Batticaloa District, Sri Lanka - Community groups formed to guide village redevelopment in the wake of the tsunami are now playing a central role in Mercy Corps' distributions of cookware, tarps and other relief items to families fleeing their homes in the face of the country's escalating civil conflict.
This timely collaboration is a fresh indication that efforts to organize and empower communities have paid off. Several newly formed community associations have led the way in assessing crises and mobilizing the response. But their efforts also reveal the dangers that ongoing civil conflict poses to longer-term development initiatives in tsunami-affected eastern regions of Sri Lanka.
Mercy Corps began emergency relief efforts in areas of Sri Lanka immediately after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. When the relief phase ended in 2005, Mercy Corps turned to helping Sri Lankans build a stronger foundation for peaceful development. Mercy Corps' current programs in Sri Lanka are built on two pillars:
- Community development, or the formation and training of community-based organizations called Community Action Groups (CAGs). Once established, these groups create village development plans, engage in community-based conflict management, link with local government agencies, prioritize community goals, and implement infrastructure and livelihoods development projects.
- Economic opportunities, or support to businesses and business associations to improve sales and productivity, enhance linkages with regional and national markets, and generate sustainable employment opportunities for community members.
When Mercy Corps began its work with CAGs in 2005, peace between Government Forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam was holding, and prospects for sustained engagement with beneficiary communities were bright. But by late 2006, flaring violence and insecurity had stalled Mercy Corps' development initiatives in tsunami-affected Trincomalee District. Thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) fled their homes as heavy fighting raged in the area. As a result of this crisis, Mercy Corps refocused its efforts on emergency response activities.
Ongoing violence and resulting insecurity have taken a heavy toll on longer-term rehabilitation and development initiatives in the area. In the community of Bambgaswewa, a remote conflict-affected village, the local CAG had planned with Mercy Corps to build a road, improve irrigation systems and build a community center. As insecurity mounted, however, Mercy Corps and community members struggled to complete the road project under difficult conditions. Unfortunately, even though the road was finished, the community was forced to cancel plans for its irrigation systems and community center.
Communities lend a hand
Violence in Sri Lanka is putting peoples' lives - and communities' plans for the future - not only on hold, but in danger.
Recently, fierce fighting in the Batticaloa District - which lay to the south of Trincomalee District - has caused more than 100,000 people to abandon their homes. These families, many of whom were also tsunami-affected, have gathered in makeshift camps in the southern reaches of the District.
Some of these IDPs have congregated in or around sites where Mercy Corps is implementing economic opportunities and community development programming - and the CAGs of these communities are giving back by providing relief for their displaced neighbors.
With the help of local community groups, Mercy Corps has mobilized emergency relief items to assist IDPs in southern Batticaloa, including eight truckloads of non-food relief supplies such as mosquito nets and hygiene kits, tarpaulins and cookware. The CAGs in three communities - Onthachimadam, Thetativu and Chettipalayam - have been on the forefront of assessing the needs of displaced people, coordinating with humanitarian and local government, and supporting relief efforts.
Thetativu acts first
In the village of Thetativu, the CAG's president saw increasing numbers of IDP families straggling into his village. Alarmed, he convened the group and led a discussion about how the CAG could lend assistance. Initially, the CAG in Thetativu was the first group - before any humanitarian agency or government office - to provide food and shelter to IDP families.
The CAG then contacted Mercy Corps and local government officials to report events. Even then, they participated in Mercy Corps' initial needs assessment; mobilized community members to collect preliminary data and to compile a list of urgently needed humanitarian relief items; began assisting government officials to direct IDPs to settlement camps; organized a group of local youth to support camp management; and helped to link some IDPs with local host families.
And today, the Thetativu CAG is working with Mercy Corps to distribute relief items in camp sites.
Thetativu's quick action and humanitarian acumen demonstrate how work to strengthen community-based organizations can help solve both short- and longer-term challenges. As Mercy Corps, local communities, government agencies and other organizations work together to address the current crisis, hopes are high that sufficient relief will reach displaced families in time. In the long term, there is optimism that displaced families will eventually be able to return home, and that host communities like Thetativu can resume their post-tsunami rehabilitation and development efforts.
Until then - as long as civil conflict persists - villages like Thetativu are putting their own futures on hold to respond to the immediate, critical needs of families fleeing violence.