Thursday, January 06, 2005

Business-Generated Self-Help for Tsunami Victims

I have hesitated to write anything about the December 26 tsunami and its aftermath, since the news of that disaster has filled newspaper front pages as well as the commentary sections of every publication one can name.

Today, however, I heard a remarkable interview on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. The subject of the interview was Geoffrey Dobbs, a businessman who owns several hotels and resorts in Sri Lanka. With other businessmen, he has begun a self-help effort in his section of the island.

In the course of the interview, Gross asked: "Have you ever done anything like this before?" -- to which Dobbs replied:

"I have never done anything like this before at all. I’m a total amateur at it. In some ways, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you just get it done. That is what myself and my colleagues – I have a Belgian colleague here I have a German colleague, I have Sri Lankan colleagues – who all think the same way, totally unselfish, just wanting to get Sri Lanka moving again."

(I like that thought: "In some ways, if you don't know what you're doing, you just get it done." That's spontaneous order if I've ever heard it.)

Dobbs explained that foreign aid was reaching the capital, Columbo, but "to be honest, I have not seen a lot of aid down in the south, particularly in the small villages which are the areas which we have decided to help. Obviously the city of Galle has received a huge amount of publicity for the tragedy they suffered and a lot of aid has gone to them but it still has to trickle down into the villages."

Consequently, Dobbs and his associates have focused their efforts on the villages who have yet to see the aid from abroad. He explained his approach this way:

We are not a charity, we are not an NGO, we are a group of private individuals and companies who sprung up because nothing was happening. We have now spawned a loose coalition of like-minded people spreading [from about 50 km south] of the capital all the way down the coast and all the way up the east coast. We’re swapping information, we’re transferring supplies where supplies are needed. We’re not hoarding, we’re not being squirrels.

We can make instant decisions because we don’t have to make a decision by committee. This is all our own money. Of course we hope people will support us by sending us funds later, but at the moment this is all our own money.

I have a wallet-load of Sri Lankan rupees in my pocket and when I think I see a worthwhile cause,I just pay out the money. I don’t ask for any receipts. I just say to them, I’ll come back tomorrow, if I don’t see any progress, you won’t get any more money.

For instance, there’s a person who sells little boats opposite my island whose livelihood has been ruined because there are no tourists coming. I do have some shops in Columbo, so I say, OK, if you make some boats, I will sell them in my shops.

The village opposite my island is famous for ladies who make lace and I said to them, I gave them just $500 today. You clean up your place, you get back to work, I will buy you instruments for you to make your lace, and if I see improvements, I will front you more money. That is the way I think reconstruction should take. The whole point is to get people back to work. That is my message.


It is clear that Dobbs is no sentimentalist. Responding to Terry Gross's query as to how he decides which businesses or fishermen to help, Dobbs said: "Well we’re trying to help all the fishermen. In the bay [nearby], there are 10 fishing communities. We’ve taken all their numbers and then some have been dishonest and overstated their losses. But those people we’re going to give a black mark to and we’ve told them that if that happens, we will not give them aid. And in fact most of the fishermen, they realize that, and they’re being very responsible about it."

People like Geoffrey Dobbs deserve a lot of credit precisely because they are not treating the tsunami victims like, well, like Victims. He views these people as independent agents who can take responsibility for their own fates, who are willing to work hard to put their lives back together, and who should be respected, not pitied. He demonstrates this heartfelt respect when he tells Gross: "I’m very impressed at the way villagers have cleaned up their villages. Of course there’s still this huge mess around and there is complete devastation in some villages [where] buildings have totally collapsed [but] all the roads are open now [and] you see piles of rubbish that have been neatly collected. The villagers have done the cleaning up themselves."

Dobbs -- who happens to be the brother of Washington Post correspondent Michael Dobbs, whose eyewitness account of the tsunami appeared in the Post and on broadcast news outlets as well, including a separate segment of the same Fresh Air episode -- should be held up as a model for efficacy and compassion in the face of disaster. His experience is a living argument for why grassroots self-help is superior to top-down, committee-driven, bureaucratic foreign "assistance" that serves more to assuage Western guilt than it does to build economies and bring people out of poverty.

Of course, this is not a new argument. I discussed it at length in my 1990 book, Sowing the Seeds of Free Enterprise: The Politics of U.S. Economic Aid in Africa.

Update: Geoffrey Dobbs' efforts are gaining more notice. I just came across this AP article in the Washington Post of January 9, "Hotelier Launches Tsunami Relief Effort," which somehow slipped past my gaze as I was reading the Sunday papers. It notes:

"The reason why we are quite effective is because there's not a lot of red tape," Dobbs said. "We can make instant decisions. It's our own money, so we don't have to account for it."

Still, the band of businesspeople - which includes a Sri Lankan antiques dealer, a German organic farmer and a Belgian owner of a tire manufacturing company - lack the transport and professional expertise available to the government or established aid groups.

Dobbs said their strengths lie in local knowledge and contacts with village headmen. They have set up a Web site to promote their cause and attract funding, and they telephone each other daily to exchange experiences and suggest solutions.

"If a certain area needs something, and a certain area has got it, we then trade our sources of supply," Dobbs said in an interview on the verandah of one of his colonial-era hotels, the Sun House.


The article also points out some of the concrete, if idiosyncratic, accomplishments of Dobbs and his associates:
"Operation Fish and Chips" was one of the group's most high-profile initiatives. Last week, they urged fishermen in the town of Merissa to fix their boats and catch their first fish since the tsunami generated by an undersea earthquake in the Indian Ocean.

The goal was to promote fish-eating because many Sri Lankans had no appetite for seafood, believing fish had feasted on the bodies of tsunami victims and were contaminated. Dobbs organized a fish barbecue after the catch came in, then sent a batch in a refrigerated truck for delivery to the Cabinet and the opposition leader in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.

The group also pumped 12 wells in Merissa on Thursday and is providing a daily total of 7,500 lunch packets, including rice and potatoes, to the needy. The town of Weligama is known for its lace, and Dobbs said he is "dripfeeding" money to women to start making it again.


I expect we'll be hearing more from and about Geoffrey Dobbs.



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