000 years, our history has recorded several natural disasters. However, the 26/12 Tsunami may arguably be the worst disaster ever experienced by us. Whilst we would have to acknowledge that this unprecedented disaster has placed our country and its economy under grave stress and strain, we should also be astute and intelligent enough to understand that this disaster has also provided us with many opportunities hitherto not available to us, which we should be smart enough to make use of. If we succeed in such endeavours we would, as a nation emerge as a strong mature country which can proudly take its rightful place in the league of nations.

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