Tsunami relief swept locals aside, study finds

Western aid agencies “brushed aside’’ the work of local community groups in a rush to spend the record-breaking donations raised after the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, according to a report published last week.

A failure to consult local people meant a quarter of the fishing boats that were donated were unseaworthy, while some aid money was wasted on the construction of sweltering corrugated-metal houses in the tropical jungle.

The tsunami was the world’s biggest natural disaster in 40 years and prompted a huge public response, but humanitarian agencies felt under pressure to produce results quickly because of the unprecedented generosity, the report by the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition found.

The coalition, a group of United Nations bodies and aid agencies reviewing the response to the tragedy, said the donations amounted to the biggest ever international response to a disaster; at least $13,5-billion was pledged or donated, 41% of it from private sources. It was also the fastest response ever recorded, partly because of increased use of the Internet.

But it was the relatives and neighbours of those affected who were first to respond, and their efforts were often ignored, the study said.

Aid agencies failed to consult partly because of the scale of the crisis—which killed 227 000 people in 14 countries around the Indian Ocean—and partly because armed conflicts prevented proper access.

John Cosgrave, one of the report’s authors, said the worst damage was in Aceh, which was closed to international agencies because of the civil war. “There were people in Sri Lanka who knew the country, but they were swamped by all of the emergency people who came in,’’ he added.

The report praised the public’s generosity but said it also showed up how little was given to less-advertised tragedies such as the floods in Bangladesh in 2004, which affected 36-million people. Among the factors in the West’s response may have been the time of the disaster, just after Christmas, and the fact that popular holiday destinations were involved.

Thousands of well-intentioned people rushed to the region in the aftermath to try to help, but Cosgrave said such hands-on assistance often ended up doing more harm than good.

“People who set up micro-agencies sometimes do very effective work; in other cases they won’t be so effective,” he said.

“What was positive was the relief phase, which went quite well. There were no large-scale deaths and people were able to restart their lives quite quickly. People who gave money can be happy that it helped people and is continuing to help people.’’—Â

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