sithamuI received last week the quarterly report of Diaspora Lanka, an organization that works in Mannar through personnel and funding from Australia to implement projects in collaboration with local institutions and people. This is a model that should be encouraged, for it has a limited focus which allows for deeper relationships and greater accountability.

It works in several areas, including Urban Planning, which is a healthy innovation in a context in which planning is limited and rarely participatory. The Report notes that, amongst the next steps envisaged, is the establishment of a working relationship between the Urban Council Mannar and the Urban Development Authority and the National Physical Planning Department. This seems an excellent idea, and I hope that the UDA gets involved actively, since this would be a healthy corrective to the claim that it functions without close liaison with the people.

It is clear from what we see around us that the UDA is doing a great job of restoring order to at least some cities, but for sustainability it is important to involve the people in projects. Given what seems careful initial planning by the Mannar Council, with due attention to environmental issues, they would be good partners for the UDA.

The need for careful planning came home to me when I was discussing with Divisional Secretaries the report I had got from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance about the projects conducted in the last three years in the North.  Some of it reads nonsensically, with individual itemization of for instance sewing machines distributed one each to six Divisions in Kopay (and two to one Division), being recorded as 7 separate projects. Elsewhere the responsible agency, FORUT, has recorded two sewing machines (and two households assisted to establish small shops) in the Livestock sub-sector. The entries relate to April 2011, but they have not been corrected, which suggests I am the first person to have actually gone through this record.

Sadly I have got used to such incompetence, and I fear that, careless though NGOs are, it is the fault of the government that there is little direction and less monitoring. Sometimes this leads to squandering of funds, even though more sensible Sri Lankan organizations have suggested better systems of deployment.

Perhaps the most appalling use of money I noticed was the spending on what is termed transitional shelter, with several organizations having spent large sums on hundreds of individuals, whilst absorbing a high percentage on top of this as administrative costs. I gathered from an official on the ground that the recipients got only about Rs 100,000 worth of assistance, while 35,000 was absorbed by the agency as its overheads.

Unfortunately what was spent is now gone, because there was no effort to ensure a lasting impact. The model that was advocated by agencies such as the Sri Lankan Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, whereby a core shelter was built that would last, that could be added on to later, was ignored, in favour of this easy spending that has now come to naught.

The money spent on such transitional shelter, if added up, would amount to enough to have provided permanent housing to a few thousands. Even more worryingly, this institutionalized a culture of dependence, whereby recipients felt that they would get more in a couple of years, instead of being encouraged to build further on a basic structure, with the resources they obtained through cultivation and other work for which government had prepared the ground.