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January 9, 2005

Guest Article By John Rogers


My third visit to Sri Lanka, Paradise of the Indian Ocean. A paradise scarred by ethnic conflict for 20 years, called cursed by some local journalists. Now this: 9.0: 2004 Tsunami Disaster, already turned into a brand by the media, named after its reading on the Richter scale. Just wait for the T-shirt to come out. And yet, in the middle of the biggest natural disaster in human history, both the best and the worst in human nature are brought out. Some turn the tragedy to their own political ends and cause more lives to be lost by refusing aid from those with whom they disagree. Others position themselves for lucrative contracts in disaster relief or reconstruction or seek prestige and good PR out of the situation. Some just party on as though nothing has happened while others become offended by such an attitude and demand respect and mourning for the dead. The most desperate go looting property in the chaos. Amidst the countless tragedies, such as people swept away who turned back to save a precious family possession, there are also the lucky escapes and miracles: the 91 year old who climbed a coconut tree to escape the waves and the stories of temples, churches, mosques and sacred statues all left standing when everything else was swept away.

Still others see behind this wave of destruction a ‘wave of compassion’. Sri Lankans have responded in untold numbers to the call of common humanity with the victims, swept away by an ocean that was no respecter of persons: rich or poor, Sri Lankan or foreign tourist, Buddhist or Christian – the sea had them all in less than an hour of devastation. They have set aside political and religious differences to work day and night as volunteers in the emergency relief effort – as drivers, counters of the dead, fetchers, sorters, carriers and holders of hands. Another wave of compassion has arrived in the form of an unprecedented international response from both people and governments to a unique disaster: “a billion dollar saline drip” as someone called it.

It is almost obscene to observe others going about their normal daily business, to go shopping or to send New Year’s greetings to family at home in the face of such overwhelming tragedy for so many, whose lives and loved ones have been so cruelly swept away. Yet the traditional Buddhist philosophy of a majority of Sri Lankans is a source of inner strength at such a time. It teaches the cultivation of ‘mindfulness’, the observation of the mind’s reaction to fortune or fate and the practice of non-reaction. Instead of either despair and inaction or its opposite, a macho “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” response, the result of this practice is the ability to observe the worst, the inevitable impermanence of all life, and to become more useful to both self and others, because the reaction is realistic, focused, considered and compassionate.

The Sarvodaya Sharamadana movement has been working in this spirit for the last 45 years by marrying Buddhist values to village level community development in what is often cited as one of the oldest and largest endeavours in the world in the field of rural self development. The result is a grassroots network across the island which was able to mobilize support for affected areas within two hours of the tidal wave’s arrival.

Their volunteers are active in affected areas along a coastline of some 400 miles, bringing food, medical aid, counselors, teachers and legal advisers, enabling people not only to get through the immediate emergency but also to rebuild their lives. During my last visit in 2001 I spent time as a volunteer with Sarvodaya and developed great respect for a movement full of committed staff and volunteers with a holistic model of community development, which we would do well to learn from in the West. One of the real tests of such a movement is in how it responds to such a crisis and so far I have seen them responding with their usual dedicated grace in the midst of a catastrophe with no parallel in Sri Lankan history.

I am in the unusual and privileged situation also to be observing from close quarters the ‘high level’ response through the United Nations and so far the disaster is exposing many of the weaknesses of the UN system: too many uncoordinated divisions, over-analysis whilst people are dying and senior UN staff advising officers to ensure a high profile for their organization in order to build credibility, never mind the reality. The “billion dollar drip” of international response is taking a frustratingly long time to make it into the blood stream of the patient as television journalists are happy to point out.

The most urgent tasks are now to ensure good order and management of the 800 camps, which are coping with three quarters of a million displaced people with a gross lack of resources and organizational capacity. Next comes effective planning for their future needs, including counseling, advice, work and a range of community services. Then the rebuilding of shattered communities and villages, beginning with those villages in which Sarvodaya is already most active. It is crucial to engage the least damaged people first in these processes of rebuilding so that they have positive things to focus on. The most dangerous strategy would be to create hundreds of thousands of people dependent on handouts, which experience from refugee camps around the world shows is a breeding ground for lethargy and corruption. Beyond this immediate emergency situation there need to be effective planning partnerships for longterm reconstruction, including government agencies, international donors, civil society, voluntary and religious organizations, the private sector and social movements like Sarvodaya.

Sarvodaya has a vision which embraces the ‘awakening of all’ across the globe.

What can the world community learn from this ‘wave of compassion’ and how can it become a ‘tsunami of awakening’? It seems to me as an outside observer that we need to forge future systems which directly connect the power of local commitment, organization and networks, as exemplified by Sarvodaya, with the kind of centralized money, expertise, training and organisation the big bureaucracies of governments and the UN can supply. With the most committed people and all the will in the world there is a bottom line for voluntary organisations called access to resources, without which any response to either emergency situations or longterm rebuilding is inevitably limited.

Local knowledge backed by global clout – now that would be a system worth supporting.

John Rogers is visiting Sri Lanka from Wales, UK. All views expressed in this piece are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sarvodaya or other agencies.

Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement for the People in Need.