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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.