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Donations Sit In Banks While Tsunami Victims Huddle In Tents

by Hassina Leelarathna
 Tsunami Article Index  

Remember Those Big Tsunami Pledges? Most Countries Don't

(PNS) -- Surveys released on the first anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami reveal that a large percentage of those affected are still living in makeshift tents and that some of them could remain there for another 10 years.

Ironically, it is not for lack of funds.

Fritz Institute, a San Francisco nonprofit, found that of 2,300 people surveyed a year after the tsunami, 100 percent of respondents in the hardest-hit parts of the Indonesian island Sumatra, 92 percent in India and 78 percent in Sri Lanka were still living in tents or temporary shelters.

Oxfam International, the U.K.-based charity confederation, estimates that 80 percent of the 1.8 million people left homeless by the disaster were still without "satisfactory permanent accommodation."

Incongruous as it may seem, the coffers are overflowing at the global charity organizations that have promized tsunami reconstruction. As incongruous is another reality -- of small, unknown groups outdoing the global charity giants in building permanent shelters for tsunami survivors.

A report on the tsunami-related funding activities of the major private charities in the first nine months after the disaster reveals that less than half of the $1.8 billion they received from American donors has been spent.

The report, by the umbrella aid group InterAction, is a study of 62 well-known aid organizations, including American Red Cross, CARE USA, Habitat for Humanity, Operation USA and World Vision. It showed that the consortium had spent only $743 million through Sept. 30.

American Red Cross had used only $166.8 million (about 29 percent) of the $567.3 million it had received in private donations, part of it on immunization and de-worming programs in East Africa. In Sri Lanka, American Red Cross is providing water and sanitation assistance in Hambantota, Matara, Kalutara and Galle and says it has begun a comprehensive psychosocial support program designed to benefit approximately 200,000 people in the southern and western provinces.

American Red Cross spokesperson Michael Oko explained that the organization was carefully building the foundation for long-term programs. "We have just finished the first year of a five-year plan," he said, "helping provide clean water, sanitation and shelters."

The Red Cross has committed to building 15,000 houses in Sri Lanka. But according to the Tsunami Housing Reconstruction Unit of the Sri Lanka Ministry of Urban Development and Water Supply, the Red Cross had completed a mere 62 houses at year-end.

Meanwhile, Red Cross Australia, which has raised $96 million, has indicated that it may take another 10 years to pass on all the donations to tsunami victims.

As for some of the other big charities, InterAction revealed that CARE USA had spent $7 million of $55 million received, Habitat for Humanity $8.6 million of the $44 million raised, and World Vision $18.3 million of $63.3 million raised.

Several aid groups cite unanticipated problems with coordination and distribution as reasons for not being able to spend more since the disaster of Dec. 26, 2004. Others say the transition from short-term to long-term rebuilding programs will require a more prolonged effort.

"The recovery effort is one that's going to require three to five years at a minimum, and the agencies that are going to stay the course have to extend their funds in a way calculated to allow them to complete the work," says Jim Bishop, InterAction's director of humanitarian policy and practice.

The scope of death and destruction also made decision-making difficult, delaying rebuilding, the report says.

If private charities have been errant in holding on to tsunami funds, the United Nations has spent liberally -- but apparently not on tsunami victims. The leading financial daily The Financial Times, following a two-month investigation, reported that up to a third of the $590 million so far spent under the United Nations $1.1 billion disaster "flash appeal" appears to have gone to UN administration, staff and related costs.

"Flash appeal" refers to the money donated by governments to the United Nations in the first weeks after the disaster to fund the early aid work.

Faced with such statistics, citizens of the affected countries are angry and bewildered. A Thai official in Los Angeles who wished to remain anonymous said, "They (large charities) have used our tragedy to become rich."

"I cannot understand why it's taking so long," says Bhante Walpola Piyananda, head of the Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles. "Yes, there are problems. Nothing is easy, but with all that money, surely the big organizations could have done better." Piyanandaa's temple group has so far completed 10 permanent houses and expects to have another 26 completed by the end of February.

Other small expatriate groups have reported similar success stories: the Los Angeles-based Sri Lanka Fund was able to complete a small community of 40 homes and move the residents in by July 2005; the Florida Buddhist Temple completed 16 homes by the end of August, with $104,000 in donations.

Bhante Piyananda said he is very concerned about the future of the tsunami survivors, with only a total of 5,000 of the needed 80,000 homes completed so far.

"Young girls don't have privacy in the shelters," he says. "Children are exposed to all kinds of situations. How can we tell them it's going to take another five years?"

Hassina Leelarathna is the editor of Sri Lankan Express, where a version of this article first appeared

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Albion Monitor January 18, 2006 (

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