Tsunami reflections: Turning pledges into action

Deputy Director General, Regional and Sustainable Development Department, Asian Development Bank (ADB)

Lessons are still being learned after the tsunami at the end of 2004. This includes honouring aid promises and tracking disaster relief. 

The earthquake and resulting tsunami that struck south and southeast Asia in late December caused massive destruction and left more than 300,000 persons dead or missing, and many more injured. An estimated $7.76 billion will be required for rehabilitation and reconstruction in India, Indonesia, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

In Indonesia’s Aceh province, the livelihoods of 44% of the population have been affected, while in India some 700 villages in five states and union territories suffered extensive damage. In Sri Lanka, 100,000 homes were destroyed and 65% of the country’s fishing fleet was damaged or lost.

Though dozens of resorts catering to wealthy tourists were destroyed or seriously damaged, the vast majority of those who perished or suffered loss across the path of the killer waves were poor. Entire communities were wiped out, along with critical human resources needed for recovery, such as school teachers, healthcare providers and public servants.

While everyone is no doubt aware of the powerful impact of this natural disaster, its sheer scale bears repeating. And just as Indonesia felt like it was starting to come to grips with its painful experience, another earthquake struck off the coast of Sumatra on 28 March, again killing hundreds and wreaking havoc. This latest tragedy reinforces the growing appreciation of the need for all those engaged in responding to such crises to collaborate closely to provide timely and effective assistance.

From relief to rebuilding

The international public response to the December disaster was impressive, as local and international communities contributed an unprecedented volume of assistance to the affected countries. In the first days, efforts concentrated on saving and preserving lives, before quickly turning to the prevention of disease. In Sri Lanka, 51 welfare centres were opened up on the day of the disaster, and more than 600 more within one week. Shelter, food, water, clothing, sanitation and medicine have all been provided. Designated areas have been created where children can safely play and recover from the trauma they have suffered.

Yet much remains to be done, and several more billions of dollars will be required over the coming years to complete the rebuilding task. While survivors have at least basic shelter, it could still be several months before many people have new homes constructed. There is still a need for medicines and care, including social and psychological support. This is being provided in part by NGOs, which have made important contributions to bringing social cohesion back to devastated communities. Temporary clinics, set up for the rescue and relief phases, will have to be replaced by permanent pharmacies and hospitals. Educational facilities must be rebuilt. In Sri Lanka, more than 20 donors have committed funds to repair or construct 168 schools in the country. Grants and small-scale soft loans are helping entrepreneurs and small business operators to get restarted.

Notwithstanding bright economic prospects for Asia as a whole over the next few years, the fact remains that in areas affected by the tsunami, local economies have been devastated and must be rebuilt from the ground up. This means fixing roads, rail lines, utilities and port facilities; restoring electricity and communications links; replacing lost fishing boats; and repairing hotels and resorts, some of which have reopened. The profound local infrastructure needs are highlighted by the state of the 240- kilometer stretch of road along Aceh province’s west coast, between the cities of Banda Aceh and Meluloboh. One third of the coastal road was erased, while another half was seriously damaged. Only 10% of the 171 bridges along the route survived. The environment also demands attention across the affected region, having suffered from coastal erosion, groundwater contamination, soil salination and accumulated debris.

There are also legal matters to resolve, about entitlements and so on. The trouble is that many of the government offices that kept birth, death and marriage certificates, property titles, and insurance, bank account and court records have been destroyed.

Determining land ownership and helping vulnerable people protect their property could take years to process, not least as people either return to where their homes once were or decide to live further away from the coast.

Tracking the funds

At least $3.54 billion has been pledged to rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts by donor countries and international agencies, including the ADB, which has launched the $600 million multi-donor Asian Tsunami Fund to provide grants. Still, as anyone working in development or disaster relief knows, pledges are one thing, ensuring that these sums reach their destination and are used effectively is another. And the pledges made in the wake of the tsunami, with its unprecedented media coverage and public outpouring, are particularly vast.

That is why, at a high-level co-ordination meeting hosted by the ADB in mid- March, representatives of donors and the affected countries agreed to implement a tracking matrix to co-ordinate, monitor and manage relief efforts. They were unanimous that the matrix needs to be “owned” by the affected countries, and that it should complement monitoring systems established by these countries.

The meeting also concluded that donors who choose not to place their funds through government budgets should share all information through common country-led databases. NGOs and private donors also are urged to do the same.

Affected countries should keep their information systems updated, preferably on an open-access website, such as Indonesia’s e-Aceh.org. Participants also noted the benefits of aggregating these country data into a system that would allow progress and measurable results to be tracked across all tsunami-affected countries. This would enable accountability, to ensure that pledged funds are actually spent according to commitments.

The tracking matrix should help everyone concerned to assess what sectors are receiving needed support and which ones are not. It will also assist in preparing national budgets and in determining the results of aid, in other words, whether aid is delivering improvements in people’s lives. Furthermore, the matrix will help ensure that the world does not lose sight of the development needs of the tsunamiaffected countries. The ADB and the United Nations Development Programme are now consulting with concerned governments to develop a proposal for common national tracking systems to allow for the aggregation of data from these systems into a regional summary tracking matrix.

Such huge sums being channeled into the region obviously increase the risk of corruption, of middlemen and suppliers, as well as officials. This is why the OECD and the ADB, working alongside governments, businesses and NGOs, such as Transparency International, are trying to ensure that aid delivery and reconstruction work can take place without being distorted by corruption. Priority is being given to maximising the effectiveness of existing laws and procedures to minimise and deter corruption in tsunami relief and reconstruction.

The earthquake that launched the massive tidal wave lasted only a few moments, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that the tsunami changed us all forever. It has taught us several lessons, about our own mortality, about development, about the environment. It also taught us about aid and solidarity, about working together across continents. People from all over the world contributed to the relief effort. We must think about post-disaster aid differently now, and work together to monitor and control it so that the precious funds are spent wisely. Public institutions, like the ADB and the OECD, have a special obligation to share their considerable expertise and knowledge toward this objective.

©OECD Observer No 249, May 2005

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