Time of crisis and need for leadership
By Duminda Ariyasinghe
In the aftermath of July ’83, Minister Lalith Athulathmudali offered a ray of hope in his address to the nation. "The darkest hour," he said "was closest to dawn." While Mr. Athulathmudali would have meant well, especially given his strong handling of the post-riot food distribution, the nation that emerged from the tragedy was both defensive and insular thanks to its vacuous political leadership.

President J.R. Jayewardene's administration had an opportunity to build from the ashes, a new nation that celebrates unity and diversity in equal measure. But instead of reaching out to the victims and healing a nation's wounds, the J.R. administration vacillated, perhaps seeing it as an opportunity to perpetuate rule. In the process, the Tamil Tigers who numbered fewer than 30 fighters went on to become the most militant separatist movement in the world. Despite his achievements elsewhere, especially in the economic sphere, history will record J.R. as a leader who lacked the political sagacity to solve the ethnic problem before it turned into the seemingly intractable conflagration it is today.

Some 21 years later, we are facing another watershed in our history. The nation is again looking for political sagacity from its leaders, particularly from President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to rebuild a shattered nation.

While in ’83, we were roundly condemned as a nation for the actions and the inactions of our political leadership, the world this time is rushing to our doorstep with offers of help and relief. But both the opportunities and the threats offered by this natural disaster, however, will be no less grave if the country's leadership focuses on the political instead of nation-building.

While one may sympathize with the government for being overwhelmed by the crisis in the first two weeks, it is time to focus on some of the more intermediate and longer-term issues while short term issues such as food supply and security are being addressed.

Central co-ordination a must
The crisis faced by Sri Lanka is the largest natural disaster inflicted on any nation relative to its size. As such, what is required is not incrementalism, but a complete rethink of disaster management, with lessons from the outside world.

Within Sri Lanka, the tsunami generated a "I must do something" syndrome. This was driven in large part by the collective guilt among many for long ignoring the needs of the country's poor. As such, some of the efforts in the first two weeks were, although well-intentioned, misdirected or duplicated. This could have been avoided if the government had set up a central authority tasked with managing a central database that matches needs with supply.

Although several task forces and agencies have been set up, central co-ordination still remains a problem. To give one example, a psychiatrist attached to a teaching hospital disclosed that he had been approached with help by five government agencies each unaware of the role of others.

The key central authority needs to be delegated significant power and headed by an assertive and highly respected figure with little ties to any one political party. This agency should co-ordinate the often divisive government ministries and agencies. The individual should also have emergency powers to direct private sector agencies, where needed.

Sri Lanka already has a wealth of talented individuals in the private sector, and they should be given opportunities to serve the country. The same holds for Sri Lankans living overseas who are willing to donate their services, often for free.

Although the President has called for national thinking, this is yet to happen at ground level. The head of a private sector organization that donated a large quantity of relief supplies noted just one bottleneck - an official who religiously took it upon himself to apply the seal "Distributed by XX Minister's Office" on every package that had been donated before distributing to the needy. Such parochialism should be rooted out.

Financial transparency
Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was correct in comparing the tsunami damage to post Second World War Europe. As such, an internationally-funded rebuilding effort along the lines of the Marshall Plan would be required. The amount required by Sri Lanka would run into billions of dollars (an international expert has estimated total destruction in all countries at $13.8 billion based on preliminary information).

It is said that financial transparency is a magnet for foreign aid. As such, one of the most critical tasks is to set up an incorruptible and transparent donation management agency headed not by a political appointee, but an internationally respected Sri Lankan. The agency, which should be managed without political or ethnic favouritism should be the central body for receiving foreign and local aid.

It is no secret that financial transparency has not been a strong suit of our politicians. The public perception is that neither party has made a dent in corruption. In such a scenario, it might not be realistic to expect foreign governments and donor agencies to donate the billions of dollars that are required as only a pittance may make its way to the needy. This is partly why countries like the US have focused primarily on relief as opposed to rebuilding aid so far.

Already donor agencies and foreign governments are channelling a large chunk of the relief aid via NGOs. Given that some of the same questions re. transparency and objectives can be asked of these NGOs, it is in the interests of Sri Lankan victims of the tragedy to set up a non-partisan aid management agency with Sri Lankan ownership.

If we are looking for a model for a financial transparency, the bipartisan management of funds in the aftermath of 9/11 comes to mind. The critical leadership in healing the nation's wounds and appointing respected national leaders to the key tasks after 9/11 came from President Bush. US newspapers too played a pro-active role in guiding the national agenda. Neither of these has happened adequately in Sri Lanka yet.

The nature of the world is such that in a few weeks it will be preoccupied with another news story, perhaps the elections in Iraq on January 30. If US troops suffer significant casualties, the coverage of our crisis will be banished from the world's living rooms. If we are to leverage the goodwill, we have to move now in setting up a 100% financially transparent agency so that major aid can start flowing in now.

Leveraging the goodwill
The international goodwill towards Sri Lanka right now is without precedent for a crisis outside the US. To give just one example, most major websites such as Google, Yahoo and MSN, visited by hundreds of millions every day have "links" on their home pages to aid tsunami relief - the only time such a relief exercise has been done besides 9/11. This money is currently being directed towards a few relief agencies which have a much wider mandate than the affected areas in South Asia.

The Sri Lankan diaspora scattered around the world can play a significant role in mobilizing western governments and donor agencies such as the IMF, World Bank and the ADB. If the rebuilding effort is seen as professionally managed and ethnically neutral, we would be able to utilize the goodwill of all Sri Lankans overseas.

In the west, we should also tap into community based pressure groups and task a professional at every major diplomatic mission to lead the Rebuilding Desk. Whether we have enough such talent in our diplomatic force is a question that needs to be addressed objectively and dispassionately. These individuals also need to have very strong media skills (ability to explain complex development needs in crisp, precise English to a CNN or BBC type audience) and be the tie-in to the Sri Lankan community in the country. We need to make the international media an ally in conveying our very real needs to the western public and western governments.

The New York Times noted that the tsunami provides an opportunity to President George Bush to root out the perception that "he is all about America first”. The article hinted however that the primary US objective may be to ensure the crisis does not lead to Muslim radicalization in Indonesia. Our goal should be to hold President Bush to the assurances he has given us.

Private sector funding
We need to approach large charitable foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which has an endowment larger than the combined GDP of many countries. Needless to say, the Gates Foundation is just one trust that demands financial transparency and accountability to the n'th degree.

If we haven't already done so, we need to hire independent international disaster management experts to assess the damage and provide a cost estimate. While the detailed assessments can come later, we have to provide an initial assessment figure that offers a yardstick of several billions. We should also ask the international community to release the $4.5 billion that was pledged to us during the peace talks.

Debt forgiveness
One of the key areas of relief already being discussed is debt forgiveness/rescheduling. We should look beyond rescheduling and into forgiveness perhaps with the aid of an international celebrity. It should be noted that the most significant debt forgiveness initiative in the world came at the urging of not a World Bank or government body, but due to the untiring efforts of Irish pop star Bono (the frontman of the group U2) and his Africa-centred DATA (Debt AIDS Trade Africa) foundation.

The UN obviously has an important support role to play in providing both expertise and funding. The visit of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to some of the worst hit areas will not only draw attention to the massive relief and rebuilding effort, but also provide a welcome opportunity for the Secretary-General to focus on a crisis that does not have the political controversies of an Iraq.

The rebuilding effort should not be seen simply as an exercise in replacing the old. In many areas, such as construction of property, strict zoning laws should be enforced. This is in effect, an opportunity to reclaim the coast. This also could be the opportunity to build the rail system for the next 100 years if adequate funds could be obtained.

The government needs to appoint task forces to look into key economic areas such as the rebuilding of the tourist sector. This will be both a demand and supply exercise, and the two need to move in tandem. Experts in marketing will attest that in the short term it is best not to market Sri Lankan tourism aggressively until the horrors fade from memory especially in the western markets. During this period, the government needs to offer a comprehensive support programme to the tourist industry, both the owners as well as the unemployed.

This may also be an opportunity to target China (slated to be Thailand's #1 source of tourists next year thanks to the booming middle class in China), India and Japan more aggressively. The entry of Sri Lanka into the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PTWC) and other such early warning bodies will assuage some of the fears of both Sri Lankans and foreigners.

In rehabilitation, we may need to allocate key sectors by country. Can a country such as China that has always stood by us (and vice versa) take charge of say, the restoration of the railways or the roadways?

China has built thousands of miles of highways during the last decade and has unrivalled expertise. We need to target countries with large cash reserves such as Norway to put their mouth where their money is. As construction gets underway, individuals and businesses from the affected areas should be given priority in employment and reconstruction.

Trade and sustainable development
We should not restrict ourselves to aid as some of the most meaningful help can come in the form of sustainable trade. For example, we should seek duty free access to the US and EC markets for our key exports. The garment trade which can be an engine of growth for the South and the NE should seek the most favourable terms. Any products that are manufactured in these areas should carry a special label that is likely to resonate with consumers in the west (an analogy is "the fair trade" label in South American coffee).

The relief and rebuilding are both an opportunity and a risk. If managed properly, the country's leadership will be remembered along the lines of the great Sinhala kings. However, if it is directionless, corrupt and inept, the same leaders will face a public wrath stronger than any tsunami.

While the natural disaster has opened up funds that were not previously accessible, the same funding if managed improperly could even lead to hyper inflation and a general sense of despair among the affected.

The bad news is that this crisis demands a level of political leadership and statesmanship that has rarely been seen from our post-independent leaders. The good news is that one leader who displayed such boldness and financial transparency was President Chandrika Kumaratunga when she first ran for political leadership. The question is whether after ten years in power she can rise to the true potential she displayed then.

One of the reasons, the J.R. administration failed was due to its inability to think across party lines and do what is best for the nation as opposed to the ruling party. Fate has presented another charismatic leader with an equally onerous task. The future of the nation demands that history not be repeated.

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