This week marks
the anniversary of the tsunami disaster which struck large sections
of Southeast Asia, South Asia, and East Africa on December 26,
2004. The tsunami claimed some 231,000 lives and displaced 2
million people. The disaster prompted an outpouring of humanitarian
help from around the world, with an estimated total of $13.6
billion in aid pledged, including $6.16 billion in government
assistance, $2.3 billion from international financial institutions,
and $5.1 billion from individuals and companies.
international relief effort is being co-coordinated by the United
Nations, and involves an astonishing 39 U.N. agencies, from the
United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and United Nations
Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), to the
World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour
When the U.N. took
over the tsunami relief operation in early 2005, the world body
pledged full transparency, in light of its disastrous handling of
the Iraq Oil-for-Food Program. The U.N.'s under-secretary general
for humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, boasted in an opinion
editorial that "only the UN has the universal legitimacy, capacity,
and credibility to lead in a truly global humanitarian
Egeland had earlier criticized the U.S. contribution to the tsunami
relief effort as "stingy."
investigation by the Financial Times, however, has raised
serious questions regarding the U.N.'s handling of the tsunami
relief effort, in particular the way in which it has spent the
first $590 million of its $1.1 billion disaster "flash appeal." The
appeal includes nearly $50 million from the United States.
The two-month FT inquiry revealed that "as much as a third
of the money raised by the UN for its tsunami response was being
swallowed up by salaries and administrative overheads."
In contrast, Oxfam, a British-based private charity, spent just 10
percent of the tsunami aid money it raised on administrative
Unable to obtain
figures from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian
Affairs (OCHA), the FT approached several U.N. agencies
directly to establish exact numbers for tsunami relief expenditure.
Many "declined or ignored" requests for information, while others
offered incomplete data. The newspaper found that of the $49
million spent by the World Health Organization as part of the
tsunami appeal, 32 percent had been spent on "personnel costs,
administrative overheads, or associated 'miscellaneous' costs." At
the World Food Program (WFP), 18 percent of the $215 million spent
by the agency went toward "staff salaries, administrative overheads
and vehicles and equipment."
Times concluded that "a year after the tsunami, pledges of
transparency and accountability for the UN's appeal appear a long
way from being realized. This is primarily blamed on dueling UN
bureaucracies and accounting methods plus what in many cases
appears to be institutional paranoia about disclosure."
Transparency is Needed at the U.N.
findings should raise significant concern over the U.N.'s ability
to manage a huge, multi-billion dollar humanitarian relief
operation. The last such operation that the U.N. oversaw, the
Oil-for-Food Program, was an unmitigated failure. The
investigations into the scandal by the Security Council-appointed
Independent Inquiry Committee (IIC), in addition to several
congressional committees and U.S. federal agencies, cast a
spotlight on widespread corruption, mismanagement and incompetence
within the U.N., and exposed a deeply rooted culture of secrecy at
the heart of the United Nations Secretariat. The scandal gravely
tarnished the image of the world body as well as its leadership,
including Secretary General Kofi Annan.
revelations coincided with a wave of other U.N. scandals, including
widespread abuse of refugees by U.N. peacekeepers in the Congo,
sexual harassment at the top of the United Nations Refugee Agency
(UNHCR) and the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division (EAD),
and significant corruption at the U.N. World Meteorological
Organization (WMO), all of which seriously damaged the U.N.'s
confidence at an all-time low, it is imperative that both Congress
and the Bush Administration seek assurances that U.S. and
international donations for tsunami relief are both properly spent
and accounted for.
Hearings and Investigations
House and Senate should hold hearings on the U.N.'s management of
the tsunami relief program and call for senior U.N. officials,
including Jan Egeland, to testify before Congress. The Senate
Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Senator Norm
Coleman (R-MN), and the newly created House International Relations
Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, headed by Congressman
Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), should strongly consider extending their
investigations into the Oil-for-Food Program to the U.N. tsunami
House and State Department should call on the U.N. to give a full
accounting of all its expenditures on tsunami relief operations,
including its payments to international aid consultants, who are
paid as much as $10,000 a month.
All U.N. expenditures on relief efforts should be made publicly
available and open to scrutiny.
- Withhold Funds
From the United Nations
doubts over the U.N.'s handling of the tsunami relief operation
reinforce the need for Congress to withhold funds from the U.N.'s
assessed budget unless a series of reform measures are implemented
by the world body. These must include the establishment of an
independent oversight body for the U.N., a far greater degree of
openness and transparency, as well as independent auditing
scandal over the U.N.'s handling of the tsunami "flash appeal"
should set off alarm bells in Washington. A picture is beginning to
emerge of yet another U.N. operation mired in secrecy, hugely
lacking in transparency and oversight, and without a doubt open to
widespread mismanagement and corruption. It is increasingly clear
that the U.N. has learned little from the Oil-for-Food scandal, and
is continuing to operate in a fashion that is out of step with the
expectations of U.S. taxpayers, who fund the U.N. to the tune of $3
billion a year.
Both Congress and
the Bush Administration must demand answers from the U.N.
bureaucracy, and expect that all donations are spent appropriately.
It is imperative that tsunami relief go directly to the
impoverished victims of the disaster, and not be used to subsidize
the salaries or administrative overheads of a vast army of U.N.
bureaucrats and consultants. A clear signal must be sent from
Washington that any misuse of international funds will not be
tolerated. If it is to maintain the long-term support of the United
States, the United Nations will have to be substantially reformed
and must operate as an efficient, honest, and accountable public
Ph.D., is the Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow at the Margaret
Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis
Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation. The
author is grateful to James Dean, Deputy Director of Government
Relations in Foreign and Defense Policy at the Heritage Foundation
for his advice and suggestions.