Tsunami aid and red tape
The outpouring of sympathy for tsunami victims that resulted in a flood of foreign aid now appears to have got caught up in the omnipresent red tape without which no government appears capable of functioning. A large number of containers full of supplies for tsunami victims are reportedly held up in Colombo port because of the government decision to charge the usual taxes and duties on them. The consignees have not cleared them to avoid paying these charges, which they argue should not be levied as the goods are not for commercial use but rather for victims of natural disaster. This hold up has caused much concern in the corporate sector and civil society NGOs responsible for bringing down much of the aid.

For its part, the government has arranged its own channels to receive aid duty free and said it was forced to impose the usual duties to prevent misuse of these aid flows by unscrupulous businessmen. Some of them have been caught trying to bring in goods for commercial use disguised as tsunami aid. A Finance Ministry announcement last week said tsunami-related relief cargo channelled through government are not subject to any duties, taxes or port charges. Any items already shipped should be handed over to the Director of Social Services should the donor wish duty-free clearance and the government has promised that such aid would be distributed among the affected parties, welfare centres and targeted groups such as school children.

While the government should do all it can to streamline aid flows and prevent abuse it makes no sense to penalize genuine donors because of a few miscreants and because government agencies responsible for implementing the law, such as Customs, are not effective enough in preventing abuse. It is up to government agencies to get their act together and prevent abuse rather than imposing restrictions that have the effect of hurting everyone. What is required is more effective enforcement of the law and a more enlightened approach to imposing red tape.

Furthermore, it is well known that the private sector and NGOs have little faith in government assurances that aid channeled through government would reach the needy, given the existing evidence to the contrary. After all, it was a few weeks ago that the government admitted that only 30 percent of tsunami victims had received government aid. Given such a poor record, it is only natural that the private sector and NGOs should look upon bureaucracy with some suspicion. To have all those containers held up in port purely on administrative grounds is a shocking waste. Perhaps a more aggressive approach by the private sector and civil society in reducing red tape is required. The use of the transportation expertise of the John Keells conglomerate to streamline aid logistics in the port and airport is a good example of what can be done.

The confusion and controversy over the government announcement of the 100-metres coastal buffer zone is another example of ill-informed and ineffective policy making. There is still no clarity on this issue. Neither the public nor well-heeled investors know what they can do or cannot. True, the government obviously meant well in considering such restrictions but the decision bears all the hallmarks of a knee-jerk reaction to the tsunami disaster. Scientists agree that the December 26 tsunami was a freak natural disaster that, in all probability, we are not likely to experience in our lifetime or for several hundred years afterwards. It is obviously impractical to impose such blanket restrictions as a 100-metre no-building zone right round the island's coastline. A more judicious, case-by-case approach is called for.

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