By David Tereshchuk*
December 18, 2014—UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, was drawn into the island country of Sri Lanka by the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami that occurred on December 26, 2004.
The massive tidal waves, high force winds and torrential rains caused havoc throughout the region, and Sri Lanka was especially hard-hit. An estimated 40,000 Sri Lankans were killed, and almost a million people there suffered the upheaval of lost homes and livelihoods.
UMCOR opened a country office on the island to respond to needs of survivors. The challenges of doing so were exacerbated by Sri Lanka’s nearly three decades of ethnic-based armed conflict, which reignited not long after the tsunami. This provoked further displacement of families, the effects of which continued until the conflict finally ended in rebel defeat in 2009.
“UMCOR was one of few agencies responding to the tsunami in eastern Sri Lanka that also were able to respond to the final stages of the conflict and then promote post-conflict sustainable development,” said Sharad Aggarwal, UMCOR’s director of International Programs.
“UMCOR worked hard,” he added, “to respond sensitively and in a manner that proved accountable to donors and to beneficiaries.”
Exactly a decade later, as UMCOR closes out its direct operations in Sri Lanka, it celebrates with the Sri Lankan people all they have achieved together. Among various notable improvements has been a Sustainable Livelihoods Development program that significantly raised income levels for rural and impoverished families. A similar approach, entailing a shift from immediate post-disaster assistance toward more long-term support, was applied in the field of housing.
Paramasivam Muralitharan, UMCOR head of mission, explained the process. “For less than the cost of building one fully completed permanent house, UMCOR found a solution to construct seven permanent-but-incomplete homes (called “core” houses) that helped many families to resettle—and then allowed them to develop the homes to completion by themselves, fully meeting their own desires and wants.”
For the past six years, all of UMCOR’s assistance to individuals has been provided on the basis of partially recovered loans, with the repayments being collected by Self-Help Groups, whose formation was encouraged by UMCOR. Through the Self-Help Groups, funds have been circulated within the local community.
“Our method has helped to build the economic as well as the social capital of the community,” said Muralitharan. “And that is what I’d say is probably the greatest contribution UMCOR has made to the Sri Lankan people affected by tsunami and war.”
Into the future
Even though UMCOR may be departing Sri Lanka, its sustainable recovery approach can be expected to live on. Aggarwal said: “The methodologies for economic and social development that UMCOR developed and implemented will be carried on—and further refined—by some of the same staff.”
That’s because an indigenous Sri Lankan organization has emerged to take UMCOR’s place: the Association of Mobilizing Community Resources (AMCR). “The primary objective of AMCR will be to work with those same beneficiaries of UMCOR’s work, until the Self-Help Groups come to function entirely independently,” Muralitharan pointed out.
In time, also, projects that began on the UMCOR model will be duplicated by AMCR in new locations wherever the organization identifies similar needs.
Aggarwal, looking to the future, said he is confident. “The new efforts are very intentionally building on our 10-year legacy. Our principles and standards will be adapted by AMCR and will help to promote a stronger civil society in Sri Lanka.”
UMCOR continues to work through field offices in seven other countries around the world. Your gift to Sustainable Recovery and Development, Advance #3021951, supports programming like that which has been so successful in Sri Lanka.
*David Tereshchuk is a journalist and media critic who contributes regularly to www.umcor.org