Congress should investigate the United Nations tsunami relief effort

Nile Gardiner
December 30, 2005
A recent investigation by the Financial Times has raised serious questions regarding the U.N.’s handling of the tsunami relief effort, in particular the way in which it has spent the first $590 million of its $1.1 billion disaster “flash

This week marks the anniversary of the tsunami
disaster which struck large sections of Southeast Asia, South Asia, and
East Africa on December 26, 2004. The tsunami claimed some 231,000
lives and displaced 2 million people. The disaster prompted an
outpouring of humanitarian help from around the world, with an
estimated total of $13.6 billion in aid pledged, including $6.16
billion in government assistance, $2.3 billion from international
financial institutions, and $5.1 billion from individuals and companies.[1]

The huge international relief effort is being co-coordinated by the
United Nations, and involves an astonishing 39 U.N. agencies, from the
United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and United Nations Educational,
Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), to the World Health
Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The Financial Times inquiry

When the U.N. took over the tsunami relief operation in early 2005, the
world body pledged full transparency, in light of its disastrous
handling of the Iraq Oil-for-Food Program. The U.N.’s under-secretary
general for humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, boasted in an opinion
editorial that “only the UN has the universal legitimacy, capacity, and
credibility to lead in a truly global humanitarian emergency.”[2] Egeland had earlier criticized the U.S. contribution to the tsunami relief effort as “stingy.”[3]

A recent investigation by the Financial Times, however, has raised
serious questions regarding the U.N.’s handling of the tsunami relief
effort, in particular the way in which it has spent the first $590
million of its $1.1 billion disaster “flash appeal.” The appeal
includes nearly $50 million from the United States.[4]
The two-month FT inquiry revealed that “as much as a third of the money
raised by the UN for its tsunami response was being swallowed up by
salaries and administrative overheads.”[5] In contrast,
Oxfam, a British-based private charity, spent just 10 percent of the
tsunami aid money it raised on administrative costs.[6]

Unable to obtain figures from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of
Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the FT approached several U.N. agencies
directly to establish exact numbers for tsunami relief expenditure.
Many “declined or ignored” requests for information, while others
offered incomplete data. The newspaper found that of the $49 million
spent by the World Health Organization as part of the tsunami appeal,
32 percent had been spent on “personnel costs, administrative
overheads, or associated ‘miscellaneous’ costs.” At the World Food
Program (WFP), 18 percent of the $215 million spent by the agency went
toward “staff salaries, administrative overheads and vehicles and

The Financial Times concluded that “a year after the tsunami, pledges
of transparency and accountability for the UN’s appeal appear a long
way from being realized. This is primarily blamed on dueling UN
bureaucracies and accounting methods plus what in many cases appears to
be institutional paranoia about disclosure.”[8]

Accountability and transparency is needed at the U.N.

The FT’s findings should raise significant concern over the U.N.’s
ability to manage a huge, multi-billion dollar humanitarian relief
operation. The last such operation that the U.N. oversaw, the
Oil-for-Food Program, was an unmitigated failure. The investigations
into the scandal by the Security Council-appointed Independent Inquiry
Committee (IIC), in addition to several congressional committees and
U.S. federal agencies, cast a spotlight on widespread corruption,
mismanagement and incompetence within the U.N., and exposed a deeply
rooted culture of secrecy at the heart of the United Nations
Secretariat. The scandal gravely tarnished the image of the world body
as well as its leadership, including Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The Oil-for-Food revelations coincided with a wave of other U.N.
scandals, including widespread abuse of refugees by U.N. peacekeepers
in the Congo, sexual harassment at the top of the United Nations
Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the United Nations Electoral Assistance
Division (EAD), and significant corruption at the U.N. World
Meteorological Organization (WMO), all of which seriously damaged the
U.N.’s global standing.

With public confidence at an all-time low, it is imperative that both
Congress and the Bush Administration seek assurances that U.S. and
international donations for tsunami relief are both properly spent and
accounted for.

Key recommendations

Congressional Hearings and Investigations Both the House and Senate
should hold hearings on the U.N.’s management of the tsunami relief
program and call for senior U.N. officials, including Jan Egeland, to
testify before Congress. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on
Investigations, chaired by Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN), and the newly
created House International Relations Subcommittee on Oversight and
Investigations, headed by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), should
strongly consider extending their investigations into the Oil-for-Food
Program to the U.N. tsunami relief operation.

Bush Administration Pressure The White House and State Department
should call on the U.N. to give a full accounting of all its
expenditures on tsunami relief operations, including its payments to
international aid consultants, who are paid as much as $10,000 a month.[9] All U.N. expenditures on relief efforts should be made publicly available and open to scrutiny.

Withhold Funds From the United Nations The growing doubts over the
U.N.’s handling of the tsunami relief operation reinforce the need for
Congress to withhold funds from the U.N.’s assessed budget unless a
series of reform measures are implemented by the world body. These must
include the establishment of an independent oversight body for the
U.N., a far greater degree of openness and transparency, as well as
independent auditing procedures.


The growing scandal over the U.N.’s handling of the tsunami “flash
appeal” should set off alarm bells in Washington. A picture is
beginning to emerge of yet another U.N. operation mired in secrecy,
hugely lacking in transparency and oversight, and without a doubt open
to widespread mismanagement and corruption. It is increasingly clear
that the U.N. has learned little from the Oil-for-Food scandal, and is
continuing to operate in a fashion that is out of step with the
expectations of U.S. taxpayers, who fund the U.N. to the tune of $3
billion a year.

Both Congress and the Bush Administration must demand answers from the
U.N. bureaucracy, and expect that all donations are spent
appropriately. It is imperative that tsunami relief go directly to the
impoverished victims of the disaster, and not be used to subsidize the
salaries or administrative overheads of a vast army of U.N. bureaucrats
and consultants. A clear signal must be sent from Washington that any
misuse of international funds will not be tolerated. If it is to
maintain the long-term support of the United States, the United Nations
will have to be substantially reformed and must operate as an
efficient, honest, and accountable public body.

Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., is the Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow at the
Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom
Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.
The author is grateful to James Dean, Deputy Director of Government
Relations in Foreign and Defense Policy at the Heritage Foundation for
his advice and suggestions.

[1] Figures quoted in “Responses to the Boxing Day Tsunamis,” Financial Times, December 23, 2005.

[2] Jan Egeland, “Sobering Lessons for the United Nations,” Financial Times, March 30, 2005.

[3] See Bill Sammon, “UN Official Slams US as ‘Stingy’ Over Aid,” The
Washington Times, December 28, 2004. In response to Egeland’s
statement, it should be noted that the U.S. Congress approved $656
million towards post-tsunami relief and reconstruction in May 2005.
Total U.S. assistance to countries hit by the tsunami amounted to $840
million in 2005. Nearly 600,000 tsunami victims have benefited from
U.S. support. Private U.S. donations amounted to more than $1.8
billion. See “U.S. Assistance Exceeds $840 Million One Year After
Tsunami,” U.S. Agency for International Development Fact Sheet,
December 21, 2005.

[4] According to the Financial Times, “the flash appeal covered the
money donated by governments to the UN in the first weeks after the
disaster to fund early aid work.”

[5] Shawn Donnan, “Little Clarity on How Aid Gets Spent,” Financial Times, December 23, 2005.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] This salary figure is cited by Shawn Donnan, ibid.

Categories: Corruption, Odious Debts

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