Unity of purpose

Nature’s caprices have tested the mettle of humankind since time immemorial.

Rarely, though, does nature pose a test on the scale of the tsunami that swept across the Indian Ocean in December, exacting a terrible toll in life and in property damage in countries already struggling to develop. The international community has stepped forward with generous pledges of aid. The real question is whether the countries affected can organize themselves to use that aid effectively.

Sri Lanka epitomizes that plight. The country has suffered for decades from a sclerotic and divisive political system and a brutal civil war with Tamil separatists. As Contributor Eric Ellis notes in “Island at Sea”, Sri Lankans came together impressively in the first few weeks after the disaster. Lately, however, disputes over reconstruction aid have reignited tensions between Sinhalese and Tamils and within the governing coalition. Unless President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and other political leaders can regain a sense of common purpose, Sri Lanka risks squandering an opportunity to jump-start its development.

Ellis brings a personal insight to the story. The owner of a coastal property in Sri Lanka, he was moved by the first reports of the disaster and promptly flew to the country from his native Australia to offer help. His experience in overcoming bureaucratic and cultural obstacles to replace destroyed fishing boats provides a powerful illustration of the challenges that the reconstruction effort faces.

A rebuilding attempt of an entirely different sort is taking place at Lazard. The storied investment bank is seeking to regain its preeminence as a global adviser on mergers and acquisitions even as it prepares for the biggest change in its 157-year history: an IPO that will transform the partnership into a publicly listed company. In “No Regrets”, Contributor Rob Cox, the U.S. editor of breakingviews.com, an international financial commentary service based in London, notes that the change promises to be an emotional one for Michel David-Weill, the chairman and controlling shareholder whose family founded the firm. He hired M&A impresario Bruce Wasserstein as CEO four years ago to revive the firm’s fortunes at a time when it was hemorrhaging banking talent, but has since fallen out with him over the IPO plan. David-Weill is not one to indulge in second-guessing, though. In a rare and candid interview, he tells Cox that he wouldn’t do anything differently, even if he could turn back the clock.