No one is ever truly prepared for a natural disaster. The humanitarian interventions that follow are inevitably improvised and hasty, as relief workers make urgent arrangements to provide water, food, shelter, and sanitation and to relocate the displaced survivors. Such was the case in Sri Lanka when the great tsunami of 2004 left thousands of people dead and tens of thousands homeless. But as Ananda Galappatti knows, survivors of catastrophes like this one are also burdened by shock and grief, and by fear, insecurity, depression, rage, and wrenching social problems-psychosocial consequences of trauma similar to those of war. As a young medical anthropologist, he is devoting himself to these neglected needs.
Ananda Galappatti was born thirty-three years ago in London and spent his early childhood in Sri Lanka. After attending high school in Dhaka, Bangladesh, he studied psychology at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. The Sri Lanka to which he returned in 1996 was torn by bloody civil conflicts of many years running. The following year, he assisted Dr. Gameela Samarasinghe in a psychosocial epidemiological survey of Sri Lanka's conflict zones. This revealed that 40-65 percent of those in the affected areas displayed signs of post-traumatic stress linked to war and violence. Yet, in all Sri Lanka there were fewer than ten psychologists specializing in trauma. To help fill this gap, Galappatti and Samarasinghe formed the War Trauma & Psychosocial Support Program (PSP).
Through PSP's capacity-building program, twenty-four-year-old Galappatti trained twenty psychosocial workers to serve the towns, villages, hospital, and refugee camps of Vavuniya, a war-demoralized district six hours from Colombo, and otherwise enabled the area's primitive psychosocial sector with skill-building seminars, new intervention strategies, and resources such as databases and procedure manuals. In Vavuniya, Galappatti observed that psychological suffering cannot be separated from the real-world circumstances of its origins, including war itself and "deeply rooted political divisions." His approach adapted lessons from Western psychology to Sri Lankan conditions and religious practices.
Then, on December 26, 2004, came the tsunami. Among the hardest hit was Batticaloa on Sri Lanka's east coast, a district like Vavuniya already traumatized by years of war. In January 2005, Galappatti joined in founding The Mangrove, a network of organizations and individuals in Batticaloa dedicated to coordinating psychosocial aspects of the relief effort.
Not wanting to be a "fly-in, fly-out" expert, Galappatti moved directly to Batticaloa. As The Mangrove's volunteer coordinator, he lobbied incessantly for better psychosocial services. He liaised with local, national, and international agencies; convened meeting after meeting for aid workers and psychosocial practitioners; and briefed newly arrived aid organizations. He set up a rapid assessment system to assist children in camps, organized training workshops, and mediated quarrels between aid organizations. Constantly networking, Galappatti spread word of "best practices" and warned of harmful ones. Meanwhile, he and his collaborators made countless humane interventions, insisting that women in refugee camps have private places to bathe and sleep, that anxious students have their examinations postponed, that orphans be placed with relatives or familiar caregivers, and that families be granted privacy when identifying their dead.
In time, political violence and instability in Batticaloa forced The Mangrove to scale back its work and Galappatti embarked on his doctorate in Scotland. Today, with his wife and small child, he is again living and working in crisis-torn Batticaloa. Despite his Western education, his colleagues say that he "thinks and acts as a Sri Lankan," embracing his country's pluralism and also its dangers. As a leader, they say, "he works with the group as one of them" and "gently and firmly gets them to think and act."
In electing Ananda Galappatti to receive the 2008 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his spirited personal commitment to bring appropriate and effective psychosocial services to survivors of war and natural disaster in Sri Lanka.
The Honorable Chief Justice, Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, fellow Awardees and friends.
I used to associate the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award with the public achievements of women and men who are household names across Asia. Therefore, I was stunned to hear that I too had been elected to receive this award. I soon learned that the Foundation's Trustees sometimes choose to recognize work which takes place on a smaller scale. It was then clear to me that my responsibility in accepting this award is to draw attention to the enormity of the suffering caused by war and disaster and to the concerted efforts required to address it. I believe this Award to be a wonderful symbolic acknowledgement of the quiet work of so many committed colleagues who provide mental health and psychosocial services. It is also a reminder of our moral obligation to ensure that the support we offer is the best that it can be.
Effective psychosocial support work is usually low key. This means that workers can often be isolated and inadequately supported, whilst they try to respond to the needs of individual clients or entire communities. Yet, all the success in this field ultimately depends on the quality of the services that are delivered by these frontline workers. My experience is that creating practical and ethical communities of practitioners not only bolsters individual workers, but also creates opportunities for innovation and improvement in systems. In my work, I have also witnessed the potential that can be released when we collaborate across the boundaries of professional, institutional, geographic or social divides. When conditions are right, and enough goodwill is present, the capacity of joint efforts to transcend the limitations of individual actions is quite extraordinary. To me, collaboration is not merely desirable, but absolutely necessary.
As we have better understood how material and social conditions affect people's wellbeing, the field of post-emergency mental health and psychosocial work has been compelled to seek alliances with others. We increasingly acknowledge the need to work with institutions that build shelters, manage refugee camps, rejuvenate local markets, provide education, deliver healthcare, give protection and advocate for justice. We also recognize that suffering caused by conflict and disaster is often shaped by a larger context of poverty and social inequity. The challenge in our work is to develop comprehensive services and social care systems that can take account of this.
But even when we provide excellent services, the burden of living through the pain and loss wrought by violence remains squarely on the shoulders of those directly affected. Whilst humbled by the capacity for survival and resilience demonstrated by families and individuals I have come to know, I am also aware of the enormous effort that it takes for them to cope. For all their strength and resourcefulness, and despite our best efforts, for survivors, coping is hard work and often a daily struggle. I vividly remember a woman I met when I first started working in 1996. Nearly seven years earlier, her husband had been taken away by a group of armed men in the middle of the night, and was found murdered close to their house the following morning. Since then, she'd had to learn to provide for the family as a newly widowed woman, in addition to successfully raising and educating her young son and daughter. Despite the years that had passed, she and her two children felt unable to trust their own community from which her husband's killers had come. Lacking opportunities or resources to move to another area, they remained isolated and lonely in the village. She described how still on some nights she and her children just held each other and cried, thinking about what had happened to their lives. Like the firing of the bullet that killed her husband, brief events such as the bombing of a bus, the sudden arrival of a massive wave, the torture of a captive or the displacement of a village all have repercussions that last entire lifetimes and have implications across generations.
The responsibility of our societies and our governments, therefore, is not only to ensure that survivors are provided with the best possible support and care after tragedies, but also to do everything in our power to minimize or avert these in the first place.