15 JANUARY 2009
|AGAIN, WHERE ARE THE TSUNAMI BILLIONS?
At the third anniversary of the Asia Tsunami, we ask once more: where have the billions gone?! Who is accounting for
them? Special Envoys and influential groups had raised funds from all over the world. But until this day, three years later,
no official investigative body seems to be interested in finding out. Certainly not the special Internal Oversight
office, nor the ad-hoc procurement working group. It is not clear whether the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian
Affairs and Relief, which would certainly benefit from finding out is trying to find out.
When Asian shores were hit by an unprecedented sea hurricane, there was an unprecedented world response to help.
With about 1/4 million people dead and 1.8 million displaced in four countries, an outpouring of generous support from
the four corners of the world proved the depth of human warmth and solidarity. The challenge became not how to
raise funds, but how best to use them in confronting daunting miseries.
A general impression grew amongst observers that -- to put it gently -- the money was not being well spent. Despite
his pontification on platitudes, the Co-ordinator of Humanitarian Affairs at the time, Jan Egeland, was more active in
photo opportunities and less adept at managing a crisis. When on the first anniversary, the prestigious Financial
Times carried a hard-hitting two-page report on glaring deficiencies, the erratic relief co-ordinator suddenly
turned into a frustrated news editor, proclaiming that there was a bigger story that should be pursued elsewhere. He
opted -- temporarily of course -- for Africa. But that did not dispel increasing reports of confusion amongst relief
groups, a total absence of a U.N. leadership role, duplication of expenditure, exaggerated salaries for "advisors," dumping
the wrong people in emergency spots, and imposing unwanted "requested and unneeded activities on helpless devastated
people." More to the point, there was no transparent accountability as to where the money went. For example, of
$1.1 billion allocated in one area, $635 million came under the general title "Food" or "Shelter and Non-Food Items." A
two-month investigation by the FT could not determine "how that money has been actually spent."
In January 2008, the second anniversary, it was only fair to wonder where the money went, who holds how much and
where. We were told, as usual, that a new mechanism was put in place; that there will be very strict oversight over available
funds and that there will be zero tolerance with ethics violations. But where are the allocated funds?
No doubt regular dedicated staff working on humanitarian relief are doing their best. They are indeed overstretched,
trying to cope with so many cases at the same time in the Middle East to Asia and Africa and Latin America.
The new Under-Secretary General, Ambassador Holmes, makes excellent
presentations to the Security Council and even better ones to the press - when given the chance. His heart remains
in Political Affairs, the post he had initially sought when leaving the U.K. Paris embassy. But he is striving for his
best, and he should have an idea where
the money flowed, or flew. If not, he could certainly ask. To help in this endeavour, we would suggest, for example, that
someone double-check with the government in Jakarta about the billion dollars still pending an explanation -- unless, of course,
members of the Security Council gain a tacit immunity. Such a tacit immunity would prove counter-productive, as the
eventual explosion of Food-For-Oil indicated.
Three years after the Tsunami, a new set of players took over at U.N. Headquarters. A new Secretary General, new head of Relief
Coordination, a new approach to pending issues. The purpose of raising the question again is to avoid bigger questions
later when answers would prove less convincing and more embarrassing.