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Evaluation of international response to the tsunami

Summary of report1

Devastation in Sri Lanka post tsunami

The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami killed over 227,000 people with 1.7 million displaced. A massive mediafuelled global response resulted in an estimated US $13.5 bn in international aid. A recent synthesis report of the five Tsunami Evaluation Coalition (TEC) thematic evaluation reports has been posted on the TEC website. The report addresses primarily the initial phase of the international response, up to the first 11 months after the disaster. Main findings are summarised below.

Constraints and Achievements

Main constraints to the response include preexisting weaknesses in disaster-affected national and local capacities, ongoing armed conflicts in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, ill advised, confusing and sometimes bureaucratic official policies and procedures, politicised and centralised decision making, and concerns about corruption and distrust of local leaders. Other identified constraints were described as rooted within international agencies themselves, including quantity and quality of international personnel, inappropriate programme methods and tools, and weak engagement in or management of coordination. The lack of significant, predictable, non-earmarked, multi-year funding for developing appropriate international capacities was also a major drawback.

However, on the positive side, large amounts of funding allowed rapid initial recovery activities and some innovative practices, including a wider use of cash grants than has been the case in other emergencies in developing countries. Also, the gap between relief and rehabilitation, common in disaster response, was avoided. Within a few months, there was palpable evidence of recovery. By six months, in Aceh, Indonesia, some 500,000 people had a solid roof over their heads while in Sri Lanka, over 80% of damaged fish markets, boats and fishing equipment were rapidly restored.

Accountability, ownership and recovery

Replacement of boat engines and fishing nets lost in the tsunami, Sri Lanka

Practically all immediate life-saving actions and initial emergency support in the first few days were provided by local people, often assisted by the wider national public and institutions. The international response was most effective when enabling, facilitating and supporting these actors and when accountable to them. Overall, international relief personnel were less successful in their recovery and risk reduction activities. Exceptional international funding provided the opportunity for an exceptional international response. However, the pressure to spend money quickly and visibly worked against making the best use of local and national capacities. Furthermore, many efforts and capacities of locals and nationals were marginalised by an overwhelming flood of well-funded international agencies. Treating affected countries as 'failed states' was a common error. Other identified weaknesses included rarely coordinated or shared assessments, supply driven, unsolicited and inappropriate aid, inappropriate housing designs and livelihoods solutions, poor understanding of the development role of income and tax generation, and stereotyping of option for women, small farmers and small entrepreneurs.

Other problems identified included brushing aside or misleading authorities, communities and local organisations; displacement of able local staff by poorly prepared internationals; dominance of English as the working language; misrecognition of local capacities; poaching of staff from national and local entities, and limited participation of the affected population. While affected people were appreciative of achievements and good practices, there were frequent complaints that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) only dealt with village officials and that poorer people were marginalised. At best, the international response restored the 'status quo ante' while at worst, it strengthened those who were better off and/or more articulate.


Generous funding not only exceeded the absorption capacity of an overstretched humanitarian industry and deprived it of its customary excuse for built-in systemic short-comings, but also led to the proliferation of new actors with insufficient experience, as well as established actors venturing into activities outside of their normal area of expertise. Both governments and international organisations failed to ensure that funding was 'needs-based'. Imbalances, non-needs driven motivations (including supporting NGOs based in a donor's own country, regardless of whether they had any comparative advantage over other NGOs), poor end user traceability and inadequate monitoring were evident among official donor responses. Slow, overlapping, poorly shared and imprecise assessments were a constraint. Some major donors by-passed United Nations (UN) mechanisms such as the UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC), by deploying their own assessments. Also, the allocation of funds was fairly evenly split between relief and recovery, which did not reflect the reality that recovery needs were by far the most important.

The limited number of organisations with the capacity to absorb the scale of funding available was a constraint, as was the lack of system-wide definitions and standards for reporting of funds.

Total funding for the tsunami response was over US $7,100 for every affected person, which contrasts starkly with funding of only US$3 per head actually spent on the flood affected population in Bangladesh in 2004. The current international appeals system delivers variable amounts of funding bearing little correlation with real needs on a global level. The lack of adherence to core funding principles almost three years after adoption of the Good Humanitarian Donorship (GHD)2 principles is striking.

International relief capacity and quality

The tsunami response highlighted major weaknesses in international staff profiles, staff quality and continuity. Poaching of staff from national or local organisations can have mixed results, debilitating the contributions of those organisations to recovery, while perhaps strengthening international agency local capacity and developing the poached individuals. The engagement of international actors with local capacities was most effective and efficient when it was built on sustained partnerships with the local actors that existed before the disaster.

The appointment of a high profile Special Envoy for the response was seen as a positive step. Also, coordination showed a marked improvement in late 2005. However, three issues stood out: the proliferation of agencies made coordination more expensive and less effective, generous funding reduced organisations' need to coordinate, and the perceived need for quick, tangible, agency-specific results fuelled competition for visibility, beneficiaries and projects.

The military played a key role in the response. They will most likely, despite their high cost, continue to do so globally. There is however, little joint planning and training between the military and traditional humanitarian actors and field coordination between both camps remains weak.

There was a profusion of assessments and most were conducted by agencies for their own needs and did not influence collective decision takers. Better national and local preparedness would have made a big difference. Asingle authoritative joint-assessment, at least between the UN, the Red Cross and authorities was sorely missing.

The recurrence of many of the problems seen in Rwanda and other emergency responses, and the failure of agencies to meet their formal commitments to, for example, SPHERE or GHD principles, suggest that the various quality initiatives are not having a sufficient impact.
Lack of information flow from the affected people to the donor population on the quality of the response means that there is little external pressure for improvement in the humanitarian system. A regulatory system is needed to oblige agencies to put the affected population at the centre of measures of agency effectiveness and to provide detailed and accurate information to the donor public and taxpayers on the outcomes of assistance, including the affected populations' views of that assistance.


There are four main recommendations emerging from the TEC evaluation. They are aimed primarily at international actors.

  1. The international humanitarian community needs a fundamental reorientation from supplying aid to supporting and facilitating communities' own relief and recovery priorities.
  2. All actors should strive to increase their disaster response capacities and to improve the linkages and coherence between themselves and other actors in the international disaster response system, including those from the affected countries themselves.
  3. The international relief system should establish an accreditation system to distinguish agencies that work to a professional standard in a particular sector.
  4. All actors need to make the current funding system impartial, and more efficient, flexible, transparent and better aligned with principles of good donorship.

Show footnotes

1 All reports are available on the TEC website:

2 See online at

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Reference this page

Evaluation of international response to the tsunami. Field Exchange 30, April 2007. p21.



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