Editor’s blog: The dangers of aid

I spent the last day in Sri Lanka on a trip over to the Eastern side of the island and the picturesque town of Trincomalee. Trinco, as it’s known, has one of the world’s finest deep-water harbours and is pretty as a picture, especially when it’s at peace (which it appears to be now). The surfing is great, the sparkling sea teems with fish and the ‘Cultural Triangle’ of ancient archaeological sites is just down the road.

I got a lift over from the Sri Lankan airforce in one of their battered and noisy Chinese Harbin Y-12 planes. It beats the dusty 8-hour road trip. When we arrived at the China Bay airbase we were met by naval gunboat. A number of these vessels were blown up by Tamil suicide speed boats – shaped like waterborne Stealth Fighters – during the conflict.

Funnily enough just before departure I’d seen on the BBC’s website that Primark had been rumbled for using child labour on Southern India to make its clothing. The kids were Sri Lankan refugees.

The economy over here in the East is on its arse. Years of bombings, gunfights, abductions and urban riots have seen to that. Tourism has all but dried up; the infrastructure needs a lot of work after years of fighting. But there is real hope. The sun keeps shining here while the monsoon pours on the Western side of the island.

In the meantime, the ubiquitous aid agencies who flocked here after the 2004 Tsunami are still very much in evidence. You can spot them a mile off in their vehicle of choice worldwide – the Toyota Land Cruiser. Aid is a complex business here – not least because the conflict has caused the displacement of tens of thousands of people who need help. But I met several Sri Lankan officials – people a lot more reasonable than the Burmese Junta – who expressed disquiet about the continuing presence of these NGOs. They don’t have a proper list of who they are, how many of them are still on the ground, or what they are doing.

Some suspect that the charities, many of whom are Christian, are engaged in religious conversions – and that’s a highly sensitive area in a country where religion has been at the heart of its troubles for the last 30 years (Trincomalee has a delicate mix of Hindu Tamils, Buddhist Singhalese and Muslims).

Most importantly, if large numbers of people become accustomed to the dependency culture of aid, i.e. receiving handouts to meet their daily needs, then they have little incentive to get up and get on with it. Getting the economy back onto its feet will be one of the principle challenges faced by the new Chief Minister Pillayan, whom I interviewed yesterday.

I was still thinking about this later when I read a really excellent piece in Prospect magazine about the failings of aid in Afghanistan. It’s a hideous irony that aid, given often from the purest of motives, can wind up causing such a mess because of the cack-handed way in which it is delivered.