15 January 2008

When two years ago, Asian shores were hit by an unprecedented Tsunami, 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 is 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. We were also told that former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who was designated as Special Envoy on the Tsunami, did an incredible "awareness and fund-raising," trotting the globe before having to turn his gaze to the more pressing U.S. presidential elections. At any rate, his role was mainly promotional. But where are the allocated funds?

No doubt the 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. 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. However, his heart is into Political Affairs, the post he had initially sought when leaving the U.K. Paris embassy. But 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, new members of the Security Council are beyond such an approach.

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 now is to avoid bigger questions later when answers would prove more difficult to produce.