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Relief groups create unintended chaos

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Sri Lankans knew something was amiss on Dec. 26 when water started appearing in their houses. When they went outside to see what was happening, they saw a wall of water approaching that -- depending on how far inland they were -- contained everything from concrete slabs to cars to people. On its way in, the third wave smashed everything in its path. On its way out, it undermined everything that was left. That was the first tsunami.

The second appeared shortly after. Like its predecessor it seemed fairly benign at first. Tents, food and medical care were its primary components. But then, a much larger wave appeared. While this one also contained cars and people, concrete slabs were noticeably missing. No one wants to think what the third wave will bring.

Fortunately, a third wave has not yet appeared. A week ago, people weren''t so sure. Warnings that an 8.7 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra could possibly generate another tsunami generated frantic scrambling to higher ground. Following the all-clear, however, a euphoria of relief replaced the prior panic.

As you have perhaps guessed, the first tsunami was of natural origin. The second was of human origin. The first was predominantly water. The second is predominantly NGOs (non-governmental organizations). Which will prove to be the more destructive in the long run is yet to be determined. All we know at the moment is that they bear a strange resemblance to one another.

Having recently returned from four weeks of relief work in Sri Lanka, I must admit that I was part of the second tsunami. Together with relief workers from around the globe, we make up a truly formidable wave that is leaving as much of a mark on Sri Lanka as did the first tsunami. Hopefully, ours will be much more salutary.

The first thing one notices about the NGOs is that they are far wealthier than the Sri Lankans they serve. In a land where bicycles are an improvement on walking and motor scooters are a luxury, the new, gleaming, enormous 4X4s in which the NGOs arrive broadcast wealth and privilege before their occupants disembark. Those Sri Lankans who are confined to refugee camps know that when these vehicles arrive, well meaning and sincere relief workers will shortly be scurrying about telling them what to do. Those who are not either watch from afar or figure out ways to cash in on the influx.

The first thing one notices is that the NGOs are far wealthier than the Sri Lankans they serve.

Either way, the arrival of the NGOs inevitably generates expectations that are impossible to fulfill. In some cases, the expectations are out of line. In others, the NGOs are. Gaps between expectation and actuality usually increase the further up the decision-making hierarchy one goes.

For example, the head of one European NGO lamented that the decision-makers, who inhabit comfortable offices far away in the home country, had mandated that only food and shelter constitute relief. Anything else is not funded. Thus, providing boats and nets to fishermen who have lost everything is not permitted. Giving them food and tents, however, is.

I asked if they''d heard the saying: "give a man a fish and he eats today; teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime." She rolled her eyes. Her choices are clear: Either do what she knows is needed most in any particular area and defy the home office, or follow the guidelines and stay out of trouble. How strange! Those closest to a situation seem rarely allowed to make decisions.

My role in relief work, however, is not to provide food and shelter, let alone nets and boats. I am a psychologist. My job is to train counselors. Fortunately, I have two things going for me. Firstly, as this is my fifth visit to Sri Lanka, I know most of the people with whom I am working. Secondly, as I am the founder and clinical director of the NGO that has sent me here, I am both the relief worker and the decision maker.

Unfortunately, my approach to relief work seems to unsettle potential funders. Beginning with my first experience of this sort (Gaza, 1991), I have realized that the people I am training know far more about the situations they address than do I. Thus, my "training" is actually collaboration -- brainstorming, if you will. I share what I know and they share what they know and together we come up with new ideas for the current situation.

Funders understandably like to know what they are buying with their money. I can''t say what the product will be until we develop it. Further complicating things is that our program also brings practitioners from war zones and other locations that are experiencing "complex emergencies" to Olympia for three months of collaboration (read: "training"). While a considerable amount of funding exists to treat refugees living in the United States, bringing practitioners from other countries doesn''t qualify.

So, we operate on a shoestring. No gleaming 4X4s for us; no luxury hotels; no business class on those 14-hour flights. No fancy uniforms. No video crew to record our efforts for the media back home.

Which gives us a lot of what is known in this country as "street cred." People tend to trust more easily those who eat, sleep and suffer with them. We don''t look better than they do. And it certainly doesn''t hurt that we come from a developed country with all of its promises of highly sophisticated techniques that can cure any ill.

Which makes us a lot like Wizards of Oz. People look to us to give them what they believe they don''t have (counseling skills, in our case). Our job is to gently reveal ourselves as the "man behind the curtain." Then, we help them to see that what they seek from us they already possess. Like the scarecrow, they already have brains. We give them diplomas. We don''t indoctrinate. We empower.

This is not difficult, for particularly in the case of trauma treatment, people have been doing it for thousands of years. Trauma treatment did not originate with the invention of counseling. So, we ask what has worked in the past? How can it be adapted to the present? How is counseling dynamically similar to religion, culture and custom? What kinds of synergy evolve from dialogues between the two?

During one five-day workshop, my colleague, Keylee Marineau, and I asked a group of counselors to divide into groups of four and to role-play a particular situation. Each sub-group reported back via a fully scripted theater piece. Drama was obviously their most effective training tool. At that moment, counseling and culture coalesced.

This kind of horizontal approach to learning is what NGOs do best. Those actually carrying out the mission usually collaborate with those they are serving. Nevertheless, the funders and those in the home office often have a different attitude. However well intentioned, their efforts inevitably bear the stamp of the "haves" serving the "have-nots," the superiors caring for the inferiors, the blessed ministering to the cursed.

This attitude often attends those who presume to counsel people in another culture. For example, Sri Lanka has been invaded by "traumatologists," who arrive armed with techniques guaranteed to stop all trauma, most of which deepen and complicate it. Sri Lankans cannot wait for them to leave.

While there, the NGOs use up the resources. When they leave, the economy collapses.

They feel the same about most of the NGOs. As was the case during the 25-year civil war, NGOs generate an economy all their own. They rent apartments at five times what locals can pay, thereby displacing the very people they came to help. They eat up the food. They hire drivers, cooks, housekeepers and translators. While there, they use up the resources. When they leave, the economy collapses.

Which makes relief work inordinately complex, dishearteningly fragile and frustratingly difficult. It''s a pact with the devil. Those who recognize this have much more realistic expectations of what they can achieve and how people can respond. Those who do not are forced to invent stories of success. Sham and scam in a complicated dance.

Through it all, a lot of good work is accomplished. Many good people work together in ways that the public never sees. Unlike the tsunami, they don''t undermine the foundations of the culture. The relationships they build generate a momentum that carries everyone through present and future challenges. They make the waste and ineffectiveness that characterizes relief work acceptable.

They also create a worldwide community of people who believe that equality, tolerance, and open hearts and minds are the future of the human race. They stand in stark contrast to those who feel that violence, power or imposing one''s ideas on others is the way to salvation. They serve as an example for the rest of us to follow.

And so, mindful of the perils of the journey, the relief effort trundles onward. However exhausted and underpaid, we love the work. It sure would be nice to be able to afford business class, though. We could pester the arms dealers.

The Rev. John R. Van Eenwyk is an Episcopal priest, clinical psychologist and founder and clinical director of the International Trauma Treatment Program.

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