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Golden Tsunami: information deficit, competition and distrust in the relief effort

The European response to the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004 offers interesting new insights into the interplay between the relief, development and security policies of the European Union. A follow-up study to the work of the Study Group was undertaken, consisting of three working papers: 

Golden Tsunami: information deficit, competition and distrust in the relief effort
By Marlies Glasius

Last year's Boxing Day tsunami got more media attention in a few weeks than the ten other, 'forgotten', emergencies of 2004 together. It released a wave of unique global sympathy and financial support, especially from Europeans. For once, there was quickly enough money to aid all victims. But does the international community have the vision and the capacity to respond adequately to major crises like the tsunami?

The good news about the tsunami relief effort was that probably no one died of deprivation: food, health care and transitional shelters were swiftly provided and adequate. But the unsystematic response has left almost every victim feeling that others have it better. The expression 'golden tsunami' is often heard in Sri Lanka, always applying to what other people or other villages have received. Such perceptions feed into long-standing grievances between communities, especially in Sri Lanka and Aceh, which have a history of armed conflict. They are fuelled by a profound general lack of information. Local government officials have insufficient information from the central government to do their work, NGOs keep information such as needs assessments from each other, and local people continue to receive little or no information from anyone at all. Many still do not know whether, when and where permanent housing may be provided for them.

After Boxing Day, a veritable tsunami relief circus descended on the coasts of Aceh and Sri Lanka. This 'circus' of confusion, rows, overspending and distrust was caused by two factors: the slow, centralised and ineffective response of the governments of the two worst-affected countries, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, on the one hand, and the rush of foreign militaries, bilateral aid agencies, UN agencies, and especially international NGOs into this vacuum on the other. 

All these actors had their own working methods, and their own constituency back home, to whom they often felt more answerable than to the immediate tsunami victims, all of which was conducive to competition rather than cooperation. The overwhelming availability of aid had distorting effects on the local economy, with the price of some food items collapsing, while the wages of drivers, builders and local NGO workers quadrupled. 

While many international NGOs were well-informed and professional, there were also examples of mission overreach, opportunism and insensitivity. In Sri Lanka, for instance, a conflict resolution organisation branched out into building houses, while in Aceh, canned ham was distributed to the Muslim population, as well as unseaworthy fibreglass boats.

While the tsunami may form an extreme example, many of these problems are typical of crisis situations, whether it is after man-made crises like East Timor or Kosovo, or after disasters like Hurricane Mitch or the Pakistan earthquake. Unleashing a hotchpotch of international, bilateral and non-governmental agencies is the only instrument the international community has at its disposal at present, but it is far from being the most desirable solution.

Ideally, one might like to see coordination in the hands of an effective, responsive and transparent state. However, recent disasters (not least Katrina!) have shown that state authorities capable of dealing successfully with the aftermath of disaster are more the exception than the rule. Moreover, past experiences with famine in Ethiopia or HIV/Aids infections in China have shown that authoritarian states trying to cover up the scale of their incompetence can make more victims than all NGO blunders put together. Attempts to create stronger centres of coordination should therefore not focus exclusively on the state, but work at different levels simultaneously.

First, at the international level, the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is the obvious international instrument, and should be strengthened, not just when a disaster occurs, but structurally. But this is not just a matter of financial and personnel capacity, but even more of authority: governments and aid agencies should actually listen and take guidance from the Office.

Second, external actors should distinguish between situations like Somalia, where state structures have completely collapsed, and states like Indonesia and Sri Lanka, which may not be fantastically efficient and transparent, but have some democratic mandate, and deserve some respect. The EU showed such respect, for instance, by channelling its long-term aid as much as possible through the governments, so as not to marginalise them further.

Third, local authorities, despite being hard-hit themselves, actually did a decent job in the first tsunami response, before they got paralysed by the centralising tendencies of their own governments as well as the inflow of foreign actors. While money can only do so much in forcing devolution of power to local levels, the international community can boost the capacity and self-confidence of local authorities in humanitarian crises by providing them with for instance vehicles, phones and computers as well as training.

Finally, besides all the service-delivery, there is one thing that external actors could provide directly to victims which would have made a tremendous difference after the tsunami: information. Small, decentralised offices without any aid-giving responsibilities could be tasked solely with providing information, on demand, to locals about the existing relief and reconstruction projects. Such offices should include both staff with intimate knowledge of local circumstances and international staff that can assert themselves vis-à-vis the government officials and international aid agencies. Depending on circumstances, they might have special gender or child protection officers.

The tsunami relief effort has shown that all the resources in the world cannot make up for the harm caused by a deficit of information and coordination on the ground. After this year of disasters, it is time for the international community to take its responsibility and devise better response mechanisms.

Marlies Glasius is a research fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

21 December 2005

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