Accountability for the Tsunami Billions

by Amrit Muttukumaru, May 13, 2005

The devastating Asian Tsunami of 26 December last year, apart from immense destruction and damage to property, homes, livelihoods and infrastructure, resulted in the death of almost 200,000 persons with hundreds of thousands displaced, destitute and affected.  The countries mainly affected are Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, with Indonesia and Sri Lanka accounting for more than 75% of this toll.

In as much as this destruction was unprecedented, so was the response from the international community, particularly from tens of thousands of emotionally-charged citizens from rich countries glued to their television sets on the day after Christmas.  These massive donor funds, reportedly in excess of US $ 5 Billion, translate to tens of Billions in the currencies of the affected countries.  These sums have been distributed between the UN and its specialized agencies on the one hand and international and local NGOs on the other, with the NGO sector being dominant.

The least that this mass of concerned citizens worldwide would demand is some tangible assurance that their precious contributions are responsibly utilized to actually reach those affected.  This is precisely what is glaringly absent almost five months after the Tsunami, although periodic public pronouncements are made by high profile UN personalities and governments about the need for transparency and accountability.


To date, there are no official websites either from the UN, recipient governments or the NGO sector which give coherent country and sector / project-based data on the utilization of these funds.  The public is also not aware of the distribution of these donor funds between these different entities.  The UN is supposed to be in receipt of a Billion Dollars.  The coffers of the NGOs who have received the greater part of these funds are said to brimming as never before.  The UN, which is the worldwide custodian of these funds, has a moral responsibility to monitor its prudent utilization, not only among its own agencies, but also among the governments concerned – mainly Indonesia and Sri Lanka and the NGOs both local and international.  Not only has the UN not fulfilled this role, but worse than this, the integrity of the international audit firm assigned by the UN to ensure transparency and accountability has also been seriously questioned.

Ground Reality

The situation on the ground, at least in the case of Sri Lanka, confirms the belief that there is a severe mismatch between the rhetoric and reality.

The much-needed administrative structure to ensure assistance to the NorthEast has still not been put in place.  The majority of those displaced throughout the country continue to ‘exist’ in tents which are like cauldrons in the dry season with water seeping in during the rainy season.  Very little progress is visible even in regard to temporary shelters.  The presence of the government and, to a large extent, the bigger NGOs is hardly felt in the affected areas.  The sheer hopelessness of those affected is visible on their faces staring vacantly into the horizon from the rubble of what was previously their homes.  Their livelihoods, too, continue to be neglected for the most part.

The financial assistance from the government has been minimal.  Contradictory statements of progress are issued by different state agencies, many of them in extravagant full page print media.  Coordination continues to be highly problematic.  The main credentials of those appointed to lead the relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts is their loyalty to the current political leadership.  There is widespread belief of corruption and inefficiency at government, INGO, NGO and UN agency levels which include plausible charges that administrative and personnel costs account for the lion's share of project costs.  The absence of the much-needed websites add credence to this. What is glaringly visible are the latest duty-free UN and NGO SUVs and other vehicles arrogantly cruising the country’s potholed roads laden with their complement of ‘experts’ of varying descriptions.  UN and NGO patronage also make no small contribution to Colombo’s burgeoning gourmet restaurant business and night life, as well as the country’s rental market! 

It must, however, be stated that there are singular exceptions to this wastefulness, where many individual and community efforts, both local and foreign, together with a handful of NGOs, have rendered commendable service to these hapless persons.  This is particularly visible in the provision of safe drinking water and primary health care.

13 May 2005


Posted May 15, 2005