By Megan Anderson: Pacific Media Centre
In the wake of three decades of devastating civil war in Sri Lanka, aid workers are struggling to help rebuild the communities shattered by the conflict.
International organisations and governments - including United Nations agencies, Red Cross, Oxfam and NZ Foreign Minister Murray McCully - called for a ceasefire before the final end to the war – in a bid to save civilians caught in the crossfire, with no access to humanitarian aid and a lack of clean water.
After 26 years of fighting - coupled with the tragedy of the 2004 tsunami - NGOs now hope peace will give Sri Lankans a chance to rebuild their country.
New Zealand Red Cross communications advisor Kelly Mitchell says: “Obviously there are still civilians who need assistance, and there is a role for ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) and partner organisations to assist.”
TEAR Fund executive director Stephen Tollestrup is travelling to Sri Lanka to oversee a cooperative dairy initiative, begun two years ago.
He will monitor and evaluate the programme, which he says is already a success.
The dairy project aims to bring both Sinhala and Tamil ethnic groups together in an enterprise towards peace and sustainable economic growth.
The venture focuses upon providing proper chilling facilities and transportation for the milk produced, water ponds, as well as strengthening five farmer-managed societies through consolidation, microcredit schemes and a focus upon local ownership and solidarity among farmers.
The initiative was implemented in conjunction with World Concern, an NGO, in response to the disastrous effects of the tsunami and the conflict in the region.
The 2004 December tsunami left 443,000 Sri Lankans displaced, killing approximately 31,000 people and crippling the economy.
“Lives were wrecked,” says Tollestrup.
In May last year the Sri Lankan Government issued a call for New Zealand aid to help with its dairy industry, which is struggling from the effects of the war and the tsunami.
Fonterra already is the third milk-collecting giant in the country, holding more than 53 percent of the total dairy market.
Tollestrup, however, says the problem is not so much a lack of food, but an inability for people to afford it.
A World Concern report from 2005 said the people who were displaced and resettled after the tsunami were now in need of proper food security, with many suffering from high food prices.
Tollestrup says inadequate refrigeration facilities for storage and transport, combined with a lack of water and solidarity among farmers, has meant milk farmers are relying on local middlemen to distribute their goods – which has meant also some hefty fees.
“There’s a need for good prices for milk,” he says.
“It’s quite a fraught situation up there.”
The tense situation in Sri Lanka has also made it dangerous for aid workers hoping to assist in restoring stability to the region.
Mitchell says, “We have to work closely with the government so our workers can get there.”
“A lot of negotiation does go on behind the scenes.”
The Red Cross also has security teams, which Mitchell says are “constantly monitoring the situation”.
However, aid workers have still suffered at the hands of the war.
In 2006, 17 French aid workers from Action Contre la Faim (Action Against Hunger) were shot dead in a massacre widely condemned in the eastern town of Muttur, with accusations coming from both sides - the then warring Sri Lankan government and separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Sixteen of the 17 victims were Tamils.
At the beginning of this month, a third staff member of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was reported killed in the conflict zone.
Many other killings of aid workers have gone unreported, notes Tollestrup.
He says war also makes things difficult for aid workers, “simply because of the security which makes movement hard.
“People get isolated, which is very dangerous for everybody.”
At present, aid organisations are working to assist those displaced by the war; but this is proving difficult.
A press release from Oxfam called upon the Sri Lankan government to assist aid organisations in dealing with the people in these camps.
While Oxfam is implementing programmes to provide first aid, clean water and sanitation to those displaced from the conflict area, these efforts are struggling against the sheer numbers of people housed in the camps.
Oxfam media coordinator Jason Garman says: “The situation is still tense and Oxfam’s focus is on delivery of urgently needed supplies to people affected by the conflict.”
For those without need of immediate, emergency relief, Tollestrup says it is important for aid to be “empowerment-based”, helping lift communities into sustainability and capacity.
He says the worst thing aid can do is “create dependence”.
“You want people to respond to that challenge themselves.”
Tollestrup says the establishment of such a programme in itself is not so difficult. He notes: “The difficulty really is about local peoples’ energy and willingness to develop and build something.”
TEAR Fund focuses upon working with people in the community in order to establish what they want to achieve.
“When they share their envisioned future we talk to them about it to help them make it reality”.
TEAR Fund particularly works with young widows, many of whom have husbands killed in the war. Tollestrup says 20 percent of the households in their target community are led by women.
Women the key
“Women are a key factor in reconciliation,” he says.
In the farming communities, TEAR Fund works with 30 percent of the members who are women, with two out of five office holders.
Part of the focus of the dairy project is also on a microcredit scheme, where loans are able to be issued to those who want them on behalf of the farmer-managed society, which are then paid back into the society itself with very little interest.
These loans are then passed on to other farmers.
Tollestrup says such schemes “have had great success – we use it all around the world.”
For all the grief caused by the war, Tollestrup thinks things can only get better for Sri Lanka’s economy.
“I think it will get better because I think the Sinhalese feel they have been misrepresented by the media and NGOs. I think they’re going to want to show reconstruction and goodwill.”
Mitchell, from NZ Red Cross, says: “We can’t predict the future. We would like to think the situation will improve.”
“Whatever the situation is, our aid workers do make the effort.”
Megan Anderson is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University. Pictured: TEAR Fund's Stephen Tollestrup (Megan Anderson).