[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 18 February, 2005, 06:59 GMT
'Aid tourists' pass test of time
By Joanne Gilhooly
BBC News, Sri Lanka

Lorry being unloaded
Aid tourists can run small but effective efforts
In the weeks that followed the tsunami, tourists started returning to Sri Lanka - but many were not there for a holiday, they went to help in the relief effort.

It did not take long before critical voices were raised.

Who were these "aid tourists" and would they help or hinder the reconstruction process?

Was it just a fad or would they stay the distance?

Nearly two months on and the foreigners are still there - and still helping in organisations like Impakt aid, Galle 2005, Friends of the South and the Aid Sri Lanka Foundation.

The groups have been led by expatriates who already have a lot of experience working in Sri Lanka - and, crucially, excellent contacts on the ground.

Flexible and fit

Sam Clark and Tom Armstrong, British co-directors of the Aid Sri Lanka Foundation, initially started a travel business here.

Displaced tsunami woman in Kalmunai, Sri Lanka
Nearly one million were affected by the tsunami in Sri Lanka

But when the waves struck they quickly turned it into a charity, with family and friends in the UK mobilising donations and setting up an internet site.

When money came pouring in, they acted fast - working with their Sri Lankan colleagues to buy food and get it out in the first few days of the disaster.

Young, flexible and fit - they have been plugging holes in the big international aid operation ever since.

"We're going to give them the stuff we bought - mosquito nets, clothes, pots... and try and get them out of the refugee camps," says Mr Armstrong.

Sam Clark says it is the small-scale nature of the operation that is the secret of their effectiveness - administration is low, co-operation high.

Distinct projects

Although Tom Armstrong speaks Sinhala, the operation is still wholly reliant on Sri Lankan friends who provide all the essential links to local businesses and operators.

Sam Clark of the Aid Sri Lanka Foundation
I think there's a thing with being a foreigner: it showed that the rest of the world cared
Sam Clark

He says they have been able to change with the situation - although they are still finding that aid deliveries are needed for non-food items:

"For example, over a month after the tsunami, no one had delivered any mosquito nets to Ampara. This is a malarial area and it is wet at the moment - and of course everyone is in tents. We have continued to plug gaps like that," he says.

But increasingly these do-it-yourself, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are focusing on distinct projects.

"The one we are most proud of was school cleaning," says Mr Clark.

"We found that schools were not being cleaned after they were emptied of refugees. This meant the kids could not return.

"We organised the cleaning of five, which meant the pupils returned between two weeks and a month before they would otherwise have done."

'Moral obligation'

While some in the international NGO sector have dubbed the newcomers "roadside assistance", others, like Lakshman Malawa Thanthrige of Save the Children Sri Lanka, cautiously praise their efforts.

Displaced Tamil in eastern Sri Lanka
Tsunami victims can feel "less alone" with international helpers

"When a disaster occurs - you see a number of amateur groups coming and supporting, and they are most welcome as long as they respect the value and culture of the community," he says.

There is concern that some of those returning to help have neither the experience nor the Sri Lankan contacts and risk upsetting the local community.

But it seems the benefits of aid tourism outweigh the drawbacks.

Some of the most effective returnees were nurses and doctors - like Pippa Farouggia from London.

"Having the skills I have, and having the training, it does feel almost a moral obligation to come and do something," she says.

Sam Clark adds: "People seemed to really feel the need to talk about it - really, really wanted to talk to you. I think there's a thing with being a foreigner... it really made people feel less alone in this terrible situation."


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific