Tsunami fund focuses on marginalized populations

Tsunami fund focuses on marginalized populations

$2 million raised by Unitarian Universalist partnership helps marginalized populations and women affected by 2004 disaster.

Jane Greer


A year after the tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people roared ashore in South Asia, about half of the $2 million raised by Unitarian Universalists has been spent to help some of the world’s least privileged people. Now greater emphasis is being directed to gender rights.

“In all cases, women are vulnerable and often aid does not address that,” says Martha Thompson, manager of the Rights in Humanitarian Crises Program for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, who has been overseeing the relief fund set up jointly by her organization and the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

The tsunami struck on December 26, 2004, laying waste to homes, villages, and means of livelihood in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand. The UUA responded by joining with the UU Service Committee, an independent human rights organization, to create the UUSC-UUA Tsunami Relief Fund, raising more than $2 million--at that time, the largest amount ever raised in the Unitarian Universalist community for relief efforts. A similar joint relief fund raised more than $3 million to help victims of last fall’s Gulf Coast hurricanes.

Thompson said the tsunami fund has been active on a number of fronts. It has joined with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) the UUSC has worked with in the past, created relationships with new ones, and worked with the UUA’s Holdeen India Program, using its longstanding agency connections. She said that success has varied depending upon the government and social and political climate in each country.

One of the countries where funding has had the greatest impact is India, which has extensive disaster relief experience. It also has a strong system of NGOs, making it easier to disburse funds in ways that work. The Holdeen India Program, established in 1984 to work with those most marginalized by Indian society, was able to use its partnerships with such organizations as the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute, an organization partnering with the poorest in disaster-stricken areas; Sahanivasa, an organization working with landless laborers, women, and Dalits, India’s lowest and most oppressed caste; and People’s Watch-Tamil Nadu, a human rights group that expanded its mission to include tsunami relief to make sure that India’s neediest were not overlooked.

People’s Watch-Tamil Nadu, for instance, has focused on funding and giving vocational training to Dalits who lost their entire source of income when the coastal fishing villages were destroyed.

Thompson said the situation in Sri Lanka is more complex because of an ongoing civil war--despite a current cease-fire--and rising tensions between Muslims and Tamils. About 90,000 war refugees are now living in camps and have received far less assistance than the tsunami victims, creating further tension. One of the groups the UUSC has started to work with is the Sewalanka Foundation, which has negotiated successfully across ethnic lines and has gained the trust of the Muslim, Tamil, and Sinhalese communities.

One of the biggest issues in Sri Lanka is a government ruling preventing reconstruction in a buffer zone along the shore. Since many fishermen lived right on the shore, where they kept their boats, they have been forced to relocate and, in many cases, seek new livelihoods. The matter is further complicated by the burgeoning tourist industry, which in some cases has been allowed to build hotels within the buffer zone.

Through the Sewalanka Foundation, the UUSC-UUA fund has provided money for several projects including reclamation of farmland flooded by salt water, a new seed patty processing plant, and assistance for Muslim women widowed by the tsunami. This last project has supported religiously-based grief counseling from fellow Muslim women as well as vocational training.

In Indonesia, the country with the highest death toll from the tsunami--more than 130,000--UUSC-UUA aid has been administered through four members of the Humanitarian Solidarity Coalition for Natural Disaster in Aceh and North Sumatra. The organizations are SINTESA, a local government organization; the Federation of Independent Farmers’ Unions, a coalition of peasants and fishermen; PERMATA, an independent peasants’ union with 66 village-level groups; and YBA, a local nongovernmental organization. Like Sri Lanka, parts of Indonesia, including Aceh, are politically unstable, complicating the delivery of assistance.

The projects that these groups are overseeing include community planning, housing rehabilitation, water and sanitation improvement, and the rehabilitation of fisheries and small businesses.

The fund is also providing assistance to Burmese immigrants in Thailand, who have long been marginalized in Thai society. Many of these immigrants were employed in the fishing and tourist trades and have been subject to abuse and threats of deportation. Because of their marginalized position, many of these tsunami refugees have had no access to the most basic necessities such as water, food, and shelter. So the fund has joined forces with several Thai NGOs, such as the Migrant Assistance Program and the Thai Action Committee for Democracy in Burma, that are lobbying for stronger protection of migrant workers’ rights in Thailand.

In 2006, the Fund plans to spend part of the remaining $1 million focusing on gender rights. Thompson says grants will concentrate on programs that educate women for new vocations and educate communities about women’s changing roles and women’s vulnerability during and after disasters.

The fund will also address the issue of allowing communities to rebuild in their places of origin. Many coastal communities in the affected areas are being forced to relocate farther inland, affecting families’ housing as well as their access to the sea--an important source of income.

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Correction 1.10.06: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the money would be spent "next year."