Debt Relief

Where has all the tsunami money gone?

National Post
January 2, 2006

A year ago, the world responded to southeast Asia’s devastating Boxing Day tsunami with a massive outpouring of aid. By the time individuals, businesses and governments had finished sending cheques, it amounted to the biggest relief effort in history – worth an estimated US$13.6-billion in aid, according to the UN.

In light of the beating its reputation has taken from the oil-for-food corruption scandal, we would have expected the UN to go out of its way to demonstrate that the billions of dollars they have been entrusted with are being spent properly on disaster relief. Indeed, that was the explicit promise made by Jan Egeland, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief co-ordinator. But as a recent investigative report by the Financial Times has demonstrated, that transparency has not materialized.

For two months, FT reporter Shawn Donnan attempted to track down how UN agencies have been spending the tsunami funds – specifically, how much of the US$1.1-billion “flash appeal” collected from national governments in the weeks following the disaster ever actually reached victims. With the UN unwilling to pull this information together, at least for public consumption, Mr. Donnan was forced to approach separately each of the 39 agencies involved. And while some agencies – notably the World Food Program, the World Health Organization and UNHRC, the UN’s refugee agency – appear to have been relatively forthcoming, others were much less so.

“Some declined, or ignored, requests for information,” the FT reported. “Others offered incomplete or, as with the UN Environment Program, ‘preliminary, unconfirmed and unofficial’ expenditure data . . . In cases where information was supplied it often took weeks to obtain or resulted in a display of institutional reluctance to disclose real costs.”

UNICEF, which had spent US$169.5-million on tsunami relief as of Nov. 1, reportedly took two months to respond to the newspaper’s request for information on where that money had gone. And ironically, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs – the agency directly under Mr. Egeland’s watch – apparently never got back to the FT at all.

This lack of transparency does not necessarily mean that there is anything untoward happening with tsunami funds, or that the administrative costs are unduly high. What it does suggest, however, is that the UN’s accountability standards remain unacceptably low.

A year ago, Mr. Egeland complained that the United States and other nations were being “stingy” in their relief contributions. The reality was that most countries were remarkably generous. The danger is that, failing evidence that their money was spent properly, they won’t be as generous the next time disaster strikes.

Categories: Debt Relief, Odious Debts

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