Disaster May Force the Rich to Review Aid to the Poor

Aryeh Neier is president of the Open Society Institute and Soros foundations network.

The extraordinary international response to the tsunami that devastated South Asia is a remarkable political phenomenon. Though it is too soon to predict all the effects, some good consequences are already evident, as are some that are troublesome and others whose impact will play out over time.

One useful consequence is that wealthy countries' low levels of assistance to those less fortunate has gained wider attention. Plainly, the comment by Jan Egeland, the UN official in charge of humanitarian assistance, calling the West "stingy," hit home, especially in the U.S. At that point, the Bush administration had committed a measly US$35 million in aid.

While condemning Egeland's comment, President George W. Bush quickly multiplied the U.S. commitment tenfold. In addition, he enlisted former presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton to lead a private fundraising effort.

This neatly fit a standard response to criticism of the level of U.S. assistance: that private philanthropy exceeds government aid. Depending on what monies are included, this is true, although the British, Dutch, Germans, French, and other Europeans are also generous donors, despite lacking the tax benefits that encourage private philanthropy in the U.S.

Moreover, like official U.S. assistance, a relatively small share of U.S. private philanthropy ordinarily goes to the poorest countries. In contrast, the countries that are most generous—Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and tiny Luxemburg—give proportionately far more than U.S. governmental and private assistance combined, and the lion's share of their aid goes to the world's most impoverished countries.

In the wake of the tsunami, it seems possible that the U.S. and other wealthy countries will rethink their assistance programs and, possibly, step up their aid to those most in need. Perhaps even some oil-rich governments will be embarrassed by attention to their miserliness in doling out assistance.

But there is also a risk that assistance for tsunami victims is diverting aid from disasters that are of a more chronic character or that are less amenable to sensational media coverage. In announcing that it would stop accepting donations for the victims of the tsunami after collecting US$40 million for that purpose, Medecins Sans Frontieres noted its urgent need for funds for such manmade catastrophes as Darfur in Sudan and for the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In recent years, many more people have died in the conflicts in Sudan and Congo than were killed by the tsunami. Some were direct victims of the fighting in those countries, while a much larger number died from war-related hunger and disease. Similarly, the number of those forcibly displaced is a multiple of those who lost their homes and livelihoods due to the tsunami. Yet Medecins Sans Frontieres was able to collect only US$650,000 in two months of soliciting funds for Darfur, while it received US$40 million for the tsunami victims in just eight days. Given the limited number of skilled personnel available to humanitarian agencies, human resources could follow the money.

Another question likely to loom large in coming months is whether assistance is politicized and free of corruption. Politicization is important because the two countries that were hardest hit, Indonesia and Sri Lanka, both suffer armed conflicts in tsunami-hit regions. Aceh province in Indonesia was previously largely closed to outsiders. It was ruled by the Indonesian army, which fought a brutal civil war against the separatist Free Aceh Movement. Similarly, northern Sri Lanka is the main battleground for the long-running conflict between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Despite headway towards settling that struggle, violence continues and could erupt again in full fury.

Germany, where combined public and private aid for tsunami victims has reached US$1.1 billion (making it the largest international donor), says that it would like its aid to be used to foster peace settlements. A worthy goal, but successful models do not come readily to mind.

More common is a situation like that of the former Yugoslavia. During the wars in Croatia and Bosnia the UN was responsible for humanitarian assistance and also dedicated to peacemaking. Yet it was never able to use the former to advance the latter.

It would not be the first time that a government misused aid intended for disaster victims. A notorious example is Nicaragua after the earthquake that leveled the capital, Managua, in December 1972. Nicaragua's dictator Anastasio Somoza diverted much of the international assistance meant for the survivors into his own pockets and those of his cronies. In the process, he incited popular support for the left-wing Sandinista guerrillas who toppled his government later in the decade.

The tsunami provides an opportunity for the UN to reclaim the high ground that it lost recently. Battered by the Iraqi "oil for food" scandal, which, at the least, demonstrated mismanagement, and misdeeds by officials ranging from former Dutch prime minister Ruud Lubbers (now high commissioner for refugees), who faces allegations of sexual harassment, to rapes committed by UN peacekeeping troops in Congo, the UN has a chance to rehabilitate its reputation by managing the relief effort effectively.

Doing so requires putting the right person in charge—someone like Paul Hoffman, the U.S. industrialist who managed the Marshall Plan more than half a century ago and, subsequently, headed the UN Development Program. It also requires making sure that the person in charge gets the staff assistance and the political backing required to do the job well.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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