|Tamil Nadu Coastline|
The Asian tsunami of December 2004 rocked the coasts of southern Tamil Nadu, the Andaman and Nicobar islands, and Sri Lanka. Americans understood the phenomenon through media images of wrecked coastlines, displaced villages, and faceless figures tallying those injured or dead. Countries and individuals were asked to donate to the humanitarian relief efforts of organizations dispatched to the scene. Fast forward to my own experience sitting in a Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health classroom last Spring. In the Child Protection in Complex Emergencies class I took that semester, our class discussed the impact of the various organizations that responded to the tsunami. A point was made that although international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) were better funded (a result of their “brand-name” recognition amongst international donors), their interventions were not as effective as those of local NGOs that were more familiar with the local context pre-disaster.
Last week Rebecca and I made a day trip to Chennai, the state capital, to speak with Mr. Joshi, Regional Chairman of SST. As a student concentrating in Social Enterprise Development (SEA) next year, I value these meetings with the Chennai staff and Chairman Joshi in particular because of these individuals’ insight about the challenges of project planning, program development, and human resource management. We all had lunch at a restaurant specializing in South Indian cuisine. We shared dishes from the states of Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, each delicately spiced (the hotter the better for me!) according to regional preferences. To my American taste buds, it is miraculous how dishes made of the same spices only in different proportions can produce unique but equally delicious curries. The food was spooned onto banana leaf plates and we ate with our hands, as is customary here.
Lest this degenerate into a “foodie” blog let me say that our lunchtime conversation was even more thought provoking. I learned about SST’s efforts during the tsunami relief in comparison to that of INGOs. INGOs used their financial muscle to provide material resources (such as motorized boats) for affected fisherman. Although this may seem like a good idea, it is questionable whether the practice promotes sustainable community development post-disaster. The impression I got was that INGOs gave items disproportionately to the community’s capacity to maintain them, or that the items were incongruent with local tastes. As a result resources were disused and money wasted. In comparison, SST spent far less money with greater success at community capacity building. One of the problems in humanitarian relief is building long-term sustainability into short-term emergency-relief projects, and for this INGOs would do well to consult or partner with local NGOs such as SST that have sustainability clearly in mind.