Evaluation of Post-Tsunami Efforts Reveals Many Shortcomings

The December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami triggered the most generous-ever global aid response to a disaster, producing an estimated $13.5bn in aid delivered or pledged. The ample funding allowed rapid initial recovery activities. Schools and health services in all affected countries were quickly restored, for example. Some 400 new schools were under construction.

However, favorable opinions among affected communities during the emergency relief phase have given way to rising anger and frustration over slow progress and unfulfilled promises regarding livelihoods recovery and physical reconstruction.

A candid evaluation report written by the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition (TEC)* notes a range of problems and shortcomings. A variety of pre-existing vulnerabilities—chronic poverty and inequalities, environmental degradation (resulting from over-fishing and deforestation), weak respect for human rights, and long-running armed conflict—compounded the impact of the disaster. Weaknesses in national and local capacities were a major constraint in coping with the tsunami, as were ill-advised, confusing, and sometimes bureaucratic policies, and overly politicized and centralized forms of decision making.

Meanwhile, the proliferation of international agencies—and their insistence on distinct needs assessments and programs—made for a fragmented, less effective, and more expensive approach. The effectiveness of recovery activities was also limited by the shortage of relevant expertise, high turnover of international staff, and a general lack of appropriate language skills (even as able local staff was displaced by poorly-prepared international staff).

The perceived need for quick, tangible, agency-specific results fueled competition for visibility, ‘beneficiaries,’ and projects. This also worked against making the best use of local and national capacities. Indeed, local communities and authorities were marginalized and sometimes brushed aside by well-heeled aid agencies. But these groups frequently failed to inform local communities in an accurate, timely, and comprehensive manner, prompting some to speak of a “tragic combination of arrogance and ignorance.” Predictably, this has led to dissatisfaction, anger, and frustration among affected populations.

The evaluation report notes a range of additional shortcomings:

  • ‘supply-driven’ and unsolicited aid;
  • inappropriate housing designs and livelihoods solutions (including stereotyping of options for women, small farmers, and small entrepreneurs);
  • poor understanding of the development role of income and tax generation;
  • dominance of English as the working language;
  • applying more demanding conditions to national and local ‘partners’ than those accepted by international agencies.

* The Tsunami Evaluation Coalition (TEC) was formed by a group of international, national, and NGO aid agencies to evaluate the tsunami response, learn about recurring systemic problems, and improve the quality of humanitarian action. The findings of five thematic evaluations on selected aspects of the tsunami response were brought together into a Synthesis Report, focusing on the first 11 months after the disaster.

John Telford and John Cosgrave, Joint Evaluation of the International Response to the Indian Ocean Tsunami: Synthesis Report, Tsunami Evaluation Coalition, London, July 2006.
Link: www.tsunami-evaluation.org/The+TEC+Synthesis+Report/Executive+Summary.htm