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Lesson of tsunami relief effort: patience
Lesson of tsunami relief effort: patience
Doug Ward
May 21, 2005
VANCOUVER I The international tsunami humanitarian effort has succeeded in providing basic relief but it will take many years to rebuild communities devastated by the natural disaster that swept through the Indian Ocean region Dec.26.

This is the warning from a number of experts who are meeting at the University of B.C. today to discuss the tsunami disaster which is now five months old.

"The lesson we all have to learn is patience," said Pierre Duplessis, secretary-general of the Canadian Red Cross.

"Don't expect this to be done overnight. Don't expect this in one year or two years."

Duplessis and others attending a meeting of the Aspen Atlantic Group, at UBC's Liu Institute for Global Issues, say it will take many years to develop ways to invest the billions of dollars in relief pledged worldwide.

"Its not just about rebuilding or bringing these people to the situation of where they were before," said Duplessis. "We have a unique opportunity here -- because so much money has been given -- to give this region a quantum leap forward.

"Let's make it successful and there could be lessons for the whole world."

His comments echoed similar comments recently by former U.S. president Bill Clinton who said the tsunami reconstruction effort could become a blueprint for future attempts to rebuild countries hit by social or natural disasters.

Paul Evans, acting director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues, similarly said the relief effort has succeeded in providing water, food and temporary housing, but that the basics of everyday life -- schools, markets and long-term housing -- are still missing in many affected areas.

The UBC professor said the billions of dollars pledged around the world, including about $600 million promised by private donors and governments in Canada, is arriving slowly. But this is not necessarily a bad thing, added Evans, who has monitored the relief effort in Indonesia.

About 20 per cent of the money pledged in Canada flowed quickly to the disaster zone. The challenge now is to find ways to make sure the remaining millions of dollars are invested wisely, Evans added.

"It's not so much a matter of political will. It's how do you put that much money into a devastated area so that you can do something positive.

"To make sure [in the case of Indonesia] that the money is spent in the best interests of the people of Aceh. We've seen other places where there have been big investments into infrastructure unrelated to basic needs."

Money isn't the problem, said Evans. "The problem is finding groups with whom one can work. You're dealing with a society in Aceh that has been shattered, devastated."

Also attending the UBC weekend session of the Aspen Atlantic Group were former foreign ministers, including former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.

Former Thai foreign minister Surin Pitsuwan said the relief effort in his country has stalled. "There was a lot of distribution of dry food and clothing. But people now feel like they are on their own. They are bitter and frustrated."

Pitsuwan said the international response to his country's plight has been very impressive. "The question is, how do you deliver the relief? How do you provide meaningful reconstruction?"

The Thai politician said the flow of relief money to his country has slowed because bureaucrats and administrators have been unable to handle the relief that has already arrived.

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