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Ending Chaos

The annual World Disasters Report commissioned by the British Red Cross to examine the relief industry’s performance in the wake of last year’s Boxing Day tsunami makes sobering reading. The impact of unprecedented generosity by government and individual donors around the world was undermined by jealous rivalries and poor co-ordination amongst the agencies that rushed to the disaster areas. Many charities duplicated aid but neglected some of the worst-affected areas. Most shockingly, some aid agencies, eager to raise their profiles, concealed information about the disaster rather than share it with rival organisations, according to the report.

The lessons to be drawn are likely to be unpalatable to the international donor and relief agency communities; that agencies cannot be entrusted to lead relief efforts, or to coordinate their actions. In other words, even in the 21st century, the state – and by that we mean the de-facto authority in a given territory – still has a crucial role. Indeed, in some cases, the state is peerless as the leading actor in a crisis – as exemplified in failure by Hurricane Katrina. The Indian Ocean tsunami killed tens of thousands in Sri Lanka. But more would have died, not least in ensuing epidemics, without the swift and decisive actions of the Liberation Tigers, not only in their controlled areas, but also in government-controlled parts of the Northeast.

Especially in disasters on such scales, a centralized coordinating body – one which agencies on the ground are compelled to function through – is vital. The LTTE runs a disciplined framework for coordinating relief agencies and non-governmental organizations working in the Vanni. Inevitably, this has sometimes caused resentment amongst organizations whose ‘global civil society’ ethos is predicated on autonomy of action. But the framework has reduced waste and maximized the impact the myriad of organizations – which often have overlapping skills, resources and objectives – on the people of the region. The ultimate beneficiaries of this structure have, quite rightly, been the aid recipients. In prioritizing their interests, agencies must thus be prepared to participate in the coordinating efforts of the de-facto authorities, whether state or non-state.