Sri Lanka: The never ending Tsunami

One year on: where is the relief?

Working masses around the world gave generously in order to support the victims of the 2004 Tsunami – well before their respective governments began to release their statements of sympathy. Oxfam, for example, raised more than £160 million of which more than 90% of the donations came from ordinary working people. Within one week, 35,000 people logged into the web site of CAFOD (Catholic Agencies for Overseas Development) to donate money. More than £300 million was raised in the UK alone.

Overall $2.95 billion of relief was promised to Sri Lankan Tsunami victims. But still Tsunami victims are on the streets begging. Where has this money gone? Why have only just under 1,000 houses been built in Sri Lanka out of more than 50,000 houses damaged by the wave? What happened to more than 2,000 containers out of 5,000 that arrived at Sri Lankan ports? This riddle is not a difficult one to solve.

Soon after the Tsunami there were about 500 NGOs (Non-Governmental Organisations) that landed in Sri Lanka. With their share of Tsunami money, each organisation claimed to be doing relief work. It is enough to look at some NGOs’ operations to get an overall picture of what was happening to the Tsunami money and why the victims are still suffering.

They began work by buying brand new vehicles, mainly imported from India. Not only did they have to pay large sums for these brand new vehicles but also they had to pay income tax on them. For example Oxfam paid more than one million rupees in import tax to the Sri Lankan Government.

Another organisation, CARE, is providing 3,500 rupees (roughly $3.60) per day to cash-for-work participants who clean up their own village. It may be a large sum by Sri Lankan standards. But it will not help the victims to rebuild their completely destroyed life. They will not be able to rebuild their houses. There are more than two million people who donated generously, each donating more than $3.60 on average. By the time Tsunami victims have managed to save a few hundreds dollars, highly paid top officials of these charities may have doubled or tripled their wealth. The administration costs of these NGOs sometimes exceed what is spent on their aid work. For example, the cost of sending a bottle of water to Sri Lanka exceeds the cost of a bottle of water itself.

The CCF (Christian Charity Fund) on the other hand has been giving loans to certain chosen small businessmen and established middle class people. In order to secure the repayment of the loan with interest they chose their ‘customers’ from reliable individuals and organisations, and they were not always Tsunami victims.

Citigroup also operating in the country has actively increased its customer base among small businesses and wealthy individuals. Their programmes of ‘microfinance’ and ‘microcredit’ are expanding at high speed. Tsunami victims who have lost all their belongings will not qualify for these loans which bear a market interest rate. Citigroup published reports listing the number of farmers and fisherman who can be qualify for the loans, of which the majority are not Tsunami victims but locals with existing business interests.

The United Nations lists Citigroup along with the World Bank and Deutsche Bank as an organisation that provides relief. However it also points out that, “Microcredit programmes are not always the answer. If individuals lack the means to repay loans, they can be left in a situation that is worse than before. For those lacking income or the means to repay a loan, other types of assistance, such as grants, employment, training programmes and shelter may be more suitable.”

This is just one example of why the UN cannot represent the interests of neo-colonial countries. It has recently accepted George Bush’s appointment of former US presidents, Bill Clinton and Bush Snr., as Tsunami envoys. Immediately after the appointment, Clinton started to employ his former colleagues. To the horror of Kofi Annan, Clinton has started to create his own power base in the United Nations.

Citigroup claims that, supposedly as distinct from Sri Lanka: “Aceh’s pre-tsunami microfinance infrastructure lacked both breadth and depth. This, in part, reflected the instability caused by years of ethnic and separatist conflict. There are, therefore, very few suitable local microfinance partners. This is not the case in Sri Lanka or India, for instance, where microfinance is well-established.” Because they deal with the established business community, instability caused by years of ethnic and separatist conflict in Sri Lanka seems irrelevant to companies like Citigroup.

In total, out of the allocation of $2.95 billion, funds from NGOs stand at about $853 million. So what happened to the rest of the pledge?

In the UK, a certain Disaster Emergencies Committee (DEC) – an umbrella group representing major charities – has raised about £300 m. Prime minister, Tony Blair, promised the British public that his government would match the generosity of the public. On a BBC radio programme at the time, Blair boasted: “My estimate is that we will need to spend from government funds several hundred million pounds. So we will far and away more than match the generosity of the British people.” Now the Times newspaper has discovered that the above statement is just one of Tony Blair’s many lies.

On 12 December, 2005, it reported that the prime minister had ditched his promise. There was a new government announcement that the payment was only £250 million. On breaking down the figures, the Times report also revealed that only £75 million of that actually went on humanitarian relief efforts.

It is the same story with other so-called donor countries. Ironically, Oxfam published a ‘name and shame’ table of countries that are failing to meet their pledges. Not delivering their pledges is not stopping these countries controlling and deciding where and when this Tsunami money is going. For example, the US withheld its funds from Sri Lanka straight after a court in the country ruled against the government’s P-TOMS (Post Tsunami Operational Management Structure) agreement with the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). They also try to manipulate the fund receiving countries to implement neo-liberal capitalist policies and carry out privatisation. Millions of workers donated this money unconditionally to better the victims’ lives. Their generosity has been misused and their interests misrepresented by their respective governments.

Part of the funds raised for Tsunami victims in Sri Lanka have reached the country but never got any further than the pocket s of the politicians and their cronies. The Sri Lankan executive director of ‘Transparency International’, J.C Weliamuna, announced publicly that, “Tsunami funds have been used for party political purposes and new houses given to people with political affiliations who were not affected by the Tsunami.”

The ruling United People’s Front Alliance (UPFA) government and its some time ally, the Sinhala chauvinist JVP (People’s Liberation Front) have been releasing relief only in those areas where they have political support. The JVP wants to exclude the minority Tamils from Tsunami relief. The new president made a pact with the JVP that they will not deliver Tsunami relief to those victims who live in the areas controlled by the LTTE.

The distribution of aid is the secret of their victory in the recent presidential election. In Matara, in particular, in contrast to the very close final result nationally, the UPFA candidate, supported by the JVP, got nearly 62% of the votes and the opposition United National Party got less than 37%. In the election, the USP (United Socialist Party, CWI Sri Lanka) came third in almost all the areas but Matara was an exception. The USP came fourth there! In that district widespread corruption is reported in the recent Sri Lankan Auditor General’s report. It is the same story in Kalmunai and Tangalai in the Ampara district on the east coast.

In Negombo, on the West coast, there were 600 victims of the tsunami, yet nearly 7.6 million rupees were distributed to 15,843 families! The Auditor General’s report lists widespread mismanagement of Tsunami funds by the government and NGO authorities. It also points out that locally raised money is in a fixed-rate deposit account of a handful of organisations just accruing interest.

This is what is happening to the Tsunami money. While Tsunami money is being played with in the hands of few, the real victims are left with the horror and devastation of the tsunami. More than 100,000 people affected by the tsunami may have been able to drive the memories of the big wave out of their brains, but they are still being tormented by the tsunami of their corrupt government’s neglect of their needs and the hypocrisy and economic exploitation of imperialism.

Organised international working class struggle is the only way to fight such oppression on a mass scale.

Translation of article written in Tamil for the CWI web-site

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January 2006