This is the editorial published by the Daily Mirror today.
Pala, one of my friends, was telling me about how the overhead for almost all donations went towards administration costs, but looking at it from their point of view, it is their money and they have every right to spend it whichever way they like. There are NGOs who are crooks and there will always be crooks, but do you make the ordinary man suffer for this?
Crisis and chaos over containers
About 250 containers loads with hundreds of millions of rupees worth of urgently needed relief items for tsunami victims have been lying at the Colombo port and airport for some six weeks — stuck in a bureaucratic muddle.
The government, early last month, clamped taxes and various regulations on these items including thousands of tents which could have provided shelter to the poor tsunami victims but instead lay packed up in a container load of regulations and red tape compounded by indifference, lethargy and, worst of all, bribery and corruption down the line.
The government had acted on protests by the JVP and other groups which allege that some NGOs were misusing or abusing the facility of bringing in tsunami relief items free of duty. Some NGOs are alleged to have brought in laptop computers and video phones for their personal use at a time when even JVP Propaganda Secretary Wimal Weerawansa is reported to be carrying a razzle dazzle mobile phone worth some 150,000 rupees. Anyway abuse is abuse, and extravagant privilege is extravagant privilege, whoever indulges in it. Some NGOs might have misused the duty free facility, but what happened over the past few weeks amounts to collective punishment of even the tsunami victims for the misdeeds of a few.
After protests here, some international groups and donor agencies even warned that they would send their aid to other countries like Indonesia if the relief sent to Sri Lanka was not cleared fast and sent to the tsunami victims who urgently needed them. Last week the government or the Finance Ministry in response to these protests issued a new circular regarding these container loads of tsunami aid — but it seems the treatment is turning out to be worse than the disease.
According to the new procedure the groups to whom these containers of relief items have been sent would have to get a letter from the Government Agent of the area in which they hope to distribute aid. The letter from the Government Agent, saying he or she will monitor the distribution, has to be sent to the Director of Social Services, who in turn will communicate it to the Customs Department. The containers will then be sent by the Customs to the Social Services Director who will send it to the Government Agent and so on.
The lethargy and the mediocrity in the bureaucratic procedure in government departments are as notorious and the calibre of todays party politicians. Add to that the cancer of bribery and corruption that has crept into almost every cell and vein of government departments and there will be a situation where the containers, like today’s government, would go here and there and might finally end up nowhere, if not in the hands of corrupt politicians, officials or businessmen. Some respected NGOs have expressed concern over the new procedure of handing over the containers to the Government Agents through the Social Services Director.
The NGOs say they have a responsibility to account to the donors for every item sent and to ensure they are given to the tsunami victims who need those items. They say that when the items go through bureaucratic agencies, there is no way of ensuring transparency or accountability. Therefore the NGOs say they will not clear the containers though the Finance Ministry at the same time has written to shipping companies and port authorities asking that the extra demurrage payments due to the delays in clearance be waived in view of the mitigating circumstances.
What has happened to the 250 containers is similar to the fate that has befallen billions of dollars in tsunami grants and aid from foreign governments and international agencies. Most of it appears to be still stuck in bureaucratic or political mud holes amidst the current party politics of conflict, confusion and contradictions. If Sri Lanka was not prepared for the catastrophe, it seems that Sri Lanka is equally unprepared for tsunami relief, rebuilding and rehabilitation. While a joint mechanism between the government and the LTTE is set up in the north and east, it seems Sri Lanka urgently needs an independent commission with wide powers to streamline the overall tsunami rebuilding operations.
What a pathetic country I’m living in.