UN Smokescreen on its Tsunami Custodial Role

by Amrit Muttukumaru, July 8, 2005

"The UN’s grandiose website does many things other than ‘Expenditure Tracking’! It merely gives lump sums for ‘project’ expenditure with no attempt for even a rudimentary breakdown of expenditure. No wonder there are allegations of corruption, inefficiency and a lack of coordination at government, INGO, NGO and UN agency levels which include plausiblecharges that administrative and personnel costs account for the lion's shareof project costs. The spanking new luxury SUVs sporting the emblems of innumerable UN agencies and NGOs as well as their conspicuous patronage of Colombo’s burgeoning gourmet restaurants give credence to this. Even the website’s project descriptions are highly generalized and non-specific."

The sheer devastation caused by the Asian Tsunami on the day after Christmas last year and the unprecedented worldwide response to it has possibly made it the most high profile current global issue. It is in recognition of this that former U.S. President Bill Clinton has been appointed UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Relief and both he and former U.S. President Bush Sr. appointed by President Bush Jr. to represent the U.S. in this connection. The advancement of satellite technology which graphically brought the unfolding horrors of the tragedy into the living rooms of people throughout the world glued to their television screens on the Boxing Day holiday, emotionally moved them to respond in a manner that has never before been witnessed for other pressing global issues. Apart from the immense destruction and damage to property, homes, livelihoods and infrastructure it has resulted in the death of more than 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.

The sums donated and pledgedamount toa staggering US$9 Billion.The donors include countries, multilateral agencies and most importantly tens of thousands of emotionally chargedpersons inclusive of children from the richer countries who have dug deep into their savings to mitigate the sufferings of these hapless people. The least that these people will demand is some assurance that theirprecious contributions reach those affected with the minimum 'leakage'. This is precisely what is absent more than six months after the Tsunami. As will be unraveled in the ensuing sections, the UN which is the worldwide custodian for the transparent and efficient utilization of these massive donor funds has not only failed to do this, but more reprehensibly is attempting through subterfuge to hoodwink the world. This is stated with full responsibility and the writer will welcome the response of the UN instead of its traditional deafening silence in the face of such revelations. Given below are concrete examples to amply substantiate this contention.

Websites

Shockingly, more than six months after the Tsunami there are stillno credible websites from the UN itself or recipient governments and the NGO sector which give meaningful country andproject based data on the utilization of these massivesums. The UN’s grandiose website Ref. titled:

Indian Ocean Earthquake - Tsunami Flash Appeal

Expenditure Tracking

Latest Update: 29 June 2005

does many things other than ‘Expenditure Tracking’!

The website merely gives lump sums for ‘project’ expenditure with no attempt for even a rudimentary breakdown of expenditure. No wonder there are allegations of corruption, inefficiency and a lack of coordination at government, INGO, NGO and UN agency levels which include plausiblecharges that administrative and personnel costs account for the lion's shareof project costs. The spanking new luxury SUVs sporting the emblems of innumerable UN agencies and NGOs as well as their conspicuous patronage of Colombo’s burgeoning gourmet restaurants give credence to this. Even the website’s project descriptions are highly generalized and non-specific. For example for Sri Lanka, the UNICEF project for "Provision of Water & Sanitation for Families Affected by the Tsunami" with an expenditure of US$ 4,425,900, there is no mention of the number of families to whom assistance has been given. Similarly, for the WHO project for "Health Sector Response for Survivors of the Tsunami in Sri Lanka" with an expenditure of US$ 10,438,230, there is no mention even of an approximate number of survivors! The UNHCR project which also includes "providing transitional shelter" with an expenditure of US$ 5,043,827, there is no mention of the number of shelters. For UNDP’s project for the "Restoration of Partially Damaged Houses" it is silent on the number of houses. The same lump sum expenditure treatment and non-specific project description applies ‘across the board’ to projects in other countries as well. For example, for UNDP’s project in Indonesia for "Housing Rehabilitation" with an expenditure of US$ 5, 957, 039, the website is silent on the number of houses. The only information given for a UNICEF project in Indonesia with an expenditure tag of US$ 12, 348,330, are the words "Provision of Clean Water Supply and Basic Sanitation Facilities"! There are also glaring errors which include for example, UNDP’s cumulative expenditure in Indonesia being given as US$ 18, 562, 240 in the ‘Summary’ chart, while the same under the ‘Project’ chart is given as US$ 9, 832, 059. The expenditure of US$ 6,403,401 given on 8 June for the UNICEF project in Sri Lanka for "Provision of Water & Sanitation for Families Affected by the Tsunami", has now been reduced to US$ 4,425,900 in its latest update of 29 June 2005.

The publicare not even aware of the distribution of these donor funds between these different entities particularly that of the NGO sector and the governments. The UN is supposed to be in receipt of just under a Billion Dollars. The coffers of the NGOs who have received the greater part of these funds are said to be brimming as never before. It is the absence of a credible website that has permitted Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister to assert not too long ago on BBC’s ‘Hard Talk’thatthe governmenthas "not received a penny" and lead to allegations by Sri Lanka’s opposition of financial misappropriation!

Another area of confusion in the UN’s website is the classification of ‘expenditure’ for projects by ‘Country’ and ‘Regional’ which to say the least is highly ambiguous. The rationale for this is not understood since the ‘Regional’ head essentially comprises of ‘country’ projects. The ‘clarification’ proffered by the UN in this connection is unconvincing and exacerbates the confusion. Mr. Valentin Gatzinski – Head of OCHA Sri Lanka, in his prompt response which is appreciated, while asserting that the "United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has been aware of the issue, which you have highlighted very precisely" states that "a solution is the establishment of one integrated tracking system per country, based in the country, to reflect all aid operations and not only those under the Flash Appeal. Such a system is being currently installed in Sri Lanka with the support of UNDP…". It is hoped that even at this late stage, this will materialize without any further delay, after also taking into consideration the issues raised in this article.

Auditors

Although initially, the appointment by the UN of a well-known international firm of auditors to ensure transparency and accountability in the utilization of the Tsunami Billions was subject to much fanfare, very little is heard of it now ! Is it because the integrity of this firm particularly in respect of its offices in SriLanka and Indonesia has been seriously questioned in regard to instances of outrageous ‘conflict of interest’ and professional negligence? With the decision of India and Thailand to use their own resources, it is Indonesia and Sri Lankawho are the major beneficiaries of this US$ 9 Billion. By coincidence, Indonesia and Sri Lanka are also among the most corrupt countries in the world! No less than Sri Lanka’s Attorney-General has by his letters of 11 April 2005 served notice of his intention to institute legal action against amongst others the Sri Lanka and Indonesia offices of this firm of auditors for professional negligence.

The UN inquiry team comprising of Ms. Paula Saddler- Chief of UNDP's Investigation Section and Mr. Louis Marano- Investigator, Office of Internal Oversight Services which visited Sri Lanka as far back as April 26-27 2005, has still not made public its findings even after the lapse of well over two months. The UN is certainly no stranger to cover-ups, if the protracted inquiry into the Iraqi oil-for-food scandal is anything to go by.

Ground Reality

Mainly due to the UN’s cavalier attitude and lack of responsibility in approaching its custodian role of the Tsunami Billions, there is an appalling lack of coordination and accountability. The situation on the ground definitely in Sri Lanka and reportedly in Indonesia confirms the belief that there is a severe mismatch between the rhetoric and reality. In the meanwhile, more than six months after the devastation of the Tsunami, a sizeable proportion of the hundreds of thousands of those displaced and affected in Sri Lanka, continue to have a marginal existence in tents which are like boiling cauldrons in the dry season and a nightmare in the rainy season. Livelihoods too continue to be a problem. In many instances, the quality of even the transitional homes leave much to be desired. Even the provision of the promised financial support has been sporadic. The growing protests in the Tsunami hit areas of Sri Lanka are a testimony of this. The absence of effective coordination has also led to the duplication of efforts and even some competition among NGOs! When the donors, particularly the tens of thousands of emotionally driven concerned citizens worldwide inclusive of children realize this shameful state of affairs, its implications will be far worse than the UN’s sordid oil-for-food scandal.

It is hoped that the recently signed ‘Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure’ (P-TOMS) agreement between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE to ensure the equitable sharing of the massive donor funds between the worst affected North and East and the rest of the country particularly the South, will be justly implemented without any further delay.

It must nevertheless be stated that there are singular exceptions to this, where many individual and community efforts both local and foreign together with a handful of NGOs have rendered commendable service to these hapless people. This was particularly visible in the initial phase in the provision of safe drinking water and primary health care. However, in general, it could be safely asserted that definitely in the case of Sri Lanka and possibly in Indonesia, there is a wide gulf between the actual contribution and impact of the governments, large NGOs and the UN agencies on one hand and the resources expended / deployed not to mention the rhetoric on the other.

Conclusion

We look forward to the response of the United Nations to the issues raised in this article particularly in respect of:

1) The UN’s highly inadequate website

2) The inordinate delay in making public the findings of the UN inquiry team which investigated the alleged absence of integrity of the international audit firm assigned by the UN to ensure transparency and accountability in the utilization of the massive Tsunami donor funds.

3) The UN not having in place a mechanism to coordinate and ensure accountability in the relief efforts of the different participants – governments / NGOs (local & foreign) / and the UN itself. Surely, it could at least insist on meaningful websites being maintained by the major recipients of the donor funds.

The unprecedented donor response in the context of the lack of accountability and coordination, has sadly made the Tsunami a ‘gravy train’ for many of the major participants ostensibly providing Tsunami assistance. It is the moral responsibility of the United Nations to remedy this.

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Posted July 6, 2005