UNITED NATIONS. LESSONS FROM THE ASIAN TSUNAMI

 

15 FEBRUARY 2010

LESSONS FROM THE ASIAN TSUNAMI

Five years ago, on 26 December 2004, a natural disaster that hit four Asian states, claimed the lives of 250,000 Asians and displaced about 2 million, prompted a world-wide sympathetic response. An unprecedented level of contribution poured from people with limited means as well as from governments and corporations. Billions were collected. The U.N. claimed a central role, although its Department of the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs did seem ready for the task. Its head, Jan Egeland, was more enthusiastic about holding press conferences than about taking effective action.

One year after the Tsunami, questions started to circulate about the competence and transparency of U.N. leadership in handling the international response. Serious doubts were raised, not by politically motivated anti-U.N. groups but by many who normally supported U.N. work. There was a collective impression that no one knew for certain what was available, what was spent, by whom and where. There were some general headlines for certain expenditures; like $1 billion pledged in a certain field of which $635 million was spend on "foods," "shelter and non-food services," co-ordination and support services." A two-month investigation by The Financial Times could not determine how that money had been actually spent. An article in The New York Times -- another generally pro-U.N. newspaper -- included a "quotation of the day" by an Indonesian shopkeeper: "Where the money is, we don't know. It's just meetings, meetings, meetings."

A glaring gap between politically correct hyperbole and actual programme delivery on the ground drew sharp, sometimes sarcastic criticism. For example, The Financial Times recalled that the head of U.N. relief operations had indicated three months after the disaster that a new system to monitor expenditures would be so clear that "my aunt can go in and can see how much money is being spent." Another senior U.N. official later commented that Mr. Egeland must have a very smart aunt.

Admittedly, as in similar daunting tasks, there were several political complications in presenting clearer accounting. Some claimed it would be awkward to demand detailed records when the U.N. Special Envoy for the Tsunami was former U.S. President William Jefferson Clinton who was in fact instrumental in appointing the Secretary General who designated him. A temporary partnership in that task with another U.S. President, his predecessor and father of his successor complicated the presentation process. That is an invalid pretext. Envoys raised funds. They were not supposed to manage, commit, nor spend them. Another more likely explanation was traced to corruption and incompetence of local governments while the U.N. Secretariat was too weak and unprepared to question them. For example, Indonesian authorities received more than $7 billion (actually $7.2 billion) and when that country became a rotational member of the Security Council very few civil servants were ready to risk irritating its Permanent Representative. To a lesser degree, $1 billion to Sri Lanka got blurred during the civil war. Thailand was a similar problem, compounded by constant governmental reshuffles. India wisely chose not to be part of the international campaign to the point of turning down a proposed visit by Secretary General Annan.

Placing the blame on governments, however, is proven to be counter-productive, especially when the Secretariat is not adequately prepared. Its vulnerability is always more obvious than that of national politicians experienced in the tactics of survival.

While questions still arise about Tsunami raised funds, it is a pity that the U.N. had wasted a unique opportunity to play a leadership role and regain its credibility. More attention was paid to approaching the media than on preparing for a daunting challenge. Seeking to take charge in the eyes of the public was not matched by a determination to build a responsible mechanism for uniquely accountable operations. Continued announcements during the Tsunami of "good news" (good news?!) of outpouring worldwide support could have been matched by a realistic presentation of the unprecedented enormous task ahead, the limitation of logistical preparedness, and the sheer lack of a relevant accounting set-up.

Ironically, the Tsunami unified all Asians. Disaster struck Moslems, Hindus, and Christians alike. It hit Indonesia with the same force as Sri Lanka and, in Sri Lanka, it devastated the Tamil rebels and government officials with similar impact. In one minute, everyone's life was suddenly and forcibly changed. And Asia united the world. The outpouring of support exceeded expectations while the number of victims grew by the day. As human frailty was proven at its weakest, human solidarity was shown at its best.

Once more, in December 2004, the world looked to the U.N. for leadership. At times like these, no one questioned its central role as the only viable inclusive framework for collective international collaboration. Seizing that challenge, the U.N. leadership had no option but to succeed. There was no other way out. This was it. There was no alternative to effective, down-to-earth, hands-on, practical co-ordination, together with an alert leadership and a compassionate thrust. In a way, key countries were offering the U.N. a needed opportunity to prove itself. The "peoples of the United Nations" were looking up to it. That could have either carried Kofi Annan to new higher levels or pulled him down. A positive indication was that he seemed to realize what was at stake. His enhanced partnership with Mark Malloch-Brown, an experienced field leader and talented communicator should have helped. Clearly the magnitude of the task was beyond regular capacity. The total destruction of towns, the unprecedented number of victims, the breakdown of basic infrastructure, lack of needed telecommunications, scarcity of fuel, congestion in strategic points of entry or assembly of aid, the absence of effective local focal points, the erosion of government authority, compounded by political sensitivities made it imperative to have a highly regarded sharply tuned U.N. command. The usual routine will not do. The visible presence of UNICEF's Carol Bellamy on the spot in the early days was commendable. Pity that she was the only U.N. Senior program officer to be seen there. Pity that two weeks into the disaster and while an emergency summit was held in Indonesia, there was not even an impressive U.N. advance team on the spot, say in Banda Aceh, the hub of emergency relief. The Secretary General's brief tour was a welcome step but it would have been more impressive if a visible operation was already set up and running there to show that we meant business.

No matter what some senior officials at Headquarters believed, the U.N. reputation in the realistic relief assistance field was drastically eroded. By mid-2005 there were already signs of unrest among voluntary groups. Their collective complaint was that the U.N. was not taking charge, and did not seem ready to play its expected role.

As usual, dedicated hard-working staff were doing their very best. They recognized the enormous challenge as a test case for their Organization. All of them had a stake in displaying a command performance; that the only way out was an uncontested success. They needed leadership to show the way. Yet there was no effective leadership. And as of December 2009, no clear account of where all those billions had gone.