Tsunami business

The public response to the Asian tsunami should have shown bingos at their best. Sadly, says Mari Marcel Thekaekara, it also exposed them at their worst.

Resilient community: haggling for the catch in Nagapattinam.

Photo: Stan Thekaekara

What to write and when to hold back? As a writer, my instinct is to tell all, do the exposé, go for the jugular. After 20 odd years in the NGO world, I wonder though: will this help or hurt the communities I write for?

Through the 1970s, many bingos in India funded crucial work, supporting people’s battles for human rights. Oxfam’s role was legendary, training generations of committed, highly motivated people who still carry the flag decades later. We in ACCORD (with indigenous people in south India) received invaluable support from ActionAid.

Then came the tsunami. Standing on the beach near the most devastated patches of Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu, exactly six months later was surreal. There was an eerie, mournful air about the place. The magnitude of the disaster was still visible – smashed boats, flattened houses, victims in deplorable temporary shelters.

Yet I was struck by the community’s resilience. We watched the complicated haggling after the boats came in and auctioning began for the catch. Small children who darted in and out were given a fish or two. Old women sat on the fringes, selling sweet-and-sour chutney, mangoes, biscuits, sweets. The kids came to them to trade fish for whatever caught their fancy.

These exchanges were not about money. They provided the old women with a dignified way to support themselves. The kids went home happily munching treats. Their mothers carried baskets full of fish for sale. People were getting on with their lives.

The tsunami unleashed an unprecedented wave of generosity. Not through earthquake, flood or famine in the past 30 years has there been anything quite like it. The money poured in from ordinary people, mostly routed through bingos. Together with local NGOs, they played a pivotal, positive role in the first few days, when relief was crucial. Babu Matthew, Country Director for ActionAid India, noted: ‘The NGOs delivered money to dalits and non-fishing communities which government failed to reach. They also provided a very large network of good psycho-social support. Save the Children, for example, did excellent work with orphaned kids. There was a common platform of NGOs which exposed the Government attempt to displace the poorest fisherfolk from their beaches. This huge consensus forced the Government to withdraw its secret circular ordering the evacuation of the beaches.’

As time passed, however, a crescendo of criticism began. And with good reason. Hordes of experts were flown in. They appeared in droves – taking pictures, doing rapid assessments and flying off again. They were promptly dubbed ‘the disaster tourists’. I personally watched a European crew posing for interviews and retaking shots even before the corpses were removed. They were concerned about their film. Nothing else. The victims’ misery didn’t exist for them. It was not a pretty sight.

The question which haunts the relief process is: ‘Are the people getting this money?’ Vanita, a bright-eyed 19 year old, provided the obvious response: ‘How can we answer that? No-one ever tells us how much money comes in!’

Which brings us to the crux of the problem. The tsunami victims want information. How much money actually went to the victims? Insiders know that many bingos have devious ways of hiding high administrative costs: they get moved to projects, pushing lavish expenses on to unsuspecting communities. I came across a joke doing the rounds about a major bingo’s appeal for donations. Spend $500 to fly in Northern experts, have them drive around in $30,000 Landrovers using $1,000 laptops and mobile phones to distribute goats costing $30. Unfortunately, few people seem to think there’s anything wrong with this.

Obscene and patronizing

The tsunami tossed up unnecessary, conspicuous, vulgar spending. From the outset there was a shocking, unseemly rush to get there first and stick up a board or banner displaying the ‘brand’. Then they were everywhere, falling over each other to spend their millions, poaching staff from small NGOs, inflating wages astronomically.

This messed up the most important need – immediate shelter. The terrible temporary houses still stand there, testimony to the mismanagement of tsunami money. SIFFs, the South Indian Federation of Fishermen, preferred to put up traditional coconut-palm structures. They let in air and are cool in the scorching summer. Few bingos accepted their advice.

The fishing community has a strong governance system. There are complex rules directing how the natural resource is exploited – to ensure equitable distribution and prevent over-fishing. There is a delicate balance between the number of people who own boats and the number who work as crew; between the number of traditional wooden catamarans and modern fibreglass boats with outboard motors.

Bingos chose to ignore these traditions and decided to distribute boats to the people they thought were the poorest – the ones without boats. The bingos – and, indeed, local NGOs – entered this community for the first time and decided they knew better. Disastrous decisions continued to be made in Chennai, Delhi, London, Geneva, New York and Washington. Only time will tell how much damage has been caused by this folly.

The voluntary sector has fought governments and vested interests for human rights, democracy and transparency. Yet when it comes to themselves, few bingos put these values into practice.

The tsunami tossed up unnecessary, conspicuous, vulgar spending. From the outset there was a shocking, unseemly rush to get there first and stick up a board or banner displaying the 'brand'

Ravindran (name changed) has worked in Indian villages since the 1970s. Social work and development then was not about careers – it was about justice, the right of communities to live in dignity and pride. His deep anguish was evident when he spoke to me.

‘Bingos are full of their own importance... They come in, employ builders, buy the materials. This indicates a lack of faith in the community... They say they can’t give the money to the community – they’ll drink it up. The same chap who’s accusing fishermen of drinking goes to his hotel, spends three times as much drinking expensive whiskies. But his position allows him to be judgemental. They rush around collecting “stories” about the great work their bingo is doing. Branding is mandatory. Each one wants to show they were there. To get photo ops, be on TV. So the names, logos, banners are there at the sites, in front of the houses, on their SUVs and jeeps...

‘One chap flew from Europe. Checked into a five-star hotel to attend a one-day meeting with government officials on policy issues. I was embarrassed for my staff to pick him up. His room cost more than a social worker’s monthly salary. It breeds cynicism in our teams here.

‘The value addition of these “experts” is highly suspect... Totally unsuitable training programmes are shoved down the throats of local projects. It’s creating work for the experts. They are condescending and patronizing. We thought we’d changed these approaches in the 1970s, but it’s coming round full circle again... It’s pretty obscene. I feel quite sick when I look back at the role of the majority of the bingos in the tsunami.’

A major accusation was that bingos failed to recognize the maturity of the Indian voluntary sector, the capacity of the Government and the generosity of local communities. Within two days a group with disaster experience from Gujarat, the Andhra cyclone and Bangladesh was in Nagapattinam working with the Tamil Nadu Government. An exceptional team of civil servants managed the relief operation in Nagapattinam brilliantly, putting the NGOs to shame.

Vivek Harinarain, the senior civil servant overseeing the Government’s relief operation, had a ringside view allowing him to comment with some authority.

‘It was evident that hordes of them [bingos] came in as part of the disaster tourism package... I must say, towards the end of January I was becoming rather uneasy at the state of the NGO scenario.’

Unfortunately, so were we all. So were we all.

Unless bingos spend poverty money ethically – rhetoric notwithstanding – they will be judged as morally corrupt as the Swiss-bank-account-toting tinpot dictators we so despise. If they can’t clean up their act, they may as well pack up and go home. The poor will cope, as they always have.

Mari Marcel Thekaekara, who co-founded the South Indian NGO ACCORD, is a regular contributor to the NI.