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Overseas aid stumbles in final mile

By Sanjoy Majumder, BBC News, Jan 3, 2004

Galle, Sri Lanka -- On a quiet leafy lane in Galle's colonial Dutch fort, two lorries have backed up carefully against the front door of a private home. Supplies have arrived, but are not necessarily reaching the needy Inside, Zoe Ziglione directs several Sri Lankans who are unloading the truck's cargo - bread, rolls, buns and biscuits, all from Austria.

Two doors away, at another home, a team of Germans and Canadians have set up a small office.

Sacks and boxes are piled up high inside as Mary Fischer and her colleagues pore over maps and lists of refugee camps.

Ten kilometres away, across town, Dr Giuseppe Arcidiacono and his team of four Italian doctors and four paramedics have set up their mobile medical tent on the grounds of a local mental hospital.

Here they treat more than 100 Sri Lankans every day - tending cuts and deeper wounds, providing trauma care and administering medicine.

Government demands

International aid has finally arrived in southern Sri Lanka. But in the absence of an effective distribution system, agencies are having to use the services of local residents and organisations to channel the aid to the needy.

Field hospitals may be more accessible than government clinics. They are also having to contend with the local bureaucracy, which they say is slowing down their ability to deliver aid to victims.

"We have just been told of a directive from the president's office that all aid must be routed through the government," says Dr Ulrich Stiassny of the Austrian Samaritans.

"They are happy for us to bring the aid into the country, but they want it delivered through their channels."

What many of the aid workers voice privately is that the government's aid distribution network does not touch all parts of the country.

And while many of the facilities set up by the government are well organised and stocked with supplies, they are only available to those victims who manage to reach the camps.

"The main hospital in Galle, for instance, is very well equipped. It has enough doctors, nurses and plenty of medical supplies," Dr Stiassny says.

"But not everyone can get to it. There is no public transport. So how can it benefit those victims who are stuck in far-flung areas?"

'Difficult situation'

Heavy monsoon rain over the past 24 hours means that many already damaged roads are clogged and flooded, making it even more difficult to get around.

We are very happy to have the aid but it would be better if we are allowed to handle distribution - after all we know our local conditions best

Arunasiri Dodangade, Provincial minister "We have four aircraft delivering supplies every single day," says one aid worker from Austria.

"If this aid, some of which is perishable, is stacked up in some government warehouse, what good will it do?"

But the authorities say they are merely trying to streamline operations, ensuring that the international donors and agencies do not unwittingly cause problems in what is already a difficult situation.

"We have a very effective distribution system," says Arunasiri Dodangoda, the provincial minister supervising aid operations in Galle in southern Sri Lanka.

"The supplies are trucked into the regional centres, such as in Galle, and then sent out to relief camps.

"We are very happy to have the aid but it would be better if we are allowed to handle distribution.

"After all we know our local conditions best."

'Urgent needs'

Many residents complain that there are just too many organisations working at cross purposes and with no co-ordination.

"You have the government, the UN, the private donors, the foreign aid workers - but they all seem to be doing their own thing," says GW Panditha, a local businessman. We haven't eaten a proper meal in days... I don't know how much longer we can carry on like this

LH Chandrapala, Fisherman Local authorities argue that they have enough essential supplies and that the foreign donors should concentrate on providing long-term material aid.

"We urgently need building materials such as cement to help rebuild the houses which have been destroyed," says a Sri Lankan minister, P Gamage."Most of the victims have lost their homes and we need to build them effective shelters.

"We also need to restore power to many of our communities. That is another area in which the international community can help us."

No outreach

Those who have made it to the relief camps, mainly in temples and schools, say they have enough to eat and are getting medical care. But the story is different for those who have not reached the camps.

Teams are still trying to work out the best way to deliver help LH Chandrapala, a fisherman living in a village in Weligama, says he cannot go to the camps because his mother is too ill to walk to the nearest one, which is 25km away.

"We haven't eaten a proper meal in days," he says, leaning against the broken doorframe of his battered home.

"I've managed to store some rainwater so at least we have something to drink. But I don't know how much longer we can carry on like this."


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