"Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons." Bertrand Russell

Sunday, January 16, 2005

"Generosity of western states open to question"

Sri Lanka: Much aid to tsunami-affected areas comes with strings attached and not a little baggage, Kathy Sheridan reports from Colombo.

The interminable procession of VIPs and disaster tourists along Sri Lanka's battered coastline continued this week. Galle's town hall conference room, which hosted the Irish delegation on Wednesday, was seeing two to three such missions a day.

They remain exquisitely courteous, but Sri Lankans are a sophisticated people. They know that the country is riding a wave of sympathy. They also know that in the brutal global scheme of things, this weekend probably marks the end of it.

They will bid farewell to the media and political onslaught with mixed feelings. This reporter - surrounded by local people - overheard representatives from one European mission discuss the absence of a warning system for tsunamis (a phenomenon last seen around here 2,000 years ago) and how it might have been communicated locally.

"Probably even if someone had been around to shout a warning on the beaches, there would have been a stampede . . . ", offered one, " . . . and killed more people than the tsunami," concluded the other.

A thoroughly, white, ignorant, European view, probably fuelled by the ludicrous response of the responsible minister, who when asked why the national monitoring centre had failed to pass on the alert from Hawaii, replied combatively: "It was a poya [ full moon day and therefore a Buddhist holiday] day. Do you work on a holiday?"

Well, yes, they chorused, afterwards pouring contempt on the entire political class.

In fact, where there were warnings, they worked. There are well-documented reports of army and police officers - telephoned by colleagues caught in areas hit minutes before - leading villages to safety; of heroic bus drivers saving hundreds; of poor, ordinary fishermen who had seen their own children dragged out to sea, risking their lives to save neighbours.

From early on, those in the more developed south were as quick to question western reporters as the other way round. Will you be back, they would ask with firm dignity.

They've also had a rich taste of US media manipulation. Last week, as three Black Hawk helicopters carrying supplies flew into an eastern coastal area, already burdened air workers struggled to keep excited local children safely clear. None of these children was hungry, merely thrilled to see a helicopter close up.

After the first two helicopters were unloaded without incident, a CNN crew emerged from the third. A producer sized up the scene, beckoned to the near hysterical children and watched delightedly as they broke loose of their minders and raced towards the helicopter. CNN had its footage - "desperate" but extremely photogenic little Sri Lankans racing towards American salvation.

The implications of having American troops in Sri Lanka have not gone unnoticed either. All parties here, including aid workers of all political and philosophical leanings, acknowledge that the marines have been superb, doing the bulk of the heavy lifting, not merely with their helicopters, but with raw manpower: physically clearing streets, schools and hospitals and hauling massive aid consignments around the airport.

"It calls for an unqualified thank you," said local commentator, Rajpal Abeynayake, "but there is no such thing as a free lunch . . . The US is no benevolent caregiver, period. How can the government to which Colin Powell belongs, which is responsible for the deaths of over 15,000 children in Iraq, send Powell to look into the plight of so many tsunami-struck children in Sri Lanka?"

Likewise Sri Lankans are not naive about the great international "show me yours and I'll show you mine" bidding war, with telephone numbers being hurled around in pledged aid dollars. "According to the most optimistic estimates, Sri Lanka is not likely to benefit by more than $1,000 million," wrote Nivard Cabraal. "Most of such aid/relief/assistance may also be committed or granted in the form of technical assistance or disaster relief according to the donors' own agendas and hence the actual benefit to Sri Lanka may not be as much as we are now made to believe. Maybe if we all read Graham Hancock's Lords of Poverty, we will understand this better," he said.

An AFP analysis suggests much of the aid will arrive in the form of loans that will have to be paid back, or as contracts for donor countries' companies, or - as many fear - won't arrive at all.

For example, Australia had climbed to number one on the donors' list by announcing the biggest pledge in its history - $815 million.

"But Australia would slip to second or third place if it is taken into account that half of its pledge is in interest-free loans to Indonesia", (which is already in a billion dollar debt to Australia).

The detail of Germany's massive $668 million package is equally murky, with Gerhard Schröder suggesting it could include debt reduction and other measures taken with EU and G7 members.

The US contribution is also a little shapeless so far. The Pentagon says it is spending five to six million dollars a day in tsunami aid but nearly all of that takes the form of pay for personnel and equipment, costs which would be accruing to the US military in any event. US aid is also some of the most politically tied, bound up in laws requiring that taxpayers' money must buy only US products. In theory, aid workers bringing clean water to Batticoloa could be forced to import a more expensive purifier from the US, even if local options were available.

Mr David Roodman, from the Centre for Global Development in Washington, said his think-tank had calculated that the four worst-hit countries were already paying annual tariffs to the US of $1.8 billion - or five times what Washington has pledged in one-off tsunami relief.

Eyebrows have also been raised about the relatively low levels of aid from wealthy Arab states, given the fact that in Kuwait, for example, migrant workers from the affected countries, who built the state and raised its children, outnumber the native population.

It's a chastening context to the picture being painted here in Sri Lanka, of a "silver cloud" to the catastrophe, of this tidal wave of aid dollars being used to raise a gleaming, modernised, "Singapore" from the dank, foetid sludge of the tsunami and an already crippled, poorly-managed economy, a place where coastal conservation laws will actually be observed, and where hundreds of thousands of Sri Lanka's poorest will wind up with homes and facilities they could never have dreamt of, pre-tsunami.

From taxi drivers to diplomats, they believe that it's only a matter of time - if the money is rigorously monitored and the international community stays the course.

But as the spotlight moves, the micro picture is far from comforting. The historic hotel from which this report is written laid off 40 staff yesterday, some of them after 10 years' service. There is no such thing as the dole.

Meanwhile, the hotel was catering for five weddings yesterday, fantastically elaborate and hideously expensive affairs (even by Irish standards) with guest lists of up to 500, and bills of $30,000 to $50,000. One drained looking father confided that he had to work in Saudi Arabia for two years to fund the cost.

While it struggles to continue as usual, Sri Lanka is bracing itself for a rough ride in the coming months and years. The death toll may have passed 40,000 and more than 6,000 are still missing. In relative terms, no affected country has suffered more, even though Indonesia has three times the dead.