15 April 2005

"The only thing we've gotten is small packets of food and supplies. Where the money is, we don't know. It's just meetings, meetings, meetings." The quotation of the day in The New York Times by Indonesian shopkeeper Samsur Bahri may be dismissed by those busy attending meetings. But they do so at their own risk. There is growing skepticism about the tsunami relief effort and questions are being asked: Where has the money gone? Granted, frustration is still at the grassroots level but experience demonstrated that it could swell unexpectedly. Only a few months ago, U.N. Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland was announcing "the good news" during the greatest human tragedy for Asia, that money was pouring in from everywhere. The U.N. was given a leadership role which it could have seized to demonstrate its relevant effectiveness. It would have been a much-needed timely and visible role. Instead it was wasted in meeting/greeting//meeting again/pontificating/meeting once more. Writing editorials to the press is important when you need to raise awareness or urge contributions. But when everyone everywhere was on board, newspaper articles don't feed the hungry nor shelter the homeless. This rush to print and interview has taken on a life of its own regardless of where talkers were going and what precisely they were doing.

It's a shame. Actually it is shameless to waste a unique opportunity to help so many distressed people while saving the swiftly deteriorating image of our once proud U.N. Appointing former President Bill Clinton as Special Representative was a clever move for which his greatly admired wife New York Senator Clinton was openly appreciative. Obviously, no one expected the former President who visibly felt our pain to carry the heavy stuff. Relief workers (U.N. and others) were supposed to be inspired by his leadership to spread out and tackle the issues on the ground head on. The follow-up appointment of Erskine Boyles, former White House aide and candidate to chair the U.S. Democratic Party may have been perceived as some as a political move, but it should certainly be over-compensated by accomplished results -- if and when any could be produced.

But, then, where is Egeland? There was no way keeping him away from the press briefing room 226 when public attention was at a peak. There was no meeting anywhere around the globe which he did not try to attend. Suddenly, he bolted for Africa. In fact, it is an insult to Africa and Africans when professional "relief operators" start remembering its needs when their tasks elsewhere fail. Suddenly, they remember AIDS, Darfur, and the Congo, not to mention the Horn to which some seem to be so fervently attracted. Lack of required action in Asia is explained away by some motives of preoccupation with Africa. Wish it were true. Help Africa at the expense of Asia? Help Asia at the expense of Africa? Help anywhere but in action and deeds, not in televised lectures at Davos or photo opportunities in Geneva and New York. Until then God help us from those "helpers."