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Aid rows in Sri Lanka: Imperfect peace – The Economist

[MISC, Wednesday, 31 March 2010 16:47 No Comment]

The government spars with aid agencies; the displaced still suffer

NEARLY a year after the end of Sri Lanka’s long civil war, life remains grim for hundreds of thousands of Tamils in the north of the country, displaced in the final months of fighting. Now they face a new threat. International agencies are running out of funds to meet their needs, after the government’s rejection of a United Nations-led mechanism for channelling humanitarian assistance to the country. By March 25th only $15m had been promised for the year, just 4% of the estimated total required for humanitarian aid in the camps and return areas.

To tide over the immediate crisis, the UN’s Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is poised to announce a three-month package of assistance for “urgent life-saving activities”. The money, from an OCHA emergency fund, will cover the supply of water, food, emergency shelter, sanitation and health care to those still in displacement camps.

Aid agencies, however, say that more than a short-term cash injection is needed. Until permanent housing is built, many of the displaced will go back to their villages to live in shacks with little hope of paid employment and scant access to basic services. The agencies urge the government to secure funds for the whole year. But this process has been stymied by an ugly spat over the procedure for raising aid.

For the past few years OCHA has overseen an annual Common Humanitarian Action Plan (CHAP), on the basis of which aid pledges were made. Habitually released to donors in January, this defined priorities for aid and estimated the sums needed. But in March the government decided abruptly that this year there will be no “consolidated appeal” because the CHAP mechanism was useless. It wants the funding channelled instead through a presidential task force headed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brother, Basil.

Rajiva Wijesinha, formerly of the ministry of human rights, says that the government found the assumption that Sri Lankans were “living through the UN, are fed and clothed by the UN” intensely irritating. Even during the worst days of the war, he insists, the government kept functioning and did “most of the clothing and feeding of our people”. But the decision also stems from increasingly acrimonious relations between the government and UN agencies. Some agencies were openly critical of the colossal human loss incurred in the army’s final assault on Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009. The atmosphere has worsened since the UN’s secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, decided in March to appoint a panel of experts to look into alleged war crimes.

The presidential task force this week distributed to some agencies a bulky paper outlining its plans for the shattered north. It argues the humanitarian phase must give way to one of recovery and development. But UN sources in private say the plans are too long and complex and fail to make clear the priorities for funding. They worry that, as the government fumbles with a new procedure, competing disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti are fast eating into a dwindling pool of resources.

With donors still uncertain where to send the money—and for what—services to displaced Tamils are in peril. On March 8th the UN’s refugee agency, citing funding shortfalls, stopped distributing shelter cash-grants to families returning from camps to their bombarded villages. The agency has less than half the $39.8m it says its programmes need in 2010.

[Full Coverage]

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