Nov. 27, 2008 Researcher Kristin Scharffscher at the University of Stavanger in Norway has studied international crises at close range. She can testify that good intentions are not always enough when running efficient aid work.
Everyone remembers the deadly tsunami which swept across Asian beaches on Boxing Day 2004. In Sri Lanka alone, the tsunami claimed more than 30 000 lives in a few minutes. About one and a half million people lost their homes, and many of them became refugees.
After the destruction the international aid workers moved in to the island. Large amounts of money had been donated, the media ran extensive stories, and the international aid organisations were keen to show that the money was being spent efficiently. In the rush, however, the local competence in Sri Lanka was pushed aside.
Research fellow Kristin Scharffscher stayed in Sri Lanka the first 6 months after the tsunami. She watched the aid work in the affected areas at close range, and registered among other things, that several local women's organisations immediately started collecting and distributing food and clothes.
" The women and women's networks played an important role in the local aid work. For instance, in the eastern town of Batticaloa there was a network of female representatives from all the refugee camps in the area. They had regular meetings where they would discuss challenges in the local aid work and they had a completely different insight from the international aid workers. They discussed among other things how they could give practical support to men who had become sole providers for their children. They also discussed how to help widows in a way that would not impact the widow's dignity", Ms Scharffscher explains.
"It's a myth that people who go through a crisis sit down and shake in a corner. Instead of the people affected being passive recipients of aid, they have to be seen as co-responsible and important actors for the crisis at hand", says Ms Scharffscher.
One of her examples from the aid work concerns a religious organisation from the USA which established a soup kitchen for those affected.
"They completely forgot to ask whether the locals actually needed hot food. The answer would probably have been no. The women in the village regularly got together to prepare hot meals. To them, this was important in order to regain a feeling of normality and to strengthen the feeling of community". Says Ms Scharffscher: "Despite the good intentions behind the initiative, the soup kitchen seemed clumsy and disrespectful".
In Sri Lanka, the consequence was that international aid ran parallel to local aid, with no co-operation between them. And women's networks which already existed, and which had started aid work, were pushed aside. Ms Scharffscher questions why aid workers did not anchor their work locally, and make use of the local competence.
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