Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 17 January 2005

Tsunami aid gets going but Aceh still a “nightmare” 

Three weeks after the tsunami disaster, the initial confusion over global aid efforts has been cleared, and a meeting last week pledged immediate US$ 717 million for United Nations agencies.   The relief operations are reaching out in many areas, but major problems remain in Aceh province where the logistical challenge is described as a “nightmare.”

As the blanket media coverage of the tsunami disaster begins to recede, the nitty-gritty work of relief and recovery continues.

In the wake of  spontaneous giving of donations by the public in affected and donor countries, the coordination of official aid funds is finally taking place. There are however enormous obstacles, especially the nightmarish logistical problems in Aceh.

The issue of who is the leader of the humanitarian aid effort is at least settled.  A few days after the 26 December tsunami struck, United States President, George Bush, had announced that a “core group” made up of the US, Australia, Japan and India would coordinate aid efforts.

This caused discomfort and even alarm in many circles, as the US was seen as wanting to take over thye United Nations’ natural role. That  would be another step back for multilateralism and the UN.

The UN, however, moved quickly, with the Secretary General Kofi Annan making prominent statements, and various UN agencies getting their act together, under UN emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland.

At the Jakarta summit meeting on the tsunami crisis on 6 January, the UN’s leadership was affirmed.  The US secretary of state Colin Powell announced that the “core group” would be disbanded, and that the US would work with the UN instead.

That brought relief to the many that did not fancy having to work under the US. As Phil Bloomer of Oxfam put it, if the US was in charge, it would be seen by many as a “hearts and minds” operation of the US, and NGOs who cooperate would be seen by some as collaborators and likely targets in future.

In Oxfam’s experience, there is a far more efficient humanitarian response than elsewhere, when the UN has the leadership in place and its authority is respected by the donor governments.

It has been widely reported that over US$3 billion in aid has been pledged.  But this should be treated with caution.  A lot of the money pledged immediately after disasters never materialises. 

Some of the funds may also not be new, having been diverted from other items in the existing aid budget.

According to an article in the London-based The Guardian, US$1.1 billion in aid was promised by foreign countries after the earthquake in Bam in Iran in 2003, but only $17.5 million has been sent.  More than $400 million was pledged to Mozambique after floods in 2000 but less than half was delivered.

When Hurricane Mitch killed more than 9000 and made 3 million homeless in Honduras and Nicaragua, almost US$9 billion aid was pledged, but less than a third of the money materialized.

The UN is determined that this time there won’t be such a big gap between pledge and actual funds.  The UN agencies put together a combined programme to help tsunami countries, with an overall US$977 budget.

At a ministerial meeting in Geneva last week, 18 countries pledged to give $717 million towards that.  These included cash donations from Japan ($250m), Germany ($68m), United Kingdom ($74 million), US ($35 million), European Commission ($61m) Australia ($40 million) and China ($20 million).
The UN emergency coordinator, Jan Egeland, said it never happened before, that two weeks after a disaster, there was $717 million for immediate emergency relief effort, and he expected the remaining funds to also be met.

It was, he said, also an achievement that the world had asked the UN to stay in the lead in coordinating the relief.  “The UN is the only institution that has the capacity, the mandate, the legitimacy to coordinate the more than 60 donors, assisting the 10 affected countries where we are working in, and the hundreds of aid organizations now involved.”

However, it is vital that assistance is also to other deserving causes.  Besides aid to tsunami victims, another $1.7 billion is needed to meet the needs of 26 million people around the world.

"It is as terrible to be wounded in Congo as it is in Kosovo, it is as bad to be displaced and a refugee in northern Uganda as it is in northern Iraq, and it is as terrible to starve in Darfur, Sudan, as it is on the beaches of tsunami-stricken nations," stressed Egeland.

The creditor countries have also proposed a moratorium on payment of interest on some of the foreign debts of tsunami-hit countries.

But this has not gone down too well, since it would only postpone the payment, unlike debt relief in which payment is cancelled.  Many NGOs and even a few European governments have called for debt relief, but it is unlikely to materialize.

Harim Peiris, an aide to Sri Lanka’s President, called on the Paris Club (of creditor countries) to be open to the idea of a debt write-off which would enable the government to channel funds for reconstruction.  Indonesia’s foreign minister, Hassan Wirajuda also said his country preferred grants, loans and trade advantages rather than a debt moratorium.

Meanwhile, last Friday, Kofi Annan repeated his call for an early warning system, involving seismic posts, speedy communication to designated officials and mass evacuation training for local populations. Such a system can give coastal populations time to flee to higher ground before a tsunami strikes.

The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) plans to have an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system operational by June 2006, expanding it to the whole world a year later.

UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Executive Director Carol Bellamy, said the relief effort is going reasonably well.  But in Aceh, plagued with a broken infrastructure that is hampering communications in an already virtually inaccessible region, serious emergency problems still remain.

Building a regular supply line of needed goods and services continues to be a logistical challenge or even nightmare.  She added that reports of child trafficking and exploitation seemed exaggerated but called for vigilance as the situation could change.

On the health front, Jan Egeland said the feared "second wave of death" coming from epidemic diseases could now be avoided.  But it is "still an uphill battle" in Aceh, with 2,000 to 3,000 more bodies being retrieved every day.  The number of dead could be doubled easily in terms of missing people.

"It's not even close to being over as an emergency phase in Aceh and Sumatra and therefore it is a very different from the other places," Mr. Egeland stressed, noting that elsewhere relief teams had reached all the devastated areas and the operation was moving on from the emergency stage to its second phase.

"Now the really hard work starts and that is to provide a life for the people and not only feed them and prevent disease," he said of those efforts.

In Indonesia, where operations are still mainly airborne because of the destruction of infrastructure, "we need to get relief teams on the ground if we are going to prevent the second wave toll of disease and casualties.”