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International Tsunami Assistance Aims to Stimulate Economies

  • Patricia Nunan

Two months after the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, the aid effort has moved from supplying emergency food and shelter to rebuilding homes, schools and businesses. International organizations also hope to get survivors back to work, as the quickest way to help affected communities fully recover from the disaster.

When the tsunami swept onto the shores of 12 countries on December 26, it washed away not just human lives, but schools, hospitals, government offices, telephone and power lines - the infrastructure that holds towns and communities together. The waves tore up train tracks, and heaped tons of debris on roads and highways. They destroyed crops and smashed the fishing boats coastal communities depend on to make a living.

In the disaster's immediate aftermath, governments and international organizations pledged nearly $5 billion to help repair the damage.

But Dr. Hafiz Pasha, chairman of the United Nations Development Program's Tsunami Task Force, says the rehabilitation of a community is about more than simply rebuilding what was destroyed.

"The first of course is the restoration of the critical, physical infrastructure, you know, the clearing of the rubble, getting the infrastructure going once again, focusing on basic infrastructure, I have seen this in every country as a priority. Livelihood," he said. "Gradually we've got to get people back to some kind of economic activity because obviously they cannot remain on relief indefinitely."

Analysts say there are hundreds of thousands of people across the region who are eager to work but need a little assistance.

Mohammed Zarook, 32, lost his older brother and his fishing boat when the waves pummeled the town of Hambantota on Sri Lanka's southern coast. Like many here, he says he wants to work. But he feels he should not have to start again from scratch.

Mr. Zarook says he has heard many countries and groups gave his government financial aid and hopes it will follow through on pledges to help fishermen like him. He adds that he has been promised a new boat and when he gets it, he will return to work.

Officials with the Asia Development Bank (ADB) point out that some reconstruction projects - such as road building - create immediate employment opportunities. But the non-profit lender also is focusing on creating credit programs to help fishermen and others return to work without becoming dependent on international aid.

Gerry Van der Linden is an ADB executive in charge of sustainable development programs. He says the credit programs will help local economies.

"So [with] a credit scheme, even if it is on very concessional terms - so highly subsidized - there is a sense that these are not just hand-outs," he said. "People borrow to buy these boats, but we do it in a way that it's affordable. So these are some of the things that bring money back into the local economy. People get jobs again, people can spend again, shops can open again, and slowly the local economies will start to pick up again."

Still, two months after the disaster, officials warn it is a mistake to assume the rehabilitation of tsunami-hit communities is just a matter of time.

Although billions of dollars were pledged at a donor conference in January, as both the United Nations and the ADB point out, that does not mean the money has been paid. To encourage governments and international organizations to make good on their promises, the ADB has set up a special tsunami fund to give donors a place to put their money, with the assurance that it will be well spent.

"Many of these donors do not have the capability on the ground to actually design projects and once they are implemented, to supervise them and to ensure that they're properly implemented," he said. "Now, ADB has that capability. So, for several, this might be a convenient way for converting their pledges into concrete assistance."

Next month, a second donor conference will be held in the Philippines' capital, Manila. It is part of the effort to keep the world's attention on the tsunami survivors, who say they just need a little help to get on their feet again.

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