Lessons Learned

April 2006 – More than one year on from the Tsunami, Sarvodaya continues its work in relief, rehabilitation, reconstruction, reconciliation and reawakening in the 226 Sarvodaya villages affected, all the time aware of the challenges facing our efforts. Throughout, the emphasis has been consistent with Sarvodaya’s vision of helping people to help themselves.

We have all taken great encouragement from the prestigious award of the United Nations 2005 Habitat Scroll of Honour in recognition of our work over the last 46 years and specifically our achievements since the Tsunami struck. However, it is only by analysing and learning from the challenges that we can learn for the future, create new solutions and continue to improve the services we offer to the people of Sri Lanka and to do justice to the tremendous number of donors, large and small.

So many well-meaning organisations came to Sri Lanka armed with supplies, funds and people with the sole intention of providing relief and helping the stricken. Some partnered with local organisations (such as Sarvodaya) which meant that experienced local teams with established links with communities and an understanding of short and longer-term needs were able to act swiftly and effectively. Many worked on their own and either engaged in unsustainable projects or find themselves with money still sitting in the bank.
At the same time, a number of established organisations that specialise in one area of developmental work initiated projects outside of their sphere of experience, betraying the trust placed in them by donors and failing to deliver effective aid.
A mechanism is required to avoid wasting such valuable funds and resources in the future.

Many donor organisations placed enormous pressure for money to be spent immediately; speed was a priority. However, this often led to projects being implemented which were ill thought-through and did not take long-term sustainability into account and the money spent was often disproportionate to the relief provided to the beneficiaries. An education process is needed in order to help donors and implementing organisations develop plans which are sustainable, consider the bigger picture and consider long-term impact.
Many local organisations suffered an exodus of key staff as overseas NGOs came to the country needing local expertise – and offering substantial salaries to secure it. Sarvodaya lost only one member of staff due to this – thanks to the dedication and orientation of our workforce – but it created considerable difficulties for many other local organisations.

A major constraint was the difficulty of locating land for resettlement; this was greatly exacerbated by the government’s ban on building within the buffer zone (originally 100m from the beach line and more recently relaxed to less) coupled with a lack of alternative arrangements. Sarvodaya managed to overcome the problem, partly thanks to the generosity of places of worship who came forward with private land for pre-school buildings, for example. We were also fortunate to have the land for some projects allocated by government.

We very much regret that Sri Lanka failed to use the catastrophe as an opportunity to bring about inter-ethnic reconciliation. All ethnic groups in Sri Lanka were impacted by the tragedy and it is a great sadness and disappointment to us that, amongst such terrible human suffering, peace building has deteriorated rather than improved.

The immediate outpouring of aid handed out with no coordination in affected areas has undoubtedly led to a culture of neediness and expectation rather than empowerment and self-help. In a study coordinated by Sarvodaya, four types of people in affected communities were identified:-
The Collector, who gathers as much as he or she can from donors
The Enjoyer, who tries to enjoy the benefits of the situation
The Depender, who believes he or she should rely on others to fix everything
The Returnee, who is trying to get back to normal life as soon as possible

In order to work around this, Sarvodaya concentrated on schemes which engaged the recipients so that they felt involved and responsible.

Related to this is the issue of selecting recipients; some projects had more applicants than resources and so recipients had to be selected. In addition, in the early months, many of the affected people were deeply traumatised and struggling to cope with the daily demands of simply surviving. Sarvodaya was careful to include psycho-social and healing programmes and to develop clear criteria to identify the most needy and deserving individuals, a process which will become institutionalised.

LACK OF LABOUR AND MATERIALSThe volume of reconstruction and development work led to a shortage of available labour and materials; in addition, there were problems releasing money from the headquarters to the districts. These issues were swiftly addressed by recruiting labour from outside of the area where necessary and by providing training amongst recipients so they could themselves get involved but delays were regrettable. An improved system of financial flow has been instigated.