A time to rebuild following years of terrible conflict

Published: 7 December 2011 16:35 CET

By David Brown in Sri Lanka

The war is over but now the people of Sri Lanka have the hard task of rebuilding their lives and homes. The Australian Red Cross has established a pioneering cash grant scheme that will enable people to build their own homes, developing skills and livelihoods in the process.

The flat coastal tidelands disappear into the blue and white of the sea and sand in this part of northern Sri Lanka. The silhouette of a fallen railway bridge next to the distant dunes is a reminder of the thousands of destroyed homes and buildings from the long war which also cost over 100,000 lives.  

There are hundreds of migratory birds foraging in the shallow waters – the elegant white egrets, herons, sandpipers and plovers who have flown thousands of miles to feed in peace. The peace, though, won’t last for long. The landmines will soon be cleared and people will return to this part of the country to rebuild their lives.

Many organisations are responding to the needs of this ravaged part of the country, to build a society where victors and vanquished must live together. Inevitably, this is not easy. To be able to work in this environment means building and maintaining strong relationships, and constant consultation with the authorities. 

The Red Cross is playing a key role in dealing with the acute housing deficit in Sri Lanka, but unlike many donors it is not building houses for people by contracting foreign companies and workers to do the job.  The organization found that, after the experience from the tsunami response of 2004, a different response is required. Here, people build their own houses based on five specific cash grants, each one coinciding with the completion of a specific construction task.

Nimal Silva, in charge of the post-conflict recovery program for Sri Lanka Red Cross, says that community mobilisers and technical officers make regular visits to offer advice and support to builders, and that in the majority of the cases, there is wonderful progress. This is evident in the enthusiasm and interest of the people we meet during a four day visit to the area.

Not only does the Red Cross provide cash grants for part of the house construction, it also offers a two-step livelihoods grant to enable householders to extend their income opportunities – through goods for a shop, a business, or agricultural and fishing activities. A further grant supports the construction of a household sanitation system – almost always placed away from the house, in line with the traditional attitudes in this rural area.

But even here, there will be setbacks, as the organization seeks to advise and facilitate, rather than direct and control. One woman ignored the recommended list of honest and competent local craftsmen supplied by the community mobilisers, because a man offered her a cut rate. He absconded with her forward payment and she is left 2,800 rupees out of pocket – a large amount for a woman whose husband is ill and unable to work. Although her roof is complete, an interior wall has been badly constructed and has an unsafe lean, and the external septic tank needs lining.

In these cases the Red Cross offers support and will bring forward payments if there is severe hardship and need, but ultimately the approach is one of shared responsibility. Of course, this works when families have savings, small businesses, or relatives overseas who can assist. It’s much tougher for those who are day labourers or seasonal fishermen.

Regardless of the challenges, the evidence shows that houses are being built at a great rate. After less than a year there are 1,000 either constructed or in process, and are having a major impact on people’s lives. Manchula Ravichchanthiran, who was caught in the riots of 1983 in Galle, has five children and for the first time in her life will live in a house with electricity.