Introduction – The Help Sri Lanka Consortium (HSLC) was an ad hoc grouping which was formed a few days after the tsunami of 26 December 2004 heaped death and destruction over two-thirds of Sri Lanka’s coastline. The constituent members of the group were the Sama International Trust (Sama), the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) and the Swarajya Foundation (Swarajya). HSLC was constituted to be an informal voluntary body with a limited objective and not a formal Non-Governmental Organisation in perpetuity.
Sama had been founded about twenty years earlier to promote the diverse arts and cultures of Sri Lanka in the interests of fostering mutual understanding and national unity. Mr Navin Gooneratne and Mr Kumar Semage were its most active members in 2004. Swarajya was created in 2003 by some members of CIMOGG and a few outsiders in order to implement practically the concept of grama rajyas”, which would vest with the People at the grass roots level, and enable them to mobilise themselves and exercise a reasonable measure of self governance, as well as to lobby for and secure funding and technical assistance from the central government to cope with their more demanding projects. The CIMOGG members who were active in Swarajya were General (rtd) Gerry de Silva, Major-General (rtd) Kamal Fernando, Mr Navin Gooneratne, Mr Arjuna Hulugalle, Mr W.B.A.Jayasekera, Colonel (rtd) Faiz-ur Rahman, Dr Mohamed A. Saleem and Mr Naro Udeshi (now deceased). From outside CIMOGG, (Ms) Manohari Alles, Mr Chanaka Ellawala, DIG (rtd) Gamini Gunawardena, Mr Francis Pietersz, Mr Jayatissa Samaranayake and Mr Nujith Samarawickrema joined Swarajya for this particular project and actively participated in it. As an organisation, CIMOGG, which was represented in the HSLC by Mr Sugath Kulatunga, needed to play only a minor role in the day-to-day activities of the HSLC. The 16 persons named above formed the HSLC Management Committee
Initially, Francis Pietersz was appointed the Honorary Chief Executive Officer but he was compelled to relinquish this position on account of ill health. Kamal Fernando took over this very demanding job and got the work organised and completed within the numerous individual budgets notwithstanding the countless obstacles encountered on the way.
Object of HSLC and Targets – The principal object of HSLC was to build low cost housing, and common amenities and infrastructure for the victims of the tsunami. It was also hoped to assist the victims to remake their lives and return to some semblance of normality. So as to get this done, it was necessary to get in touch with potential donors, local and foreign, to attract the funds needed. In this endeavour, the vast number of international and Sri Lankan contacts that the members of the Management Committee had proved enormously helpful and fruitful. As for the land required for the individual projects, it was hoped to get the support of the State, religious institutions and generous private citizens. A dedicated website was created and this, too, attracted the support of about 50 donors.
An ancillary object of paramount importance was to utilise the maximum possible proportion of the donations to build the houses and infrastructure and to limit administrative expenses to only three (3) per cent, in comparison with the 10-60 per cent that is known to be the rather wide range within which most NGOs and INGOs are believed to operate. The achievement of this exceptionally low target was made possible by several factors which are briefly touched upon below.
Another specific, environmentally-friendly objective was to encourage the use of low-cost compressed earth bricks in place of burnt clay bricks or cement blocks wherever suitable raw material was available.
Scope of Work Accomplished – In the event, sufficient funds were pledged by donors for the construction of 1000 houses and about 20 community centres. However, as certain government officers and some politicians were not very helpful, HSLC had to be content with building only 492 houses and six (6) community centres on the land it was able to get eventually. The total amount of funds received and spent on the construction of the 492 houses and the connected community centres and other infrastructure was Rs306,528,312, even though much more funds could have been mobilised if the requisite land had been made available speedily. A skills development and training centre, four (4) pre-schools with libraries, a medical clinic, eight (8) school toilets, a bathing well and a boundary wall to separate the housing from a cemetery were included, as and when the donors were persuaded that these were essential. In addition, HSLC distributed free of cost a total of 213 solar cookers and 5,000 pairs of spectacles.
Limiting Administrative Costs – Navin Gooneratne provided architectural, engineering and quantity surveying services at no cost by making available the resources of his design office (1:2:4 Designs). He also provided office space and associated amenities for the HSLC. Furthermore, not one of the persons whose names appear above was paid any remuneration, subsistence, entertainment or other expenses. Indeed, some of them incurred considerable expenditures on travelling, communications and other incidentals but insisted on paying for these out of their own pockets. M/s Ford Rhodes & Thornton (FRT), Chartered Accountants, audited the accounts of all twenty-five projects separately. Their certificates were submitted to each of the donors in relation to the respective projects funded. FRT did not charge even one cent for carrying out their audits.
Areas Covered – The programme of work originally planned was to cover the construction of two (2) villages in the Northern Province, three (3) villages in the Eastern Province, three (3) villages in the Southern Province and two (2) villages in the Western Province of about 200 houses each. However, what was achieved on ground, on the few blocks of land released by State sources, was 50 houses in Ambalangoda, 20 houses in Dickwella, 18 houses in Kosgoda, 21 houses in Wadduwa and 76 houses in Weligama; whilst another 307 houses were built on blocks donated by private parties.
Cost of Individual Houses – The plinth area of the basis house was fixed at 49.5sq.m (533sq.ft). All housing contracts were awarded on the basis of open tenders, transparently evaluated. The cost of construction was Rs225,000 at the inception but, when the demand for skilled labour and building materials skyrocketted as the number of organisations involved in tsunami reconstruction work multiplied, contractors progressively increased their price to Rs500,000. As for the 48 houses built in Kalutara, the donor wanted them to be of a much higher specification and the cost of these went up accordingly.
Controls – Governmental controls pertaining to (a) the minimum size of houses, (b) safe distance from the sea, and (c) the criteria for the selection of beneficiaries were strictly observed. Financial control was made relatively easy by ensuring that every single payment made was only by cheque. An engineer and several site supervisors were employed to check whether the work done by contractors was in conformity with the specifications. It may be mentioned that, of the 70 organisations which undertook tsunami housing projects and were invited by Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) to have their work subjected to a Value for Money Audit, only six (6), including HSLC, agreed to cooperate. In the case of HSLC, TISL selected the 100-house project at Kattankudy and confirmed that the work and expenditure met TISL’s technical and financial audit criteria.
Ethnic Mixing – The project at Ollikulam in the Batticaloa District provided a valuable opportunity to help build mutual trust and cooperation between the Muslim and Tamil victims who were accommodated there.
Project Period and HSLC Report – The entire work undertaken was completed within 42 months but this period could have been significantly reduced if the various authorities involved had been more positively oriented in their attitude. A detailed report running into over 200 pages, which provides comprehensive details of each project and its component costs, has been prepared. It will be printed and sent to every donor and to other concerned parties over the next few months.
Conclusion – It is hoped that this brief summary will encourage other senior Sri Lankans, especially retired ones, to offer their professional and other expertise freely in similar disaster situations and work as a team without looking for individual glory and publicity.