Leading article: An abundance of aid creates dilemmas of its own


One year ago today, an earthquake lifted the Indian Ocean floor by 10 feet, causing a series of tsunami waves which wreaked unparalleled devastation wherever they hit land. More than 200,000 people died in 13 countries; millions were made homeless. The scale of the destruction and the vividness of the horror that was beamed around the world prompted an unprecedented outpouring of cash from ordinary people whose donations exceeded government aid three times over. More than £6bn was raised for the largest relief and rehabilitation operation in recorded history. Yet a year on, much of that money is still sitting in the bank accounts of aid agencies; half a million people are still living in tents or temporary shelter.

The early stages of the relief operation were a success. Agencies reached two million people with emergency medicine, food, clothing, water and sanitation services; epidemics were prevented. Of course, there were bad points. Coordination was poor, particularly early on, due to the large number of non-governmental organisations and because of turf wars between some agencies. Government bureaucracy caused problems; some aid was inappropriate and some agencies still underestimate the importance of logistics. Overall, though, there were far fewer problems than in previous disasters.

And the big difference was the sheer amount of cash available. One month after the tsunami, the Red Cross announced it did not need any more donations. But people still sent millions more - and money brought problems of its own. Agencies felt under pressure to spend for quick results rather than efficiency. Overpriced goods and services were bought from the donor countries when it would have been desirable to boost the economies of the disaster areas by buying locally as far as possible. Unsuitable houses were built and unseaworthy boats bought. Foreign agencies poached staff from local NGOs, undermining local organisations that have to be in for the longer haul.

This new experience teaches new lessons. It is sensible, not scandalous, for aid agencies to spend more slowly and ignore facile calls for instant remedies. Rebuilding anything in places where the infrastructure has been destroyed is a complex business. Providing sustainable sources of clean water, rehabilitating agricultural land, helping people to restart small businesses: all this takes time if it is to be done properly. And building new houses requires the acquisition of land, the determination of legal title, planning permission and the installation of power, water and roads. Money cannot cut corners here without falling prey to the institutionalised corruption for which countries like Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka are notorious.

More subtle lessons are emerging too. Uncritically replacing what was there before involves spending more aid money on the rich than the poor. Challenges that pre-date the disaster, such as poverty, conflict, and unequal access to resources, need to be tackled. "Reconstruction Plus" the more thoughtful agencies call it.

This means taking care not to rebuild men's livelihoods at the expense of women's. It means focusing not just on children but on other vulnerable groups such as the disabled and the elderly who are often excluded from aid distribution. It means not creating division by giving better provision to displaced people than to the families who have taken them into their communities. It means ensuring local people are given a greater say in the solutions outsiders propose. In sum, it means addressing the problems which made the poorest people so vulnerable to natural disaster in the first place. Only that will truly honour the memory of those who died.

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