Focus on Asia: A journey through the disaster zones

When an earthquake hit northern Pakistan and India in October last year, 73,000 people were killed and more than 3.5 million left homeless.

Save the Children UK swung into action, as it had done ten months earlier when the south Asian tsunami hit. In Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India, the local offices have had to step up their work to cope with the twin disasters.

Two months after the earthquake, the charity's finance director, Nick Kavanagh, set off to see how its financial management systems were holding up in the emergencies


The first part of the trip was in Sri Lanka, and my first day was spent at the Save the Children field office. I was lucky enough to meet all seven district managers from around the country. The way these guys had scaled up the programme after the tsunami (financially, more than five times the size of last year) was impressive. The assistance started within 12 hours of the tsunami, and the areas of work have included restoring livelihoods, transitional shelters, education and helping children who had lost their parents.


The work we visited today - on the theme of education - brought home how hard it is for the poorest people, even when they are very close to the city. First we visited a motivation centre, where children are able to start their journey back to mainstream education, and a government school, where our partners' work and influence has introduced a good learning environment.

We also visited a group of mothers our work supports. We had worked with the children to help them understand the problems of HIV/Aids in a non-threatening way. The children then taught these issues to their parents, who found it a helpful way to learn.

Next stop, later that night, was Delhi....

DAYS 9/10

I spent these days in the office, which set in context some of the amazing work with and by vulnerable children I had seen on the ground.

My overriding memory of India one year on from the tsunami will be similar to that of Sri Lanka - progress quickly checked by the floods. I also noted the contrast between the tsunami-affected areas, where funds are available and being well used, and the vast areas where excellent work continues but where funds are tight.

It makes me all the more determined to push for charities in the UK not have to pay tax, so that more money would be available to get the very poor in Hyderabad a decent education.


The trip to see some of our work in the Trincomalee district involved various forms of transport, including Sri Lanka's answer to the Woolwich ferry and the tuk tuk - a three-wheeled automated rickshaw that looks like a cross between a motorbike and a Reliant Robin without doors.

The journey was full of examples of the destruction the tsunami had left in its wake and personal stories of loss of life. We saw the remains of a mosque at which 45 children had been attending Sunday school - all had died.

But we also saw examples of people rebuilding their lives. We visited a village called Kinniya in the wake of a visit from former US President Bill Clinton. The first experience was humbling - handing out small cash grants to pre-selected farmers who had lost everything.

We then saw a temporary shelter built to allow pre-school children an opportunity to play and learn again, and gradually come to terms with their fear of the ocean. We also met a carpenter whose workshop and home had both been destroyed - we had provided him with tools and equipment and he is now earning a livelihood again.

Making the most effective use of time, I travelled with finance staff and, during the long journey, was able to discuss grant management, procurement and the big risks facing the programme.


First stop today was a school, where I was honoured to open the first children's play park in the area. The happiness and excitement on the children's faces is a lasting memory, even if I thought my days of pushing children on see-saws and roundabouts were long gone. The concept is that teachers and children look at priorities and decide what they need most - at another school it was fencing to enable the growing of vegetables.

DAY 11

To the airport for my first ever helicopter trip, to Bagh. It wasn't long before the sheer scale of devastation sunk in. Little shops were reopening daily, but next to each was rubble that used to be a building.

We visited a couple of temporary camps where Save the Children had set up safe play areas. We were training supervisors in child protection and how to help young people deal with earthquake trauma.

On the way back, we walked through the debris of what had been a secondary school where many young people had died. The Kashmiri people take great pride in securing quality education for their children and we are doing our best to help them back to school.

DAYS 4/5

Both days were spent with either a tropical storm or cyclone hovering menacingly above.


On the way back to Chennai, we stopped off to look at a temporary children's centre and a partially completed permanent building. The completion date was postponed because of the monsoon, which had made it impossible to mix the cement - another example of conditions hampering progress.

DAY 12

Helicopter from Bagh to Muzaffarabad. We were aiming to get all our non-food items distributed before the winter really set in. Each local family got ten metal sheets, one jerry can, four sleeping bags, two baby blankets and a toolkit. Carrying all this stuff back to their land was no mean feat, especially up steep mountains, but their friends and family chipped in. We were told that we were the only people offering help in this area.

In the afternoon the emergency finance manager and I went to visit three of the safe play areas, one of which was way up in the mountains. At one, more than 100 children were painting, playing and learning inside, playing cricket and other sports outside.


After two days based in the office to avoid the storms, we paddled down the coast to visit partners in the villages. The flooding in Chennai was pretty bad and, after we moved away, a couple of dams burst, making it even more difficult. In both Sri Lanka and India, the rains have arrived early and have been monsoon-like.

The partners we visited were down the coast in an area badly affected by the tsunami. In Mahabalipuram, Social Education Advancement (SEA) supports children who dropped out of the education system after the tsunami by giving them a bridging course to help them back into schools and tuition centres.

In Pondicherry, our partner Auroville - southern India's 'universal township' - is designing and constructing 27 child development centres. Participation by the local community is a key part of the preparation. The Indian Government has been very impressed with the buildings and is looking at the possibility of replication.

As well as hearing about and seeing the work at all of these projects, the country finance manager and I looked at the financial systems in operation and offered advice and support where needed.

DAY 13

A Saturday morning helicopter ride to Islamabad got us back in time for the weekly briefing of the emergency staff. We reviewed progress against targets, the good news being that getting the shelters distributed before Christmas was on schedule. Development of safe play areas was on track too. On education, the design of the semi-permanent classrooms was complete.

This was an amazing team, and this was some trip: terrible devastation, huge hardship and floods hampering progress in some areas. Through it all, however, great progress was being made towards real and lasting change for vulnerable children.

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