Ramon Magsaysay Award Presentation Ceremonies
31 August 2008, Manila, Philippines
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 to 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 26 December 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 care-givers, 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.
(Courtesy : Ramon Magsaysay Awardees )