In the past few weeks on paradise island, fellow Sri Lankans showcased a remarkable, united gesture of generosity, and empathy. It was without hesitation, that we emptied shelf after shelf of countless supermarkets towards the support of victims we had never met, hoping to make a contribution to rebuilding their lives. Initiative and zeal among youth, media, and civil organisation, was monumental and their efforts made a significant impact on helping the survivors of this disaster manage their plight. Our generosity did not stop there. Seeing the immediate need for secondary support, like books, education material and sanitary items, media organizations and numerous volunteer groups coordinated in communicating this to the public. With social media, providing an efficient platform for coordination, relief efforts by individuals and volunteer groups made substantial contributions. This effort is still ongoing in some areas. However, the initial vigour of civil society involvement seems to have subsided, with the government moving into the fray, along with the distribution of foreign aid, and measures for rebuilding homes and businesses.
This point we have now reached, in our united disaster relief movement, is particularly crucial. Firstly, the incalculable charity of our international neighbours, has left the government with the immense responsibility of equitably distributing well over Rs. 250 million worth of supplies to victims across the country. This aid, which officials, and relevant departments persistently assure us, is being distributed efficiently and equitably, may be of crucial importance in helping the most vulnerable victims stand on their own feet. Second, the economic impact of this disaster may have long term implications, and it is only an informed public, that can steer the government towards an expedited solution.
First, there is the short-term, nonetheless devastating vegetable price hike, which unequally affects the most vulnerable groups in society. The drastic supply shortage driving prices sky-high have left low-income families resorting to dahl and potatoes for most meals. At the same time, vendors are forced to adapt to selling other crops and produce to cope with the loss of sales caused by high prices. Inability to do so would leave them with plummeting incomes. Thus, persistent pressure on the authorities towards the revitalization of the agriculture in landslide and flood affected regions is an imperative. Fortunately, a strong government initiative has already begun towards this end. Second, there is the destruction of small and medium businesses along with the houses of thousands of people. According to the Minister of Finance, more than 125,000 houses, and 300,000 businesses have been damaged, with insurance claims rising over Rs. 5 billion. The Rs. 10 billion allocated in the budget for disaster relief, and the compensations doled out by insurance will come as a blessing to many. Yet, it might be nowhere close to covering the full extent of the damage. The total damage costs, with the exclusion of damage to vehicles, equipment and machinery, is estimated to reach USD 2 billion.
Risk of Abuse
The destruction of property on such a scale will cause an erosion of consumer confidence. Thus, the disbursement of funds towards rebuilding homes and businesses in an efficient manner is of critical importance. The Finance Minister has announced that the government now hopes to receive monetary assistance towards this end, through grants and loans. It is at this juncture, that your attention on public finance is most essential. Given the level of debt that Sri Lanka currently faces, it is vital that corruption and mismanagement does not influence the disbursement of these funds. To that end it is your role, as the civil society, to continuously be aware, and ask the right questions when necessary. As the fictional character Horatio Bunce waxes eloquent, ” The power of collecting and disbursing money at pleasure is the most dangerous power that can be intrusted to man” “If … you are at liberty to give to any and everything which you may believe, or profess to believe, is a charity, and to any amount you may think proper,” he told his congressman, “you will very easily perceive what a wide door this would open for fraud and corruption and favouritism, on the one hand, and for robbing the people on the other.” And so the checks and balances of our democracy, with an informed public acting as one of its strongest safeguards, are vital in ensuring equity in a time of crisis.