What a difference ten years can make

December 26, 2014 and the news channels are streaming images of the tsunami ten years ago. It’s a sad anniversary and when looking at those images, I’m still shocked at the devastation and the loss that all those communities suffered. It still seems unbelievable that such a natural phenomenon can happen.

One particular news agency showed a collage of images of what those devastated areas look like now, ten years after the disaster and after recovery and rebuilding efforts have been in effect. My mouth dropped looking at how transformed these areas were after the scale of the devastation. It appeared as if the disaster had never taken place.
Then my heart sank because it dawned on me that in my poor Zambia nothing like this transformation would ever take place.

Zambia has been receiving development assistance in one way or another since 1955, according to the World Bank. The development assistance or ‘aid’ has been used to boost the economy, implement poverty reduction strategies and schemes, and to improve local industries, manufacturing, infrastructure, health, education, and agriculture. When HIV and AIDS hit, the kind of assistance changed, the tone of the assistance changed, but still foreign governments and many non-profit organisations came to help Zambia weather the storm. My only concern is that only in recent years has the country started to look different, but much of this is private sector investment in infrastructure. Throughout my childhood, up into my twenties, Zambia has pretty much looked the same, with little external sign that millions of dollars was being poured into the country to help develop it. Yet five nations transformed their battered communities and built sustainable lives in only ten years.

What is wrong with us? Zambians? Why can’t we get it together? Is it corruption? Greed? Mismanagement? An unfair playing field?

I have no answers to these questions. I can only paint a clearer picture of what went into rebuilding the areas struck by the tsunami in 2004.

It is difficult to get an exact count of the funds raised but the data reads something like this: information from the Council for Foreign Relations states that $13 billion was raised in contributions after the tsunami. Most of these were private contributions. The World Bank states that $7 billion was received by Indonesia, particularly for the Aceh region that was most devastated by the tsunami. Asian Development Bank (ADB) approved assistance and co-financed funds in the amount of US$892.035 million, 81% of which was grant funding.

With all the money available to tackle the tragedy, relief organisations and governments set about dealing with basic needs of the survivors – water, food, shelter, combating disease and malnutrition. Once the initial relief work had been dealt with, reconstruction began. Housing first, to accommodate the displaced. Then communities to ensure they had markets in which to shop, clinics to visit and other services and support systems. Then the building of infrastructure. The last phase was economic development to ensure sustainability of the society. ADB reports that in five countries — India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Maldives and Thailand – livelihoods were restored and long-term sustainability of economies were rebuilt. These are not G8 nations, these are countries that can be classified middle-income, maybe lower-middle income countries, with some way to go before they achieve an ideal state of development.

The World Bank’s strategy for Zambia for the four-year period 2013 to 2016, align with the Zambian government’s priorities: to reduce poverty and the vulnerability of the poor; to improve competitiveness and infrastructure for growth and employment; to improve governance and strengthen economic management. The poverty theme has remained the same for at least fifteen years. That’s no secret. Financial commitments to Zambia by the World Bank Group have been as follows: in 2010 $114m, in 2011 $211m, in 2012 $80m, 2013 $191m, in 2014 $83m. This is only five years from one donor. Not to mention the other millions coming from the other donors from which Zambia receives development assistance over the years. These millions of dollars have not resulted in an obvious change in what Zambia looks like.

Economics is complex and there are a myriad of reasons why this is so. But at the heart of it all, in my view, there is a very simple reason. There is a fundamental problem that we exhibit and it is echoed in a statement made by Bill Clinton as UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery. “Governments, donors and aid agencies must recognise that families and communities must drive their own recovery.”
We, Zambians, don’t recognise that in ourselves, which is why we can’t make that level of development and transformation. We’ve never taken it upon ourselves to get together with the neighbours to improve our local market, or even to pick up the litter! We’ve never demanded that our local government improve drains so our streets and markets don’t flood in the wet season. We’re waiting for ‘someone’, for ‘government’ to do it.

The 2004 tsunami was a one-time devastating tragedy with consequences that had to be dealt with immediately, whereas Zambia has been in a state of development flux for decades. Galvanising an effort to match 2004 would be difficult, but the impetus is the same. That impetus is the desire to rise above so we can be better, live better and thrive. We just don’t have that.

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