Charles E. Morrison: Tsunami: Rebuilding Over the Long Haul

Date: 02-11-2005

***East-West Center Tsunami Relief Fund Update: As of 1/31/07, the Center's relief fund had raised $507,476.

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By Charles E. Morrison
President, East-West Center

HONOLULU (Feb. 11) -- As the response to the Dec. 26 Indian Ocean tsunami shifts from immediate rescue, relief, and burial (although much remains to be done) to longer-term challenges of recovery and rebuilding, a single question becomes paramount: Are we in it for the long haul?

The scope and vivid images of the tragedy generated unprecedented international giving from governments and publics. In the United States, it is estimated that three of every 10 citizens contributed, and the International Federation of Red Cross reported that it had received half as many contributions in the past month as in its first 86 years of existence. But as generously as the international community stepped up to the plate for relief, sustained support for rebuilding is very much in doubt. Malloch Brown, head of the U.N. Development Program, has pleaded, "Please, please, as the cameras start to go away, sustain your interest and commitment in rebuilding..."

The rebuilding in isolated towns and villages could take a decade. The cost for Sumatra alone may be more than $5 billion. Success is critical, not only for humanitarian reasons, but also because so many of the disaster-struck areas were already smoldering with resentment at perceived central government neglect or oppression. Failure will only fuel political discontent and potential terrorism, while success can alleviate serious tension and promote reconciliation.

How can interest be sustained after the images of destruction and suffering have disappeared from our television and computer screens? I suggest the establishment of a systematic community partnership program under which the impacted communities, some totally devastated, are linked with larger communities with the resources and commitment to help. The concept is analogous to a "sister cities" program, but unlike sister cities, the donor town, city, or state would be required to make a strong, continuing commitment to provide tangible assistance to the impacted community as part of an agreed-upon plan.

If it can act with creativity, persuasion, flexibility, and dispatch, UNDP itself might be a broker for encouraging partnerships and evaluating plans, even linking these private, local community efforts with its own and other official efforts. Large cities, such as Shanghai, Singapore, San Francisco, and Stockholm could partner with larger impacted communities, while smaller cities could partner with the towns and villages. Since local, in-country philanthropy has been so important in the relief efforts, there might be triangular or multiple partnerships: for example, Surabaya, Sydney and Berlin with Banda Aceh.

Such community partnerships can keep private citizens and organizations involved in leading roles, give the rebuilding effort a human face, and divide it into units comprehensible and accessible to donor communities. Individual donor communities can take pride in the progress of the communities they are helping, and local sub-partnerships can develop among public and civic organizations. While such partnerships might be initially envisioned for three to five years, the goodwill generated may result in longer-term sister relationships, which are currently very sparse in the Indian Ocean basin.

South and Southeast Asia governments have traditionally been very sensitive to outside involvement in the impacted areas. However, extraordinary events call for extraordinary actions. The presence of U.S. and other foreign military forces in hitherto closed Aceh in northern Sumatra suggests that the shock of tragedy can engender new thinking. Clearly the local populations appreciate the outside assistance and attention, and national governments can benefit from the continuing flow of assistance. For Jakarta and Colombo, the disaster provides opportunities to establish new beginnings with the citizenry of hitherto disaffected regions. Their chances of reconciliation increase tremendously with long-term rebuilding help from the international community.

Charles E. Morrison can be reached at (808) 944-7103 or

This is an East-West Wire, copyright East-West Center