Gods in government

Last Sunday, I wrote about how Sri Lanka’s Minister of Disaster Management never returned hurriedly to Sri Lanka to deal with the catastrophic flooding which hit the country last month, and instead, on his way back to the country from an international conference – ironically on disaster management – had an extended stopover in Dubai for indeterminable reasons. Last week, in coordination with colleagues at work, an RTI request was lodged in order to ascertain just what the Minister was doing outside the country, using public funds, when he should have been on the ground leading relief efforts. To date, there has been no statement whatsoever, leave aside any degree of contrition in public from the Minister, his Ministry or other public officials from the Meteorological Department or the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) around failures in early warning, response and relief coordination.

We should be angry. We should demand the resignation of the Minister and all public officials who fail in what we expect them to do. The lack of accountability and near total impunity around governance arises from elected representatives and appointed officials who know that once in office, the public no matter what will rarely seek their removal. This needs to change, but not just because of last month’s flooding.

An article by journalist Amantha Perera, who has perhaps the most experience around disaster reporting in the country, published by IRIN, quotes Lalith Chandrapala, Director General of the Meteorological Department who says the department doesn’t have Doppler radar capability in 2017 and that with Japanese funding, two stations will be set up in the next two years. Four years ago, in 2013, a storm killed at least fifty fishermen at sea. At the time, an article published by Amantha, also on IRIN, quotes DMC’s Assistant Director Sarath Lal Kumara saying that a new Doppler Radar system would be operational by August, that year. One year prior to this, in 2012, the then Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera was quoted in the mainstream print media, after devastating flooding that year, saying that a Doppler radar system had been installed at Gongala Kanda in Deniyaya and that it would be operational by the end of that year. Two years ago, in 2015, mainstream print media reported that the Doppler radar system was dysfunctional, even though it was shipped to Sri Lanka as far back as 2011. The same media report notes that the Meteorological Department was in discussions with Japanese parties to secure two more Doppler radar systems.

We have then multiple officials and Ministers, over successive governments, for at least six years, misinforming and misdirecting the public around life-saving adverse weather detection equipment financed by bi-lateral and multi-lateral agreements, as well as public coffers. Over this period of time, due to rains alone and because of little to no warning coupled with abysmal planning, we have had hundreds of thousands displaced, tens of thousands of homes and buildings completely or partially destroyed and the catastrophic loss of human life including children, women and men – a cost to family, community and country that is really incalculable. The responsibility for all this lies with those heading relevant line ministries and government institutions. And yet, they continue in their employment, no questions asked.

Last Sunday, as well as at a meeting at the United Nations in Colombo convened last week to discuss how social media played a role in the flood relief operations, I called this lack of accountability criminal. I also said that institutions like the World Bank, UN and other bilateral and multilateral donors who support Sri Lanka’s disaster risk reduction and prevention programmes are now part of the problem, instead of supporting the development of solutions and proper planning. As part of the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), the UN Development Group maintains a transparency portal on the web which, for purposes of public accountability, publishes the sum of money going into development in each UN member state, divided by sector. In 2016, Sri Lanka got US$ 100,417,924 towards disaster prevention and preparedness. That’s 25% of the total sum of money towards developmental assistance as calculated on the portal. It is unclear whether the UN country office in Sri Lanka will hold accountable the institutions and ministries it funded, for this considerable amount over 2016 alone, around their inability to plan for, provide early warning around, or create comprehensive collaboration, coordination and communication platforms after a disaster. Without strict controls, key performance indicators or naming and shaming, foreign funding and technical support will just go to waste. Donors and foreign governments need to peg future funding to key deliverables, ask for comprehensive reasons around systemic failures or stop funding the government of Sri Lanka with immediate effect. It is either this, or becoming partners in fostering a culture of impunity that leads to the loss of life.

Much more can be done with data from the private sector that can around emergencies be leveraged by government and other mandated authorities, like the Red Cross in Sri Lanka. Facebook last week, in collaboration with WFP, UNICEF and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies launched a way through which near real-time maps of population displacement and movements after disasters can be drawn. This is based on the millions of Facebook users alone, and amongst other sources, data they generate through their actions and the geo-location features of Facebook’s apps on smartphones. Sri Lankan telecommunications companies like to endlessly promote their selflessness and largesse after a disaster. Tellingly however, there is no reported case around how billions of call data records, generated daily, is made available to and used by relevant ministries, departments and agencies for disaster risk reduction, as well as post-disaster search and rescue, or relief operations. This data, pseudonymised to protect individual privacy, is already available for think-tanks dealing with development. Telcos and government haven’t, even in 2017, thought about how beyond the telegenics of a disaster, this data can help with disaster planning and response, in near real time data, based around customer location. This information can help direct relief and supplies to where people are gathered most, moving towards, or those marooned in areas most affected by a disaster, complementing aerial reconnaissance and other means. Another suggestion made at the UN meeting last week was to encourage government to open up their datasets around disasters, and to stop publishing daily updates in proprietary, closed formats like PDFs, which cannot be indexed or ingested by systems tailored for disaster response, or the reporting of urgent needs.

But really useful solutions can also be relatively low-tech. Take the DMC’s Twitter feed, an important source of information especially during and immediately after a disaster. Last year, critical warnings around severe weather conditions were uploaded against a green or blue background. This year, it was red and brown, at various times. In sum, the severity of the alert bears no relation to the choice of colour. This flies in the face of logic, and established protocols around early warning by for example the Philippines Government, which has an alerting system basic on green, yellow and red (mirroring traffic lights) around disasters. The Philippines government even has officially recognised hashtags for use around disasters by those on Twitter reporting on needs, alerts and situation updates. Even in Bangladesh, things are more developed than they are in Sri Lanka. When at the height of flooding, Twitter reached out in order to help them compile a list of the most useful, active and reliable sources on the platform reporting on the floods, they refused to believe me when I said there was not a single line ministry, Minister, department, agency or public official on Twitter, save for DMC, that was active around the disaster. We are so backward in our adoption of basic technology that it beggars disbelief around leading social media companies that want to help save lives.

Just the simple implementation of a colour coded public warning framework can help reduce anxiety, help with planning, coordinated evacuations and public information dissemination. Yet, this eludes government, along with common-sense, accountability, innovation, collaboration, coordination and communication. In every imaginable way official entities can prepare for and respond to a disaster, systems and frameworks are found lacking. There is no doubt that citizens will in the future, independent of government, help others in need. However, the spontaneity, sophistication and success of these citizen led post-disaster initiatives may ironically make government more complacent, allowing them to take credit for things that they have had no role engineering or even supporting. We must not allow the impunity to continue. The loss of life is not the result of severe weather alone. It is the result of openly lying, the misallocation of public money and foreign funding, a lack of accountability and a culture of impunity. Our anger should be directed at our public representatives, who have names, designations and faces.

We may not be able to influence the weather gods, but those who think they are gods in government must be reminded, unequivocally, they are not.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 11 June 2017.

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