From post-Tsunami emergency assistance to livelihood recovery in south India

Originally published


1. Argumentary

The high-profile coverage of the tsunami led to the largest and fastest funded response to a natural disaster ever documented in the history of humanitarian aid. But the glare of the medias and public attention pressured donor agencies to spend rapidly and visibly, often neglecting search for pre-disaster local data and ex-post precise needs assesment. The complexity of long term recovery beyond immediate emergency relief assistance has also been underestimated by a number of donors and NGOs.

In its report released in London in mid-July 2006, the Tsunami Evaluation Coalition (TEC, a consortium of 40 member agencies across the humanitarian sector, including UN agencies, major international NGOs, and the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement) underlines the central importance of addressing the rapid shift in postdisaster management from emergengy relief priorities (medical support, health care, sanitation, etc.) to those of development reconstruction and livelihood recovery among the affected populations, including the most vulnerable households and individuals (1). Though rather obvious, such shift has not been much anticipated or has been underestimated within the first weeks and months following the tsunami, most hu- manitarian agencies having no intention or being unexperienced to meet locally affected people's medium and long term needs to return to their ex ante living conditions in economic and social terms. Further questions have been raised such as whether :

(i) the content and quality of humanitarian assistance, short term by nature, should be upgraded or widened to include linkages with longer term development rehabilitation,

and/or whether

(ii) a well monitored division of labour and coordination could be operationalized among humanitarian agencies on the one hand, and development cooperation institutions on the other, both at the international level and perhaps even more important on the domestic front.

Beyond pure economics of survival, there is no international standard definition of "livelihood" recovery in a post-natural disaster context. The issue is even more complex when a disaster takes place in a region also affected by a political and security crisis, like in the cases of the tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, or of the earthquake in Kashmir, Northern Pakistan. Yet, the terminology of "livelihood" has mushroomed in every post-tsunami document published by donors since 2005, up to a point that the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies decided in the course of 2006 to appoint for the first time in its history, "livelihood" aid officers among its senior humanitarian staff.

DFID, the arm of British development cooperation overseas, provides a rather comprehensive definition of the concept of "livelihood" :

"A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets (including both material and social resources) and activities required for a means of living. A livelihood is sustainable when it can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets both now and in the future, while not undermining the natural resource base" (2).

The concept of livelihood covers a wide range of economic and social contents, which have also to be contextualized directly on the ground, with enormous variations among pre- and post-disaster parameters to be considered from one situation to an other, and from one affected locality to an other. An international consensus seems to emerge and recognizes :

(i) that emergency relief does play a crucial role during the first weeks and months following a disaster,

(ii) that it can include in a broad sense the delivery of minimum safety, stability and confidence building beyond the material supply of survival equipment and tools,

(iii) that the role of humanitarian agencies should stop there, then rapidly decrease, and be substituted by reconstruction and development aid, supportive services and various types of international grants and domestic incentives to enable the affected populations to get back within shortest possible delays to their ex ante economic and social activities. This approach is the only route to restore more or less self-reliant conditions of living, at least at pre-disaster levels, and improve them further, if possible.

The plead for a rapid and effective shift from emergency relief to development reconstruction has led a number of donor agencies and NGOs to target in the context of the tsunami and since mid-2005 the rehabilitation of small economic activities through microenterpreneurship initiatives of various types and magnitudes. The declared intention has been that such activities should resume in order to restore access to local production of basic commodities and petty services, to start up again other types of preexisting economic activities, in order to secure employment, occupation, income, and dignity for the majority of survivors. For example, Japanese and German development aids in cooperation with the Asian Development Bank and the UNDP have tried in the most devastated region of Aceh, Indonesia, to provide through direct aid in kind, cash grants and microfinance schemes the rehabilitation of artisan, petty, and small-sized production units in various key sectors such as post-farming and post-fishing tranformation, bakery, sewing and garment confection, carpenting, construction, metal work, motorcycle repair, etc. In addition, some microentrepreunership training inputs have and are still being delivered to microentreprises, cooperatives, village associations and community self-help groups not only to get back to pre-tsunami levels of supply and local consumption, but if possible to improve self-reliant and sustainable living conditions, especially among the most vulnerable and poor segments of the surviving population. The declared objective of self-reliance and sustainability of such microeconomic activities proceeds from the hard fact that continued injection of national and foreign aid is neither desirable nor feasible. Furthermore, a number of well-funded post-tsunami hardware reconstruction projects, like delivery of new housing for instance, tend to rely on external contractors and therefore hardly source for materials, components and parts produced locally or in the vicinity.

Logically, given the limits of their relief mandate, the vast majority of donors retreat within a time span of one to two years, because of their own policy and project financing regulations and constraints. In the meantime, new disasters and other types of crises also call them elsewhere, as it has been already the case in mid-2006 (earthquake in Central Java, Indonesia, then new conflict outbreak in Lebanon). Furthermore, humanitarian agencies do not have a development mandate ! Even if they had one, there is no systematic justification to transform every place affected by a natural disaster into a new development cooperation area.

In the international context of this highly sensitive and often controversial post-tsunami debate, this paper intends to address and discuss the necessary shift from emergency relief to development reconstruction, in the case of Tamil Nadu, South India. More specifically, it reviews the local conditions of recreating sustainable microeconomic activities to guarantee the survival and redevelopment of Vembar (10,000 inhabitants) and a dozen of smaller coastal villages belonging to the Villathikulam taluk, the district of Thuthicorin (or Thoothukudi), Gulf of Mannar, South Tamil Nadu, as initiated by a local NGO together with foreign partners over a period ranging from April 2005 until July 2006.

The paper is structured as follows :

(i) A first section considers the difficulties and hardships of any meaningful and spontaneous enterpreunership endeavours, even at a small scale, in a region like the coast of the Gulf of Mannar, except possibly in the traditional fishing sector.

(ii) A second section shows that effective economic recovery has been delivered by one local NGO, which has been able to secure financial and technical support from foreign NGOs. In the meantime, public intervention has been minimum in this marginalised semi-arid coastal area of Tamil Nadu, and those very few reconstruction initiatives led by local government authorities have hardly met their targets.

(iii) A third section identifies a rather clear frontier between two types of enabling microentrepreneurial deliverables on the ground. One has been already delivered in the form of recovery support provided to existing microeconomic activities brought back to pre-disaster level, and even beyond, within one year between mid- 2005 and mid-2006. However, after this first stage, the delivery of other small business development services to coach and incubate alternative activities, diversify the local economy and alleviate poverty remains a central problem, as also shown in other coastal areas of Tamil Nadu affected by the tsunami.


(1) The Hindu (India), July 15, 2006.
Consult also : Tsunami Evaluation Coalition (TEC) at

(2) Department for International Development (DFID) (2001), Sustainable Livelihoods Guidance Sheets, London,

See also : Ashley C. and D. Carney (1999), Sustainable Livelihoods : Lessons from Early Experience, London, (DFID). DFID (1999), Livelihoods Approaches Compared : A brief comparison of the livelihoods approaches of the UK (DFID), CARE, oXFAM, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), London.