Early Wednesday morning, a handful of Yale students in a small room in the Law School joined in an international panel discussion with tsunami survivors and Sri Lankan officials — live from Columbo, Sri Lanka.
Students and concerned community members tuned in from 11 sites across the United States and the United Kingdom to participate in the first Partners for Progress teleconference about the tsunami aftermath. This conference was part of a series sponsored by various government, international and humanitarian organizations, including Americans for Informed Democracy.
The conference began with short introductions by Dr. Kan Tun, a World Health Organization representative in Sri Lanka, Dr. Lalith Wikramanayake, the chairperson of the Environmental Foundation of Sri Lanka, and Dr. Savitri Goonesekere of the Center for Women’s Research in Sri Lanka. While the other two speakers focused more on environmental and health concerns surrounding the reconstruction efforts, Goonesekere recounted her family’s experience during the tsunami, in which she lost two close relatives.
“There was a loud noise we had never heard in life, then a sound like thunder and then a huge wave, perhaps twice or thrice my own height,” Goonesekere said. “So we were there, how long I do not know, and then we heard the villagers crying out for their children.”
Although concerns for the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka were evident, much of the discussion revolved around issues of corruption, a great risk considering the many millions of dollars of aid that have been devoted to reconstruction efforts in Sri Lanka and other affected areas.
“We would like to have a complete plan [for reconstruction spending], with costs to be known,” Wikramanayake said. “If it’s not planned properly, you will spend a lot of money and not see any benefit for it — We are waiting for the government or the opposition or any of these people to tell us what their plans are.”
Robert Lalka ’05, who attended the video conference, said he was greatly concerned by issues of potential corruption.
“Some think terrorism is cruel and malevolent, but I think that usurping humanitarian efforts for the purposes of one’s own greed is more profoundly abhorrent and truly saddening,” he said. “That’s not to say that’s what’s happening, but I think that’s why transparency should be an important concern — It’s in the Janus-face of human nature that there are some who would provide help, and others who would take advantage of that.”
AID began hosting video conferences to bring sites in the United States and the United Kingdom into dialogue with states in the Middle East and Southern and Southeast Asia early last year.
“I think we’re hoping to connect people here more directly with the situation there,” said Seth Green LAW ’07, the executive director for AID. “I know there was a lot of healthy debate about potential internal corruption in the government and things like that, and I was excited to see American students and British students really getting involved in that discussion.”
All those present at the conference expressed a profound hope that the disasters in Southern and Southeast Asia would prompt a lasting response from the world community.
“Ultimately, this is really about people — our fellow human beings who have been traumatized by the worst natural disaster in history,” Tun said. “People have poured in from all over the globe to help in whatever way they can — From the rubble, Sri Lanka is rebuilding.”