Re-building the shattered communities of Sri Lanka

I knew I was in trouble when the foreign exchange cashier at Colombo airport
started handing over brick-like wads of rupees. Where the hell was I going to
put it all? My small collection of wafer-thin traveller’s cheques had ballooned
into great piles of 1,000 rupee notes. They don’t cover these predicaments in
the accountancy survival manual.

Two weeks on, I had the routine down to a tee. I would go to the bank, wait
hours for the paperwork to be completed, then emerge with a great bag of swag –
a tropical Butch Cassidy. The locals didn’t bat an eyelid. To them I was just
another overpaid non-governmental organisation worker collecting his loot.

When I came out to Sri Lanka on holiday with my wife Fiona in March, little
did I realise what I was getting into. Our itinerary included Yala National Park
in the southeast of the country. Eager to help someone out, with the rubble from
the tsunami freshly piled by the roadside, we visited a refugee camp in the
nearby fishing town of Kirinda.

One thing led to another. I handed in my notice at The Times, set up
a charity (taking the name Yala), raised nearly £17,000 from friends and
business contacts, including a contribution from Accountancy Age, and booked my
return ticket. And here I was back in Kirinda, doing my bit to save the world.
Well, 20 families at any rate.

It was my good fortune to find one of the most honest men in Sri Lanka,
Supurna ‘Hetti’ Hettiarachichi, the guide and naturalist who took us round the
country earlier in the year. Hardly anyone speaks English outside of Colombo.
Hetti proved a valuable asset as he acted as translator and led negotiations
with suppliers throughout our stay.

The Kirinda villagers are still stuck in a refugee camp all these months on
and have suffered terrible trauma; 13 of the villagers died, including the
headman, his daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. The body of one little girl
was seized by a crocodile. We made it our mission to set up each family with a
means of earning a living. No one wants to live off charity handouts.

Our approach, blindingly obvious but very non-charity-like, was to sit down
with the villagers and ask them what they needed. In my experience, the larger
established charities tend to turn up with 30,000 pairs of shoes and feel
they’ve done their bit.

The priority request was for three boats. Charities had either supplied or
promised boats to replace those destroyed in the tsunami, but three families
were still lacking.

The villagers asked for nets, fishing gear, bicycles, sewing machines and a
couple of water barrels. One enterprising character asked for a down payment on
a motorbike for fish deliveries. He didn’t ask for the full amount: just enough
to secure the bike. He would borrow the rest. The villagers were keen to help
the headman’s widow, Sisilin, open a shop for the camp. This would give her a
purpose and benefit everyone.

Armed with a long shopping list, we set off for the nearby town,
Tissamaharama. Cheques and credit cards are not commonly accepted in rural Sri
Lanka. Eager to avoid being hauled up in front of the Charity Commission, I came
up with the best system I could think of: the original receipt, plus a Yala
charity receipt recording the purchase and a third piece of paper for when the
goods were delivered.

The rules are that charities are not required to have their accounts audited
if the gross income is less than £100,000. It is enough for them to be checked
over by a ‘financially qualified’ person. We’ll soon find out whether my system
stands up to the test, though. If it doesn’t, I’ll be back in Sri Lanka for
good, living under an assumed name.

I heard some depressing stories about how all that tsunami money is being
frittered away. Boats have been handed out to people who did not own a boat
before the tsunami, their only connection with the sea being that they ate
fish.The charities simply don’t check properly. I came across one boatyard
quoting prices for boats that were supposed to have been handed out for free. No
wonder the locals refer to the tsunami as ‘the Golden Wave’.

In a common scam, a local NGO representative will inflate the price of a boat
by £100 or more and split the difference with the supplier. Who knows how many
millions of pounds have been siphoned off in this way.

All it takes is two or three quotes for comparison, yet the NGOs don’t seem
to bother. They are accountable to no one.

I was hypersensitive to being ripped off, yet I encountered nothing but
honesty. The trick is to keep well away from public servants and politicians. In
my whole time in Sri Lanka, not one person asked me for money. When we invited
people to ask for things, they only asked for what they needed. After reading
over the years about the supposedly rampant corruption in Sri Lanka, this came
as a pleasant surprise.

The Kirinda villagers have seen so many false dawns that I don’t think they
expected anything to come of our visit. Endless charities have turned up and
written copious notes, never to be heard of again. Then the lorries started

In a matter of days, the camp was back on its feet. New boats were parked up
in the sunshine, men were busily stitching nets, children cycled round on
mint-new Hero bicycles (a snip at £500 for 13) and the place was transformed.

Mindful of what it must be like being stuck in a dusty camp for months on
end, Hetti and I hired a bus for the day and took the villagers on an outing. We
went to Kataragama, one of Sri Lanka’s holiest religious sites. We bought the
children toys and shared a packed lunch of curry and rice by the roadside. It
beat a corporate lunch in London any day.

I’ll be back in Kirinda next month for ‘phase two’ of the project. My
original £17,000 has snowballed into £87,000. De Beers, the diamond group, were
anxious to do something in Sri Lanka. It had £70,000 to donate. I came along at
just the right time.

De Beers will provide financial support over three years for 50 children who
lost one or both parents in the tsunami. Kirinda and the nearby coastal town of
Hambantota suffered appalling loss of life. Social workers have identified more
than 500 children in need of support. Many are being looked after by aunts or
grandparents, who desperately need help to cover the extra costs.

De Beers is also paying for a computer centre for the main school in Kirinda.
The school has 850 pupils and not one computer between them. Money from diamonds
will pay for sewing machines to help tsunami widows earn a living, and bicycles
on which children can ride to school.

I expect to be doling out thick wads of Sri Lankan rupees for many years to

Jon Ashworth is a freelance journalist

Hard facts

  • Sri Lanka’s population is estimated at 20.5 million. Sinhalese make up 74%,
    and Tamils comprise 13%. A cease-fire between government forces and Tamil Tigers
    seeking an independent homeland was agreed in February 2002, but the
    assassination of Tamil journalists and politicians has left the
    Norwegian-brokered peace process under threat.
  • Key sectors include textiles, agriculture, forestry, fishing and tourism.
    Thousands of jobs in tourism have been lost following the tsunami. Sri Lanka is
    pinning its hopes on a tourism revival in the peak holiday season, which runs
    from December to March.
  • Sri Lanka is the biggest market outside the UK for CIMA, the Chartered
    Institute of Management Accountants.
  • More than 30,000 people died when the tsunami engulfed Sri Lanka. Hambantota
    on the southeast coast suffered one of the worst death tolls, with more than
    5,000 dead or missing. It was market day, and thousands of people had travelled
    to Hambantota from the surrounding district.
  • De Beers will sponsor 50 children in the area for three years and buy sewing
    machines and other items to help stricken families earn a living. De Beers is
    channelling the money through a long-established Sri Lankan charity, Shilpa
    Children’s Trust. Each month, £14 will be paid from a central Shilpa account to
    the bank account of the parent or guardian, with another £2.80 set aside into
    the child’s saving account. The cost works out at just over £200 per child per
    year. Shilpa social workers visit the families twice a week to check that the
    money is being spent honestly. Shilpa is seeking sponsors for another 250
    children and is continually identifying new cases.

Jon Ashworth’s shopping list

15 sets of fishing net materials £5,535.09

3 ‘Dolphin’ type fibreglass boats £2,030.62

3 Yamaha 25hp outboard engines £3,664.53

1 ‘landmaster’ tractor/cultivator £1,299.37

1 trailer £303.19

14 iceboxes & boat repair materials £547.47

Labour costs for boat repairs/ice boxes £253.51

14 sets of fishing tackle £394.34

13 bicycles £516.68

5 sewing machines £406.23

35 pairs of shoes £100.12

Part payment on children’s playground £222.31

Materials for village shop £253.72

Equipment for barber’s salon £319.12

Advance on motorbike for fish deliveries £339.31

1 cow £56.38

1 fridge/freezer £302.21

2 water barrels £84.57

1 carpentry set £11.28

Truck hire for deliveries £60.42

Day trip to Kataragama Buddhist site £75.21

TOTAL: £16,775.68

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