The recent tsunami in Southeast Asia killed more than 150,000 people and decimated countless communities. The worlds response to the devastation has been unprecedented. Governments and individuals around the globe are contributing billions to help the victims and aid the recovery.
Nearly everyone agrees that assisting the victims, preventing disease and restoring basic infrastructure are among the top priorities. Everyone, that is, but the United Nations. The world bodys first priority was to exert control and get its hands on the cash.
Thats right. According to a former U.S. Foreign Service officer who was on the ground in one of the affected nations for the first ten days following the tsunami strike, while aid workers from the United States, Australia and Singapore were doing the very hard work to help the victims, the first U.N. representatives wanted everyone to agree to "blue helmet" the operation. Meanwhile, according to news reports, senior U.N. officials made it clear that the U.N. wanted to administer any and all disaster aid money.
Lets underscore the situation on the ground. For the first critical days after the disaster, Americans, Australians and a few others were doing most of the heavy lifting. The first significant relief force to arrive in the region was a U.S. Navy task force led by the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. The navys helicopters immediately set upon the critical work of rescuing victims, delivering aid to remote locations and ferrying the injured to hospitals.
What did the first U.N. assessment team do upon arrival? The former Foreign Service officer reports that they checked into a five-star hotel well inland and set upon the pursuit of 24-hour catering.
Certainly, as time has worn on, U.N. staffers and resources have arrived in greater numbers. There is no question that some U.N. efforts are making a difference. And everyone who wants to help ought to be able to help however they can. But the U.N.s preoccupation with being in charge is a bit much given the record of failure and mismanagement that has so frequently dogged the world bodys humanitarian missions over the last decade. In the most notable case, U.N. staffers in the Congo were literally forcing pre-teenage girls to have sex with them in exchange for food.
Even more disturbing is the U.N.s insistence on administering all of the aid contributions. Anytime a particular organization is aggressively pursuing control of a huge pot of money, we ought to be suspicious. But, in this case, the U.N. and its employees have an established record of mishandling and perhaps even pilfering large sums that were supposed to provide humanitarian assistance. The most notable example is the U.N.-Iraq Oil for Food scandal, in which at least one U.N. employee allegedly pocketed millions of dollars earmarked for aid to Iraqis and sat idly by while Saddam Hussein stole billions. The book Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures (reviewed here), recounts how consecutive Chief Administrators of the U.N.s mission in Rwanda were pocketing a 15 percent kickback on every dollar, euro, pound and yen that the mission spent. Even the head of the U.N. department of internal oversight has been charged with corruption and nepotism.
With governments around the world pledging billions for the relief effort while individual Americans add their own personal contributions, its critical that the money go where its needed to helping the victims and not into U.N.s coffers or the pockets of its corrupt employees.
Everyone agrees that there is more than enough work to go around and that the generous influx of food, supplies, equipment and money will ensure that sufficient resources will be in place. Given that, the U.N.s zealous pursuit of absolute control over operations and funding is terribly misplaced. And, given the world bodys track record, its a quest that we and our government ought to meet with skepticism if not suspicion.
For the time being, the U.S. ought to continue to spend its own money on its own operations and competent organizations on the ground in the region. When and if needs are found elsewhere, our government ought to decide where and how its money should be spent. Lets keep the U.N.s fingers out of our wallets.January 6, 2005