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January 04, 2007

Asia's Katrina
Posted by Zvika Krieger

Last week marked the second anniversary of the 2004 Asian tsunami, which claimed the lives of over 200,000 people and left millions homeless. International aid came pouring in—to the tune of over $13 billion. The US gave $133 million to Sri Lanka—where I’ve been spending the past two weeks—but few Americans seem concerned where their tax money has gone. Many folks here are comparing the mismanagement of reconstruction efforts to the post-Katrina bungling in the US. In between hanging out with Tamil Tigers and getting a sun tan, I’ve been making the rounds at some of these “reconstruction projects”—and let me tell you, the situation here makes the Katrina clean-up look like the New Deal. Despite the billions of dollars given to Sri Lanka, thousands of people here are still languishing in temporary housing two years later.

Of course much of the blame falls on the Sri Lankan government, which was not capable of handling the massive influx of aid money and is debilitated by rampant corruption. But I have been most shocked at the near-universal criticism I’ve been hearing of foreign NGOs and aid groups that flooded the country after the tsunami. Almost every Sri Lankan I've met has complained that these foreigners seem more concerned with spending their money than actually helping Sri Lankans. In many cases, these ill-conceived reconstruction projects have just made things worse. A report by UN special envoy Bill Clinton described aid activities in Sri Lanka as “a competition for photo-opportunities.” And it doesn’t help that, while many Sri Lankans are still living in post-tsunami squalor, many foreign NGO workers are driving around in fancy new SUVs and staying in 5-star hotels. (More than a few of them were at the $50-a-ticket New Year’s party I crashed this week.)

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to call the efforts of the international aid community “arrogant and ignorant” (in the words of the Tsunami Evaluation Commission). While many in Washington have been praising the values of disaster relief as a public diplomacy tool, most are forgetting the key ingredient—our aid has to actually help people.  By writing blank checks to countries like Sri Lanka, we are becoming part of the problem rather than the solution. As the Clinton report concluded, “The generous public funding had discouraged humanitarian actors from prioritizing accountability to affected populations during the tsunami response.” You can read some of the most damning evidence here and here.


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