India’s Cuddalore District is home to a number of coastline communities whose economies are driven by fishing. At least they were, until the day after Christmas.
“A few minutes, and everything changed,” World Vision’s Renna Samuels told Philanthropy by phone from southern India. She describes two villages near her as “bad.” “Almost all houses on the coast are destroyed. Boats parked along the coast were thrown on top of houses—some a kilometer away.”
The tsunami that at press time had killed over 170,000 people across South Asia and East Africa is drawing unparalleled numbers of dollars. The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation gave $3 million to the cause, joining the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Starr Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York in announcing seven-figure gifts. Corporations are also anteing up big figures. Of the $5 million Save the Children received for relief efforts by the end of the first week in January, $2 million came from companies. But the need for a quick response doesn’t negate the importance of a measured, intelligent response, especially for donors with the means to bring significant resources to bear.
Steve Beck, executive vice president of Geneva Global, a group that helps donors perform due diligence on their international giving, reminds funders they should think about the recovery process in three phases: (1) rescue, (2) stabilization, and (3) rebuilding. “Americans are very good at responding,” he says, but once the story moves off the front page we tend to forget about people’s continuing needs. This is precisely the time, he adds, when “thoughtful philanthropists should be examining the hard and expensive task of rebuilding and doing things that will help avoid disaster striking again.”
To do this effectively, donors must know who the local players are. “Our wholeconviction,” says Eric Thurmond, CEO of Geneva Global, “is that the best philanthropy is done with the indigenous people on the ground.”
Rescue and Stabilization
In the hours immediately following the tsunami, philanthropists in the United States with ties to the region acted quickly. Steve Steele, special assistant to the president of the Maclellan Foundation, tells Philanthropy that within an hour of the first reports on TV, the foundation went to work. Maclellan was able to move quickly because for over a decade it has been funding indigenous groups in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and India—the three hardest hit countries. “Since we have a relationship with the key Christian leaders in the region,” Steele says, the localleaders felt comfortable talking with us “directly about the issues facing them.” Armed with this information, the foundation used the mechanisms it has in place to send financial resources to people on the ground.
Geneva Global is using its knowledge of the area to ensure that donors’ dollars earmarked for rescue and stabilization are in fact used for that purpose. One of the groups it has been funding is Lanka Evangelical Alliance Development Services (LEADS), a Sri Lankan group whose mission is to lead marginalized villagers from dependency to self-sufficiency.
Says Beck, “LEADS was one of the first groups in Sri Lanka to get relief to the hardest hit areas. They were deploying food and medicine on December 26.”That quick reaction would not have been possible without Geneva Global’s prior relationship with LEADS. Beck’s observation is confirmed by World Vision, which notes in its publication “Top Ten Myths of Disaster Relief” that “most relief and recovery efforts are accomplished by local aid groups, police, firefighters, and neighbors before international teams arrive.”
“From our standpoint,” continues Beck, “indigenous groups can meet needs a lot faster. Having said that, in a disaster of this magnitude, the international community needs to respond, and the large outside groups are also needed.”
Calvin Edwards, an Atlanta-based provider of due diligence for grantmakers, says donors must recognize that successful rebuilding after a disaster is “serious work that takes long-term commitment and is not to be done by amateurs. Donors must find organizations that will be there for the long haul.” Matthew De Galan of Mercy Corps puts into perspective how long rebuilding will take: “10,000 miles of coastline is affected. This is going to be a longer-term recovery than anyone can now imagine.”
Mercy Corps, founded in 1979 and a specialist in disaster relief, is one of many larger groups pouring supplies and people into affected areas. Unlike many, however, Mercy Corps doesn’t stop at the rescue and stabilizing stages. It also works to rebuild people’s lives after the disaster is over and to help them rebuild and strengthen their civil society.
In some places, however, working with indigenous peoples will be tough. De Galan says that in Aceh, the hard-hit region on the northern tip of Sumatra, “the question is, ‘What’s left to work with?’ Our people are reporting 70,000 dead in Aceh alone.” The reality, says De Galan, is that there will be significant opportunities for philanthropists who want to help rebuild these devastated areas. Microlending is one tool Mercy Corps will use. “People are going to need small loans to buy boats, assistance to restart their lives,” he says. “The worst thing that can happen after a disaster is to put people into long-term refugee camps. You need to involve people and get them back on their feet.”
That sentiment is echoed by Samuels, who says World Vision’s concern once food and clothing are adequately provided is to assist people in re-establishing their livelihood. The problem, of course, is that “People have to start their lives from the very beginning.”
Aceh may be the extreme example. In most places, indigenous organizations are already responding and working with governments, nonprofit groups, and private donors to begin the rebuilding. Lahari Yanthrawaduge is a native Sri Lankan who’s studying at Eastern University in Pennsylvania. Her family still lives south of Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, on the country’s western coast, and she spoke with Philanthropy about the role her father is playing.
His organization, a chapter of the YMCA group Y’s Men International, plans to restore homes for the poorest of the poor who have been displaced, many of whom lived right on the coast and lost everything. In an email to his daughter, he notes that the cost of materials to rebuild one home, averaging just 400 square feet of space, is roughly $500. The labor is provided by the people who will move into the homes.
Some hope that the disaster’s greatest long-term effect may be the rebuilding of civil society in Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and India, all nations which have endured bloody political strife and violent upheaval in recent years.
Since 1983, for example, Sri Lanka has suffered from a civil war between Tamil separatists and the nation’s Sinhalese majority. A cease-fire was brokered in 2002, but threats and violence between ethnic and religious groups still occur frequently. Yanthrawaduge hopes that the disaster may somehow improve relations between the Tamils and the government so that a nation devastated by both the tsunami and civil war can begin to heal.
De Galan notes that Mercy Corps has seen natural disasters bring warring factions together in the past, and he says Indonesia recently eased visa restrictions for the first time in years so that aid workers can enter Aceh, the site of particularly violent attacks upon Christians by Muslim extremists. “We’ve seen many times when disaster can be a first step toward political reconciliation,” De Galan observed hopefully.
The prospects for such progress still look dim in Sri Lanka and Aceh, but some parts of India may be more fortunate. In Parangipettai, for instance, scene of sectarian conflicts between Muslims and Hindus, Muslim religious leaders are creating safe-havens for Hindu survivors and helping them get back on their feet, the Wall Street Journal reports. “These men are like brothers to me,” says a Hindu fisherman who took refuge in a Muslim mosque after watching the waves destroy his home and village. The goodwill has attracted the attention of high-ranking Hindu Indian officials in New Delhi.
Beck says numerous Geneva Global donors recognize the potential to bring some good out of the destruction. “For private philanthropists, this is a way to build bridges of good will to volatile areas. A number of our donor clients see it this way.” And while no one wants the path to better understanding to begin with a natural disaster, Beck concludes, “the opportunity is not lost on us.”
Martin A. Davis Jr. is managing editor of Philanthropy.