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Tsunami Agencies 'Caused Waste And Confusion'

Financial Times

December 22, 2005

By Hugh Williamson

Many of the international agencies that set up operations in Sri Lanka after the tsunami last December had a negative impact on relief efforts and the local economy, according to an independent fact-finding mission.

According to the mission, involving German and Sri Lankan development experts, Sri Lankan officials complained that many NGOs refused to take part in meetings with local authorities to co-ordinate relief and reconstruction work, leading to confusion and duplication in efforts to rebuild houses and replace fishing boats, causing a waste of resources.

In addition, according to Reinhardt Bolz, a German Sri Lanka expert who took part in the mission, the"abundance of funds available to NGOs" immediately after the tsunami on December 26 led to distortions in local economies, with NGOs often recruiting at short notice hundreds of local office staff and construction workers.

"The NGOs paid salaries up to five times higher than the normal rates in Sri Lanka, and also paid much more in office rents than was usual. This was rather damaging; local authority officials told us they could not operate because they had no staff."

The five-person mission was initiated by Bread for the World and Medico International, two German development organisations, and supported by the Heinrich Boll foundation of the German Green party. This month it visited Colombo and tsunami-hit areas.

In its preliminary report, presented yesterday in Berlin, the group noted that while many NGOs - especially those with local ties and long-established activities in Sri Lanka - "worked effectively with local partners", there were also "lots of black sheep".

An estimated 300 foreign charities and other NGOs entered the country to help with tsunami relief work, according to the report, and "overwhelmed" local administrations and civil society groups, despite being largely unaware of the "social, economic, cultural and political relations" in the country.

NGOs that did join co-ordination meetings often insisted on speaking English without interpreters, a decision that excluded many local officials and relief workers, the report said.

Mr Bolz criticised World Vision, a US charity, for extravagant expenditure in Sri Lanka, including the funding for large roadside billboards advertising the organisation's work. This sort of "propaganda" was not appropriate, he said.

Barbara Unmussig of the Boll foundation said the report underlined the need for NGOs to become more aware of their impact on political and economic structures.

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