Accountability lessons from the tsunami response in India
by Sandhya Venkateswaran, CARE India December 2005

The emergency response to the 2004 tsunami in India demonstrates once more that, while disasters are class- and caste-neutral, those on the margins feel their impact much more severely. Marginalised people live in precarious conditions that increase their vulnerability to disasters. When viewed in this light, accountability to affected communities needs to go well beyond the provision of relief and rehabilitation, so that they regain their pre-disaster level. Accountability needs to empower them – socially and economically – to build their resilience and protection from future disasters.

Accountability should not just be about the final outcome, but also the degree of responsiveness of donors, the state and implementing agencies to the local context and the needs of the community, including ensuring that communities have control over the rebuilding process. Since affected communities are the ‘reason’ for raising the funds in the first place, any accountability to the giver of those funds is incomplete without establishing accountability to the beneficiary of them. These two objects of accountability are linked, in the sense that an absence of accountability to the community increases the risk of ineffective programming, and potentially undermines the relevance, quality and sustainability of the outcome. To explore the nature of accountability in humanitarian crises, this article examines the role of the media, donors, implementing agencies and the state in the tsunami response in India. It concludes with some suggestions for how accountability can be ensured.

Accountability and the media

About 10,000 people died and more than two and a half million were affected by the tsunami in India. Homeless, and grieving the loss of loved ones, survivors had to rebuild lives and livelihoods from scratch. Disasters such as the tsunami are dramatic in their nature and extensive in their geographical spread. They make for very visible emergencies. Unlike the many silent, and seemingly invisible, emergencies across the globe, in which as many, if not more, people die or suffer, such high-profile disasters attract the attention of the media, resulting in a large public outpouring of empathy and funds. The manner in which the media profiles and packages an emergency has a direct correlation with the scale and depth of public support, and hence the funds that are raised. The tsunami response vividly illustrates this, with total aid amounting to around $11 billion. Similarly, the floods that hit Mozambique in 2000 attracted significantly more media attention than the flooding that affected Venezuela and Orissa in India in 1999. Even though far fewer people died in Mozambique, the disaster there attracted more attention, and more funds.

Clearly, media attention can generate substantial public, and hence financial, support for a particular disaster response. But this may well be at the expense of other, less visible but no less deadly, emergencies elsewhere. The availability of large amounts of funding for a particular emergency may also undermine responsive and responsible spending. With overall funds for aid limited, the irresponsible or wasteful utilisation of funds in one emergency comes at the expense of others elsewhere. This may result in a situation where the media, indirectly or inadvertently, governs the level of funding a particular emergency gets. But to what extent is the media a legitimate actor in determining the level of funding that goes to different disasters?

Accountability, programming and the state

Media attention, combined with funds in abundance, often creates a compulsion for quick results. The experience of the Gujarat earthquake in 2001, in which some 25,000 people died, highlighted the negative implications of spending within a quick timeframe. The tsunami response has underscored these lessons. In some cases, funds for rehabilitation activities had to be spent in as little as six months. The imperative to build temporary shelters within a very short period of time resulted in shelters that were unusable or unused. A recent multi-agency evaluation in India and Sri Lanka found that many shelters were uninhabitable due to excessive heat, and others were already showing signs of cracks and damage. The evaluation found them unfit for a family to live in with dignity. When large resources are spent on shelters that are not used, where and with whom does accountability lie?

Furthermore, when funds are raised entirely at the outset of a disaster, the links between fundraising and a needs-based assessment become tenuous. Understandably, the initial stages of an emergency are not the most appropriate time for an in-depth, informed assessment of needs; the attention of aid workers is directed at responding to immediate survival imperatives, and many longer-term needs only unfold over time. Experiences from the tsunami-affected areas of India show this clearly. The initial focus in India was almost exclusively on fishing communities, and there was little if any attempt to assess the impact on other sections of the community, such as agricultural workers and ancillary workers within the fishing economy. In some circumstances, funds were raised based on the assumption that all of those affected needed new boats. Fundraising that does not lead to programming that reflects an understanding of the context undermines accountability, both to communities and to donors.

The quality of programming is also undermined by poor policy directives. One example from the Indian tsunami response concerns the Tamil Nadu government’s shelter policy. Because the government did not use construction materials that were appropriate to the local climate, shelters are in need of considerable repair. Little attention was paid to the size, design and location of the shelters, nor was community participation sought. While less than optimal quality has in many cases been justified on the grounds that the shelters are only temporary, past experience suggests that they will be needed for at least two years.

Accountability and equity

Exclusion from social, economic and political spheres based on social, ethnic, religious, gender and other lines has been a dominant feature of Indian development. In a disaster, these exclusions are often exacerbated. For a variety of reasons, vulnerable populations are often marginalised from the processes of relief and reconstruction. Equity issues come into play when socially vulnerable communities, such as specific castes in India, tribal groups and women, are unable to secure relief and rehabilitation packages. Norms within traditional local governance structures in Tamil Nadu, for example, prevented women-headed households from obtaining relief; groups belonging to a certain caste (the dalits) have reported being unable to get anything after the initial relief period. Policies and detailed programming strategies need to be sensitive to such exclusions.

While exclusions based on caste, gender and ethnicity are recognised and visible, albeit they often go unaddressed, others, such as those relating to livelihoods, are much less obvious. Initial relief entitlements in Tamil Nadu were based primarily on the loss of physical assets such as boats, and so failed to recognise the losses of people such as fish vendors, many of whom are women, whose livelihoods were not based on a central physical asset. Appropriate relief and rehabilitation policies and packages need to include all those whose lives have been affected, whether or not they have suffered a tangible loss.

The Tamil Nadu resettlement policy illustrates how post-disaster programming can further marginalise affected people, with traditional rights often compromised in favour of commercial interests. In Tamil Nadu, government regulations forced coastal communities away from the coast. This was apparently for safety reasons, but other government policies mandated ecotourism in the areas from which local communities were being pushed out. Basic logic suggests that, if coastal areas are safe for tourism, then they are safe for coastal communities.

Towards greater accountability

Post-disaster rebuilding that is not carried out in partnership with affected communities, building on their knowledge and opinions; that does not involve a flow of information on entitlements, policies and processes; and which is not accountable is often misplaced, ineffective and iniquitous. The media, donor agencies, implementing agencies, the government and civil society all have a role to play in creating an environment where people’s rights to information, participation and informed choice, and their right to accountability, are respected and realised.

If the accountability issues encountered in the tsunami response in India are not to be replicated in other contexts, emergency response systems need to prioritise and value (1) greater transparency; (2) greater participation; and (3) greater community monitoring. The Sphere Standards recommend that disaster-affected people actively participate in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the disaster response. Not only would this reinforce people’s dignity, but it would also ensure that rehabilitation is responsive and in line with people’s needs.

Participation is meaningless if it is not accompanied by a transparent system that makes available all forms of information at all stages of the disaster response. Thus, when coastal communities are asked to ‘participate’ in decision-making related to their resettlement options, but are not told what might happen to coastal areas were they to vacate, this is not ‘real’ participation.

The essence and impact of transparency and participation are diluted if they are not based on systems of community monitoring. Community monitoring contributes to ensuring that the circle of participation is complete, and that decisions taken through a participatory process are implemented appropriately.

Accountability to the community needs to be seen as a continuum, from needs assessments carried out in a participatory manner to participatory planning, monitoring and final outcomes.

Sandhya Venkateswaran is Director of Advocacy, CARE India. Her email address is