Bill Clinton: A new dawn for the tsunami survivors

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The Independent Online

It has been nearly six months since the tsunami struck 11 nations surrounding the Indian Ocean, killing more than 200,000 people. The tragedy touched the chord of our common humanity. Forty countries committed military forces to provide food, water and shelter to the survivors. Millions across the world sent contributions, and the United Nations and hundreds of charitable organisations rushed to the region.

It has been nearly six months since the tsunami struck 11 nations surrounding the Indian Ocean, killing more than 200,000 people. The tragedy touched the chord of our common humanity. Forty countries committed military forces to provide food, water and shelter to the survivors. Millions across the world sent contributions, and the United Nations and hundreds of charitable organisations rushed to the region.

This rapid response yielded substantial dividends. Widespread starvation was avoided. There were no epidemics.

Of course, the recovery effort has a long way to go. Hundreds of thousands of people remain homeless, and unable to work. Thousands of schools have to be built. Fortunately, the United Nations, international financial institutions, governments, businesses and non-governmental organisations have pledged billions of dollars to help the tsunami generation to "build back better".

As the special envoy for tsunami relief for the United Nations, I am working to make good on that commitment. To achieve our goals, I have asked all those involved in tsunami relief to agree to the following agenda:

First, we are developing a joint action plan detailing precisely who will do what, where and when, to avoid duplication of effort, ensure efficient use of resources and leave no person or community behind.

We are also devising a reporting system to ensure that donations are being used appropriately and a unified scorecard to show what we have achieved and what remains to be done.

Second, we will work to restore the livelihoods of the survivors; to finance new economic activities to raise family incomes above their pre-tsunami levels; and to increase the capacity of local governments, non-governmental organisations and businesses to undertake the gargantuan reconstruction effort.

To diversify the affected economies, we need to make small loans - micro-credit - available for new ventures or for the expansion of existing ones. And we must help to restore tourism in the entire region, especially in the Maldives, where destruction of tourism facilities, fishing operations and other enterprises and homes ran up losses in excess of 60 per cent of the country's annual gross domestic product.

Third, we must move survivors from tents and barracks to decent transitional shelters as soon as possible. Although there are still some frustrating delays in getting government approval for contracts and for imports of machinery and materials, there are fewer bureaucratic obstacles every day.

Still, the housing shortage presents a serious challenge. Last year, before the tsunami, 5,000 new homes were built in Sri Lanka. Now survivors in Sri Lanka alone need almost 100,000 homes. In Aceh province in Indonesia, 2,000 schools and 200,000 homes must be constructed. Even the United States would have a difficult time getting a million people back into their houses in a year or two.

The construction effort also carries significant environmental risks. Wholesale, unrestricted logging can cause deforestation in some regions, particularly in Indonesia, doing great damage to rainforests and setting the stage for more natural disasters. Timber needs to be obtained legally, and conservation measures, such as replanting mangrove trees rather than developing the land from which they were uprooted, should be part of the reconstruction.

The housing problem is further complicated because many ownership records were swept away by the waves. And in many small villages, such documents never existed. In some of the affected countries, up to 90 per cent of displaced people have lost their identity documents.

The World Bank is financing a "titling" project in Aceh to help Indonesians to develop an effective property-rights system - it is an initiative that should be replicated across the region. (Sri Lanka must also resolve conflicts arising out of the government's policy largely prohibiting reconstruction within a "buffer zone" near the water. Many survivors who want to return to their old land oppose the restrictions and their concerns should be taken into account as they are in Indonesia.)

Finally, we must do all we can to assure that the voices of the most vulnerable are heard. Will women survivors be involved in the design and execution of the recovery process? Will their property rights be protected? Will the Dalits (also known as the "untouchables") of India be discriminated against?

Of course, the reconstruction process will proceed more smoothly in Aceh and Sri Lanka if all parties to the longstanding conflicts there are involved. Co-operation might even lead to greater prospects for peace in both places.

On my most recent trip to the region, I visited the Jantho camp for displaced people in Aceh, where I met a woman who had lost nine of her 10 children. As one of the camp leaders, she introduced me to the youngest camp member: a two-day-old boy.

She said the child's mother wanted me to give him a name. I asked if there was an appropriate Indonesian word for "new beginning" and was told that there was: dawn", which in their language is a boy's name.

I think a lot about that little boy, and our obligation to give him a new dawn. We can do it together.

The writer was the 42nd president of the United States

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