Sri Lanka: Tsunami aid that never reached victims

Rediff and Buddhist Channel, September 26, 2005

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- As Venerable Wimala - a monk well known for his humanitarian and medical relief work in Africa - waded through a Sri Lankan village destroyed by the deadly December 26 tsunami, he couldn't help noticing that many parts of the area were still without proper shelters and sanitation.

Many of the people who had suffered the brunt of the waves were still going about their lives without proper food and lodging. In his own words, the venerable observed that "although there is considerable progress in many areas, there are still many people who do not get the support they have been promised and expected from the government."

And so what went wrong? What happened to the billions of dollars of aid that have poured into Sri Lanka given by the international community?

A local Sri Lankan press made a stunning exposure recently, reporting that wide spread corruption has been detected in the distribution of foreign and local tsunami aid in Sri Lanka.

Large scale misappropriation was found in the north-western, southern and eastern regions, Auditor General Sarath Mayadunne said, commenting on a report in the daily, Sunday Island, which said that he had blown the whistle on corruption.

"Yes, the figures mentioned in the newspaper report are correct," Mayadunne said, adding that he will publish his Interim Tsunami Aid Audit Report this week after having presented it to members of parliament last week.

He said he could not say what percentage of the aid money had been siphoned off, but believed the numbers were large. Inefficiencies had also slowed the flow of aid, he said, noting that only 13.5 percent of foreign aid had been utilised by the Sri Lankan authorities.

"There has been widespread misappropriation of funds. Initially, it was understandable because the proper system and controls were not in place, but even after the emergency phase was over, the irregularities continued," Mayadunne said.

Mayadunne said out of Rs 49 million collected by two institutions, Rs 37 million ended up in a bank account, earning interest without being spent on tsunami survivors.

Reconstruction has been slow, he said.

Only 1,055 houses had been rebuilt out of some 48,974, which were damaged by the December 26 tsunami that killed 31,000 people and left another million initially homeless. He found that some people had been paid Rs 250,000 as compensation for shacks that were worth only Rs.10,000.

There were many other weaknesses in the supply of financial assistance for damaged houses cited in the report. The auditor general found that foreign donors had abandoned 686 containers at the Colombo Port, as the Social Services Department and the Ministry of Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction had caused delays in the clearing of the aid cargoes.

The government allowed 506 vehicles to be imported duty-free into the country for tsunami relief work, but the authorities had no register of those vehicles or who was using them.