Harbus: Why did you decide to do your summer internship with the government of Sri Lanka?
Annie: In 2004 when the Tsunami hit two thirds of the coast on December 26, as far as one mile inland in some areas, I knew that management expertise would be needed to rebuild the nation and recover the livelihoods of the 800,000 people affected. I was lending in India that day with my HBS friend from Sri Lanka who promised me that he would work with the Social Enterprise Initiative to develop summer internship opportunities for us.
When I learned about the position in economic recovery at the Task Force for Rebuilding the Nation (TAFREN), I thought it was the best opportunity for me to leverage my skills and obtain a broad experience in the government and non-government sectors. TAFREN was established under Presidential directives to coordinate the reconstruction and development process along with multilateral donors and implementing agencies. Given my consulting background in the manufacturing and banking industries, I needed broad experiences to prepare my career switch and step toward my professional and personal goal of alleviating poverty in the world. This was my chance to see whether I could fit in the nonprofit environment while helping those who had their past and future stolen by the sea.
Harbus: What did you do during your internship? Was it what you expected?
Annie: Two weeks after I arrived, my colleagues left because TAFREN was created with the utilization of senior executives who had to return to their companies six months after the Tsunami. I was definitely not expecting to manage meetings with key government officials so early in my summer. Thanks to the support of the UN-ILO, we hired and trained local government officers to coordinate the income recovery program at the grassroots level. This enabled me to obtain continuous understanding of the situation on the ground and prioritize problem solving at the national level.
The other initiative I launched was a “supply database” to enable the local government and NGOs to coordinate and plan together. Halfway through the first year of reconstruction, there was still no system for an NGO to know about the work of others, even at the village level. Since we needed to be concerned about equity, it was important for the local government to know that one NGO was giving 200 sewing machines to villagers X, Y, Z, and that other suppliers of sewing machines were not giving to the same people. Additionally, a simple excel database of suppliers (NGOs/private sector/government programs) enables players of similar sectors to coordinate delivery of value-added services to complement offerings such as training and establishment of a distribution system that secures income from assets donated. I hired a consultant to implement the processes across stake holders one district at a time. This may not be the most efficient way, but I only had access to UN funds to implement these types of capacity building efforts. To accelerate implementation, TAFREN signed a MoU with a local NGO with offices across Tsunami affected regions.
In the midst of things, I sometimes felt frustrated by the approval process required for me to drive things forward. When I think about it now, I feel lucky to have received the support I got from one of the highest authorities in the country. Also, I did not expect such efficiency from the stakeholders in with which I dealt. I remember calling for a meeting with the governor of the farthest district, which takes eight hours by car from Colombo. When I arrived the following Tuesday morning, 23 of the 25 invitees were present at the meeting. I do not even think this is possible in the private sector.
Harbus: After completing the internship, you decided to stay for a full year, rather than return back to school right away. How did you think about that decision?
Annie: If your goal in life is to have a positive impact on people’s lives before you die, the decision to stay in a country affected by one of the deadliest natural disasters in modern history is easy to make. Given the support committed by the international community and the willingness of the government to accelerate recovery, I felt that this was a unique opportunity to make positive changes in Sri Lanka, where 40% of the population live below the poverty line.
I also wanted to stay because it is difficult to have sustainable impact when there is no ongoing support to initiatives. In regions where telecommunications are destroyed or nonexistent, relationships are critical to ensure progress. This may be the reason why recovery was slowly moving.international consultants and volunteers always come and go after a few months. Continuity is a big challenge in such a high nation-wide turnover.
Finally, the cost of living in Sri Lanka is so low that with the contract offered by the UN, I could shamefully live like a princess while paying for my HBS debts.
Harbus: What was the most rewarding part of your experience?
Annie: I felt very happy when I read the meeting minutes received from the local government staff we hired and trained. They were making great progress and felt that I was able to provide the support needed through my contacts at the national level, which I developed aggressively throughout the year.
The most rewarding part of my experience was when the newly elected President appointed a new leader at the head of TAFREN, I was asked to design the organizational structure, role and responsibilities of the staff responsible for transforming the agency into the Reconstruction and Development Authority (RADA). Based on the Act submitted to parliament, I was able to address our lessons learned and make sure that the institution I had been working for would improve its effectiveness going forward. My objective perspective also enabled me to meet with key government officials across the country, including those dealing with conflict zones, to clarify the role of RADA within the government structure. From what I heard, much progress has been made since I completed the project last March and before the threat for another war emerged. Many international development agencies are leaving at this point so I worry about the future of vulnerable Sri Lankans.