A monumental human tragedy like the one that devastated communities along the Indian Ocean rim on December 26 should not, ideally, become a trigger for settling scores. The case for restraint is all the more compelling in view of the staggering generosity of people all over the world, not least in India, to the disaster. Even before all the money donated by individuals, businesses and governments have been counted, it can be said without a hint of exaggeration that the relief and rehabilitation of the victims of the tsunami will not suffer on account of a paucity of resources.
Yet, it is precisely the unprecedented outpouring of global compassion that makes it imperative the monies collected are intelligently utilized and not frittered away. Ironically, the threat to the responsible management of tsunami relief does not stem from the much-decried, corrupt Third World governments alone. Recent revelations have put a big question mark on the competence of one body that the global left-liberal community believes is the alternative to gung-ho unilateralism. Today, it is the credibility of the United Nations and its controversial secretary-general, Kofi Annan, that is on test.
On the face of it, the fears have been well concealed. At the meeting of the donor countries in Jakarta last week, it was decided to disband the stop-gap 'coalition of the willing', including the United States of America, India, Japan and Australia, and give the UN the responsibility for coordinating the relief and rehabilitation in all the affected countries, barring India. India, of course, would have nothing to do with the UN domestically. However, under pressure from its communist allies, the government decided that UN overlordship was necessary in the other tsunami-affected countries, if only to check the US.
Annan, followed by obliging TV cameras, went on to do a grand tour of all the tsunami countries. He aroused a few sniggers in Sumatra by asking incredulously, 'You wonder where are the people' What has happened to them' The only sour note in his exercise in self-publicity came from India's terse message that his presence in the tsunami-affected parts of Tamil Nadu would be an unnecessary distraction.
Of course, this is not the first time that the secretary-general has been told he is unwelcome in India. His petty partisanship in the aftermath of the 1998 nuclear tests and his unrelenting bid to carve out a role in the Indo-Pak dispute had made his relationship with the erstwhile Atal Bihari Vajpayee government awkward. The National Democratic Alliance government believed that both Annan and his senior staff took a perverse delight in needling India.
It is interesting that India's allergy to Annan was shared by the George W. Bush administration in the US, albeit for different reasons. Earlier this month, as a placatory gesture to Washington, Annan replaced his long-time, 70-year-old Pakistani chief of staff, Iqbal Riza, with the more acceptable Mark Malloch Brown, a former political editor of The Economist. On assuming charge, Brown was honest enough to admit that 'staff morale is not at its highest' and that the UN was going through a 'difficult moment'. It was a characteristic British understatement. Before he undertook his tsunami tour, Annan spent an evening in the New York flat of the former US ambassador, Richard Holebrooke, listening to a clutch of American foreign-policy pundits telling him exactly where he had gone wrong. It was the beginnings of a 'Save Kofi' campaign.
In the coming weeks, Annan will need all the help at his disposal to tide over a major crisis centred on the credibility and integrity of the UN. Next month, a US congressional committee headed by Paul Volcker, a former chairman of the Federal Reserve, will submit its report on allegations that senior UN officials colluded with Saddam Hussein to siphon off an estimated $10 billion from the Oil-for-Food programme. One of the charges is that Annan's son, Kojo, misused his father's position for personal benefit. There have been persistent whispers in New Delhi that a thorough investigation may even implicate Indian politicians, including a cabinet minister.
The initial results do not augur well for the UN. The results of 19 internal audits have revealed that the UN overpaid victims of Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait by as much as $5 billion. Curiously, UN officials have not denied the report. They have fallen back on the technicality that the compensation mess has no relation with the Oil-for-Food scam.
The issue, it would seem, is more than the personal standing of Annan. There is considerable disquiet over the fact that the UN has been transformed into a self-serving bureaucracy. Although the organization has decided to turn over a new leaf and assure the world that the one billion dollars it proposes to collect for tsunami relief will be strictly audited and its results made public, doubts over its very competence to handle a humanitarian project of this magnitude persist.
An anonymous blog by an American career diplomat stationed in Sumatra is revealing. 'We're now into the 10th day of the tsunami crisis, and in this battered corner of Asia', he wrote, 'the UN is nowhere to be seen ' unless you count at meetings, in five-star hotels and holding press conferences. Aussies and Yanks continue to carry the overwhelming bulk of the burden, but some other fine folk have jumped in: e.g. the New Zealanders'the Singaporeans'the Indians'Spain and Netherlands' The UN, he concluded,'continues to send its best products, bureaucrats.'
The diplomat speaks about a press conference held by a senior UN official where a series of outrageous claims were made. Unicef, for example, listed items under tsunami relief that had been previously donated to Indonesia's ministry of health ' 'this is known as 'double counting' or 'cooking the books'. The UNDP lists '$100K cash grant for coordination + assessment'. In other words, claims the writer, 'they've spent $100,000 to do what they're supposed to do in the first place, coordinate and assess; oh and they've flown two folks out here (first class, of course) who'll do something or another. Have they in fact arrived' What have they done since then' These are questions to which you will never get a straight answer.' In Sri Lanka, the UN issued a press release on January 1, where, among other things, it claimed that the UNFPA 'is carrying out reproductive health assessments'.
To many Indians who witnessed the so-called international aid agencies and well-heeled NGOs during both the Orissa cyclone of 1999 and the Gujarat earthquake of 2001, the tale of press releases and megaphone compassion is distressingly familiar. Tragically, ordinary Western folk who have parted with their money out of a sense of Christian charity have little clue about the grim realities behind the sanctimoniousness of those who constantly decry local relief initiatives and spread needless alarm of imminent starvation and epidemics.
It is one thing for the NGO sector to be infected with this malaise. It is a separate matter when the UN is reduced to being merely a good employer that lives for its employees and consultants alone. The past decade has witnessed many spirited encounters between unilateralism and global initiatives.The UN has been at the heart of this debate. However, when the UN's own credibility, integrity and, by implication, its authority become what one former Bush speechwriter called 'one of those ineffable mystical mysteries', it is time for member states to worry.