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5 years after the catastrophe

Little Smile and the Tsunami – (no) final report
Today, December 1st 2009, exactly 1,800 days ago a seaquake triggered one of the worst tsunami catastrophes in history. The waves that battered coastal strips in Indonesia, Thailand, India and especially strong in Sri Lanka, evoke thoughts of the biblical Flood. Dramatic pictures from the holiday paradise shocked the world on this second day of the Christmas holidays, and more people than ever before decided spontaneously to help. In this situation nobody wondered if a small country such as Sri Lanka with a rather badly functioning administration would be able to cope with such numbers of aid organizations and private helpers. Where should all the experts necessary for such an enormous rebuilding project come from? Who would be able to coordinate and control the work of more than 4,000 organizations and numerous private helpers?
An additional problem was the fact that Sri Lanka was a divided country then, with a centralistic government and an unlimited number of ministers on one side and the rebel group LTTE, still powerful at that time, in the northern and eastern part of the country.

In short: In most cases knowledge and experience of modern development aid were ignored. The main concern was to show quick successful results for the media. But what means successful in such circumstances? The glamorous opening of hospitals and schools in a country in which doctors and especially teachers are missing? Or training centres which after their inauguration stood empty during years, because there were no suitable teachers or interested students? Or the fact that two years after the tsunami there were almost twice as much fishing boats, but no strategies helping to market all that fish, or the building boom on the coast due to which prices for building materials were increasing extremely, and in the social work suddenly corruption and fraud appeared and discredited all aid organizations. What were we meant to do – close our eyes or look away?

We had to find an answer to the question what a small aid organization such as Little Smile could do in all this chaos. Wouldn’t it be better to focus only on the work of the children’s village in Koslanda? But these are theoretical considerations that won’t help much if you live and work here and see all the misery and how many things are going wrong. Many times I have told my people: We are not responsible for what others are doing, let us do things differently – honestly with all our strength and in such a way that what we do today will still have an impact tomorrow.

And that’s precisely what we did – no matter how difficult the conditions got. And they got very very hard. What could I do to hold the few but so very important managers when they became job offers with tenfold higher salaries? There were no architects or construction engineers available, they were all booked for crazy prices. It seemed as if money didn’t matter anymore.

All over the world people wanted to adopt tsunami orphans, but they had already been collected by their relatives who wanted to collect themselves. It was all about collecting money – as long as the word tsunami worked like a signed cheque. Really sad, however, was the fact that owners of small guesthouses, tour guides and beach venders were all of a sudden victims and helpers at the same time. Drop-outs who had absolutely nothing before the tsunami suddenly owned big Landrovers which were supposed to bring them to their so-called social projects. But we had no time for such critical observations.

We focused our activities on Kalmunai, the biggest Muslim city on the eastern coast, simply because we knew people over there whom we could trust. And this also applied to Galle on the southern coast. Apart from the emergency aid when my manager and me too were driving the trucks personally to the east coast, we also worked on some specific tsunami aid projects, because donors wanted that. Of course we did not try to rebuild as many houses as possible just to show quick and big results. Our aim was to build houses which would last for some 10 or even 20 years. Primarily, our work was intended to help widows with children. For instance, the fishermen who got boats from us, were obliged to monthly support tsunami widows during five years.

We helped preparing the graduation year 2005 and also organized the examinations. After a great deal of discussions with the Sri Lankan Minister of Health we built a 3 storage medical supply building for the Ashraff Memorial Hospital on the east coast and we maintained advice and support centres in Kalmunai and Galle and many more such things. Days were not long enough for all the work and we never got enough sleep. But our main concern always were and still are the projects with a long-term effect and perspective.
Thank God we were able to convince many donors to allow us to use their money also for projects which were not directly linked to the tsunami and which have to be supervised by Little Smile even after their openings. Thus, the training centre for teachers and managers could have been built far away from the coast in the children’s village in Koslanda. And in Buttala, the country’s poorest province, we opened a centre for natural medicine in 2009, the Little Smile Aloka (Aloka means light) with a hospital and a school.

In Galle we built the support and training centre “Sahana Nivasa” (house of protection) and near Batticaloa, once center of the civil war, we took over responsibility for more than 100 girls in three houses.

You’ll find most of the things we were concerned about during these last 1,800 days and often nights in our project descriptions. I assure you, we spent extraordinary efforts and achieved a lot under the most difficult conditions, and we always thought twice before we spent money. Sometimes this was the reason why we needed more time to finished a project – the peace and cultural centre in Pilane near Galle for example has not been finished yet. But I can only guarantee quality and a careful dealing with resources, if I am on the sites and able to control everything, and I simply cannot be everywhere at once. For some major donors we were not fast enough and so they turned their backs on us. However, if I look at all those quickly and glamorously opened projects all over the country and see how many of them have already turned into ruins, I know that I did the right thing. Nothing of what we have started was set into sand!

Well, actually this report was intended to be a final report, but most of the projects still need further action, cause they should - or better they must – go on because they have become part of what Little Smile is trying to achieve day after day in Sri Lanka. And thus, the sustainable projects which we stay responsible for, have become part of our work.

Only a few days after the tsunami I promised, “We have been here long before the tsunami and will be here still after the crowds of disaster relief workers and the cameras have long been gone”.

Today I can say: “We have not only kept our promise. With your help and our work we have created something in Sri Lanka that will show its effects that will last for a long time.