IN THE SPOTLIGHT
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Natural disasters, such as the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, bring about many obvious challenges in the aftermath. However, there are less obvious situations and struggles left in the wake of these disruptive forces. When a natural disaster strikes, the wide-ranging impacts have the potential to disrupt more than daily lives; religious, familial and ideological belief systems can be affected over long periods of time. “Tsunami Recovery in Sri Lanka: Ethnic and Regional Dimensions” explores the outcomes of the Indian Ocean tsunami that took place on Dec. 26, 2004, and ravaged 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s coastline.
Anthropology Professor Dennis McGilvray, a scholar of South Asian cultures, along with Michele Gamburd, his colleague at Portland State University who studies globalization, gender relations and global change, were the impetus behind this book, borne from their longstanding familiarity with the varying ethnic, familial and political backgrounds of the people affected by the tsunami. They applied for and received a Human and Social Dynamics grant, part of the National Science Foundation program for funding research. Along with five colleagues, including Patricia Lawrence, former CU-Boulder professor of anthropology and instructor in the Program in Peace and Conflict Studies, now a consultant for the UNOPS Applied Social Research Unit in Sri Lanka, and Randall Kuhn, formerly of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Behavioral Science and now an assistant professor and director of the Global Health Affairs Program at the University of Denver, they compiled an overall study of the tsunami recovery process.
Each contributor brings his or her own expertise in the areas of politics, family and culture, natural disasters, and relief and crisis management, creating a very complete view of the resulting issues.
McGilvray’s work focuses on cultural aspects of the Tamils, Muslims, and Burghers of eastern Sri Lanka. His well-established knowledge of and relationship with the people of Sri Lanka aided him in assessing the ethnic and cultural impacts. He noted that one of the most interesting aspects was the lack of coordination and basic cultural knowledge demonstrated by non-governmental organizations giving aid. Though their good intentions were unquestionable, their methods were potentially disruptive to an entire familial structure. “Most houses in the Tamil-speaking Hindu and Muslim region of eastern Sri Lanka are owned by women,” he said. “Houses are part of a bride’s dowry. When money and building materials for new houses were distributed by NGOs, they immediately went to men as the assumed heads of households. They had no concept of family patterns.”
Observing this, McGilvray and Gamburd wondered if the implied transfer of ownership would disrupt marriage customs or disempower women. “We found that the long-term impact is minimal,” said McGilvray. “The custom of women bringing houses as dowries into their marriages continues as an established societal expectation. In 20 years, as children become adults and marry, all houses will again be owned women.”
NGOs from different countries also engaged in a form of competition among themselves, each vying for the largest visible presence in the disaster area. “Each organization erected sign boards, they had offices and employees on site,” McGilvray said. In spite of – or perhaps because of – the participation of many NGOs, relief efforts were not organized, except in one third of the country under Tamil Tiger rebel control. The organizations in this area were overseen by the rebels, which resulted in aid being handled efficiently, with each country assigned a task – one addressed water supply, another roads, and so on.
The book is a result of studies that extended into three years, mostly on site, and offers a wide range of information useful not only to scholars, but also to those who participate in relief efforts, or who wonder what happens after the cameras disappear and world attention moves on. “Each chapter explores a different aspect of results of the disaster,” said McGilvray. “If someone is only interested in disaster relief, or in aspects of culture, they can find useful information. My hope is that the book will be read in entirety, to gain a larger picture.”
“Tsunami Recovery in Sri Lanka: Ethnic and Regional Dimensions” was published in March 2010 by Routledge, Taylor and Francis.
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