15 January 2006

One year after the Tsunami claimed a quarter of a million dead and 1.8 million displaced people in four Asian countries, evaluation by varied media and research groups raised more questions about U.N. emergency relief than could be satisfactorily answered. Serious doubts were raised by normally U.N. supporters not only about the level of competence but also the degree of transparent accountability.

The U.N. office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs appears to be better at making press announcements than providing reliable financial accounts. When the prestigious Financial Times published a hard-hitting two page report on glaring deficiencies, Jan Egeland resorted to the counter-productive tactic of telling the paper that it had missed the bigger story. That showed him not only as an erratic relief coordinator but a frustrated newspaper editor. Incidentally, one outcome of telling reporters what they had missed was once demonstrated by U.S. Presidential candidate Gary Hart. Irked by some journalist's adverse political comments, Senator Hart told off the press who were missing the bigger story and the larger picture. He urged them to follow him and find out the real stuff. They did. An eventual photo of his indiscriminate partying on a yacht broke down his campaign.

Clearly Mr. Egeland is not the type to party on yachts or be caught in personally embarrassing situations. But he -- and his other colleagues -- will need to appreciate that exposing confusion, duplication of expenditures, exaggerated salaries for advisors, lack of a coherent strategy, dumping the wrong kind of aid, and sending the wrong people are not directed personally against him. He is as publicly accountable as he makes himself to be, by holding more press conferences than taking real effective action. His department may not be fully equipped to deal with financial and administrative accountability. It is not certain that Mr. Egeland actually knows precisely what is available, what was actually spent, by whom and where. He simply hasn't got the mechanisms in place nor the capacity. For example, it could be generally claimed that about $1.1 billion was pledged in a particular area, that $635 million of that amount was spent on general items entitled "food"; "co-ordination and support services"; "shelter and non-food items". However a two month investigation by the Financial Times could not determine "how that money has been actually spent."

There is no need to repeat or highlight the shortcomings reported, we repeat, by normally pro-U.N. media. Back in April, the solidly pro-U.N. New York Times' quotation of the day was for an Indonesian shopkeeper saying: "Where the money is we don't know. It's just meetings, meetings, meetings." In that area, that of meetings, Egeland is unbeatable. As reported in an earlier issue, there was no meeting anywhere on the globe he did not seek to attend, no press conference room he did not yearn to visit. But when shortcomings became too glaring, Egeland suddenly discovered Africa -- where he claimed to be fully preoccupied. In fact, he was neither there nor there. Meetings, meetings, meetings -- how many failures are covered in thy name?

The U.N. wasted a unique opportunity in focusing on the audiovisual rather than on the real challenges. No matter what some at Headquarters believe, in the competitive and realistic relief assistance field, its reputation has been drastically eroding. It sought to be in charge of the Tsunami relief without wanting to be held responsible or accountable. Obviously, its dedicated hard-working staff are doing their best. Along with the "good news" announced during the Tsunami about the outpouring of support, there should have been a realistic presentation of the enormity of the task, the logistical limitations and the lack of adequate accounting mechanisms.

As the FT reported, Mr. Egeland had indicated in March that a new system to monitor expenditures would be so clear and simple that "my aunt can go in and can see how much money is being spent." Another U.N. official commented that Mr. Egeland must have a very smart aunt.