One month after a massive earthquake and tsunami devastated coastal settlements across southern Asia, Oxfam has already helped more than 300,000 people in several countries begin to rebuild their lives. Many deaths have been prevented, and communities in several regions are already well on the road to recovery.
But this is no time for complacency. Public support for the survivors has been overwhelming, but putting that aid to its most effective use will not happen automatically. A new report released today by Oxfam, Learning the Lessons of the Tsunami: One Month On, points to current challenges and potential solutions, based on our experience in this and previous disasters.
Among the report's principal suggestions:
- Those coordinating the humanitarian response should ensure that aid is appropriate to the task. In some cases, the influx of money has led some organizations to flock to the region without the necessary skills or experience to deliver aid effectively. Oxfam recommends that national governments, with support from the UN, begin to accredit international organizations to ensure a good match between the work they do and their level of experience.
- Aid organizations should consult more extensively with the communities where they're working, to ensure that the help being offered will be put to good use. Tsunami survivors prefer that aid be culturally appropriate-whether food, clothing, housing, bedding, or latrines. Oxfam suggests that those coordinating the response ensure that all aid groups working in southern Asia conform to internationally accepted standards and codes of humanitarian conduct.
- Reconstruction plans should account for the differing needs of children, women, and men among the survivors. Many households are now headed by single parents, male or female, who face different challenges in rebuilding their lives and livelihoods than do other families or the thousands of children orphaned by the tsunami.
- A wide range of international policies should be used to help countries recover from the tsunami. Oxfam welcomes moves by the Paris Club of creditors and the European Union to loosen export restrictions for tsunami-affected countries, and to consider further debt relief. But additional measures are needed to help poor countries get their economies back on track.
"Governments and aid agencies must address the issue of the quality, not just the quantity, of aid," said Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, who recently returned from a tour of Oxfam's relief operations in Sri Lanka. Aid delivered by inexperienced groups, he said, could result in "empty tents and unused latrines." Some houses erected in Sri Lanka have not been welcomed because they are closer together than people are used to living, for example.
The report also urges governments to deliver on their pledges of aid for the tsunami-affected countries. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has called for governments to contribute $977 million for immediate humanitarian needs, but so far only about half that amount has been forthcoming. Oxfam also wants governments and multinational institutions to address broader issues that have kept many of the villagers affected by the tsunami living on the economic margins for years.
"The international community hasn't yet adequately addressed the issues of conflict, debt relief, and fair trade," Mr. Offenheiser said. "Until they do, survivors of the tsunami will never escape poverty."
The report also documents some of the ways in which Oxfam has been helping to relieve suffering across the region. Among the agency's contributions:
- In India, Oxfam has distributed more than 17,000 hygiene kits, provide latrines and clean water to more than 20,000 people living in camps, and provide more than 1,000 families with temporary shelter.
- In Indonesia, Oxfam has dug latrines and set up water-treatment facilities for 15,000 people living in temporary shelters near the town of Meulaboh, and has delivered jerry cans, sleeping mats, mosquito netting, and other supplies to 15,000 people living in small settlements between Meulaboh and Banda Aceh.
- In Sri Lanka, Oxfam began distributing relief supplies-buckets, sleeping mats, soap, candles, matches, and other items-to survivors immediately after the tsunami. The agency has flown in emergency equipment to provide clean water to tens of thousands of families.
- In Somalia, Oxfam through its local partners has distributed relief supplies and repaired water systems in several fishing communities affected by the tsunami.
Long-term plans call for Oxfam to help improve the lives of tsunami survivors by lifting them out of the extreme poverty many of them knew before the disaster. The agency intends to offer a wide range of services, including overhauling water and sanitation facilities; implementing cash-for-work programs to give families a source of income; helping fishermen rebuild their boats or acquire new ones; and providing health education programs to diminish the risk of disease. Oxfam, which has been working in southern Asia for decades, has local partners well-positioned to help deliver aid as effectively as possible to where it is needed most.
"Every effort should be made," said Mr. Offenheiser, "to ensure that the large amount of funds raised for the survivors are not squandered on redundant, poorly coordinated, or marginally useful activities but are invested in solid programs with the potential for transforming the affected populations and putting them on the path to sustainable development."