Who deserves to receive aid?

“I wish my parents had died so I could get all this stuff too.” An aid worker overheard a student say while visiting a school receiving tsunami recovery assistance. Rumors of people pulling down their own houses to claim tsunami assistance were also common. Why did this happen? Because people that were “directly affected” received far more assistance than those that were “indirectly affected”.

Should aid only go to those “touched by the water”?

Directly affected usually meant that their house was damaged or destroyed or one of their parents died. Aid workers began to call this “touched by the water”. However, many more people were “indirectly affected” losing their livelihood, transportation, or extended family.

The tsunami cut a very clean line. It could destroy one house and leave another untouched in the same neighborhood. With tight definitions of who was directly affected, neighbors that were previously equally poor received vastly different assistance. Those “touched by the water” could receive a new house, scholarships for their children, new appliances, job training, while the other families struggled to overcome being indirectly affected.

Strict definitions of “directly affected” led to problems with aid distribution

These definitions caused many problems in aid distribution. One aid worker explained how this affected their water projects. Once a system was installed, piping was laid to each house, however, they were having difficulty getting permission to install piping to those houses that were not damaged by the tsunami. The field staff felt it was unfair and an added financial burden to the villagers if only half the houses in a village not to receive running water. By requiring that aid only goes to those directly affected aid agencies were put them in the uncomfortable position of not being able to give assistance to all who needed it.

Restricted funding caused problems with aid in Sri Lanka as well. An aid worker talked we me about their inability to work with the poor people in the mountainous areas. The areas hit by the tsunami tended to be wealthier regions because of tourism. The people that lived in the mountains regions had been affected by years of conflict and were generally much poorer. Although those people were in greater need of help, the aid agency was prevented from working with them because they were not tsunami victims.

Tsunami aid not able to reach those affected by conflict

Last week Reuters reported on research highlighting this exact problem.

“UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Distribution of billions of dollars in aid after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami often ignored victims of conflicts raging in Sri Lanka and Indonesia at the time, a report on the lessons of the disaster said on Friday.

The report, commissioned by a consortium of five of the hardest-hit countries — Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives — said this was due in part to restrictions by aid donors on how their money could be spent.”

Donors need to provide flexibility in who aid agencies are allowed to help

This report outlines one problem, yet there are additional problems caused when aid agencies are required to spend money according to restrictions placed on them by donors. Although well intended, it is difficult for someone half way around the world to know where the greatest need really lies. Flexibility in funding is key to allowing aid agencies to use donations in a way that is fair and meets the most critical needs.