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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2967

Putting Lipstick on the Pig or How a debacle can become a "success"

By *Max Seelhofer

We remember: on 04 January 2005, in Matara, nine days after the Tsunami, Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, together with SDC CEO Walter Fust, promised help. On 18 February 2005, the pertinent Sri Lankan Authorities published the "Guidelines for Donor Agencies Regarding Rehabilitation/Relocation of Tsunami Affected Schools". On 10 March 2005, Switzerland and Sri Lanka signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), which stipulates that the Swiss would finance (reconstruct/repair) seven schools in the Matara District and one school in Jaffna. A few weeks later, the Swiss agreed to add an eight school in Matara and a second one in Jaffna.

According to the SDC Matara Bureau Chief Peter Schmid (architect, on duty from January 2005 to December 2006) and SDC Construction Delegate Urs Rudolf (construction engineer, on duty from January 2005 to June 2007), it would have easily been possible to get the eight Matara schools done within 2 _ years, i.e. staged between June 2006 and March 2007 - provided stable and reliable support from SDC's HQ in Bern (Switzerland).

But Schmid and Rudolf were left alone by their own people in Bern. During more than one year there was no certainty about the budget. Schmid and Rudolf requested - in vain - additional field staff (architects) for the planning phase; their inquiries were not answered, their concerns not heard.

Consequently and no surprise, the SDC's "School Programme" ended in a disaster. Two years after the Tsunami (by 31 December 2006), not a single school was completed. Three years after the Tsunami (by 31 December 2007), only one school (No. 8, Talalla, South Maha, Vidyalaya [Kottegoda]), representing solely 3.7% of the overall programme, was finished.

Between April and July 2008, with a delay of roughly 1 years, three other schools got completed: No. 3 (Sri Sumangala Balika Maha Vidyalaya [Welligama]), No. 7 (Denuwala Kanistha Vidyalaya/Sangananda [Denuwala, Ahangama]), No.1 (Talalla, South Maha, Vidyalaya [Kottegoda]).

This means: four years after the Tsunami (by 31 December 2008), just four schools (No. 1, 3, 7 and 8) were completed, representing only 37.3 % of the overall programme - a sobering, a catastrophic outcome.

What happened to the other four schools (No. 2, 4, 5 and 6), i.e. to the remaining 62.7% of SDC's "School Programme"? Between 14 and 16 January 2008, we visited - accompanied by Principals and teachers (who provided valuable first hand information) - the construction sites (and in addition also schools No. 1, 3, 7 and 8).

It took one year to find out that there were no funds available to do schools No, 4 and 5, so the SDC, in February 2006, requested the Swiss Interchurch Aid (HEKS) to pitch in. Progress by 31 December 2008 of No. 4 (Mirissa Methodist Kanishta Vidyalaya) und No. 5 (Mirissa Madya Maha Vidyalaya), which are being merged into one large school: approx. 75%.

It took two years to find out that there were no funds available to do schools No. 2 and 6, so in February 2007, the SDC returned the two projects to the Ministry of Education, which managed to convince the Unicef to pitch in. Progress by 31 December 2008 of No. 2 (St. Servatius College [Kotuwegoda]) und No. 6 (Mahamaya Balika Maha Vidyalaya [Kottuwegoda]): less than 5%.

The initial budget for these four schools (No. 2, 4, 5 and 6) was approx. USD 5.0 million. SDC's annual budget is approx. USD 950.0 million.

It is a well known fact that since mid 2005, construction costs, not only in LKR, but also in USD (and therefore in Swiss Francs), have increased dramatically. With regard to schools No, 1, 3, 7 and 8, the SDC was not able to increase the corresponding budgets, so they downsized the original plans significantly, and they purchased construction material and equipment of the lowest (cheapest) quality. The principals of the schools No 1, 3, 7 and 8 are planning to approach these days the Swiss Ambassador in Colombo in order to their disagreement and disappointment about the irresponsible delays in the completion of the eight schools and the mostly bad quality of the works and the equipment (Schools No. 1, 3 and 7).

HEKS and UNICEF however, in an attempt to implement the original project design and respecting a reasonable quality of the works, had to increase the corresponding budgets by 200 to 300% (calculated in Swiss francs).

Just to add: it would have easily been possible to get the two (very small) Jaffna schools done within 1 years, i.e. by August 2006. Progress in August 2006 (when the works got stopped): approx. 5%!

These are the facts which nobody can deny: the SDC is the author and is responsible for a rousing disaster. Those who have warned from the beginning, like SDC-Matara field staff Schmid and Rudolf, were removed from the SDC Mission in Sri Lanka, victims of the principle (in Switzerland still popular and widely practiced): Ignore the message, shoot the messenger.

On 28 August 2007, its chairman declared publicly that the Control Committee (GPK-S) of the second chamber of the Swiss Parliament (Council of States, equivalent to the US Senate) would install a Sub-Committee whose task was to review and investigate into the business practices of the SDC in Sri Lanka, related to two of its programmes, among them SDC's "School Programme".

Did the GPK-S carry out a professional, authentic investigation? The answer is no! The GPK-S took a so called finance audit (elaborated by PWC Colombo), which reviewed solely the accounts of the SDC Field Office Matara (2006/2007) and declared that the accounts were ok. So what?

One: nobody ever put this into question.

Two: the bookkeeping system of the SDC Matara Field Office has nothing to do with the results and the impact of the SDC's school reconstruction/rehabilitation programme in Matara.

Nevertheless, the GPK-S went a step further and issued a "clean bill", stating that the SDC had done a good job and that no deficiencies in the school reconstruction/rehabilitation programme in Matara could be identified (refer to the letter of the GPK-S to the Swiss Federal Government of 24 October 2008).

This is 180 degrees against the facts (they are all on records) and thus against the truth, and over and above, this is making a mockery of the Ministry of Education, of hundreds of teachers, thousands of pupils and parents in the Matara District, and - last but not least - of the Swiss tax payers and donors.

The performance of the Control Committee is a dark momentum for the credibility of Swiss democratic institutions, and SDC's performance in Sri Lanka a shame for Switzerland.

*Max Seelhofer is a Swiss sociologist and lives in Arequipa (Peru). He was Chief-Delegate of the Swiss Red Cross in Sri Lanka from March 2005 to September 2006.

- Asian Tribune -

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