Monday, May 02, 2005

Get serious about giving tsunami aid!

The Nation
Bangkok, Thailand

March 18, 2005

By Thang D. Nguyen

As former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr touched down in Banda Aceh, the area worst hit by the Asian tsunami, the only things they saw that were still standing were a few mosques and churches. (Many locals believe that God did it.) Everything else was, to put it simply, gone with the tsunami, which took place on Boxing Day, December 26, last year.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in my entire life. Ever,” said Clinton while visiting tsunami sites in Aceh.
Bush Sr, whom the current US President George W Bush appointed to lead a US-wide fund-raising campaign for tsunami victims with Clinton, added: “I don’t think there’s ever been a tragedy that affected the heartbeat of the American people as much as this tsunami has done.”

Shortly after the tsunami happened, many countries around the world sent troops, aid workers and aid supplies to Indonesia and other victim nations, except for Thailand, which declined foreign assistance on the basis that it can take care of itself. More importantly, some of the world’s most powerful nations pledged generous aid packages to their Asian friends in this hour of darkness. The list of donor countries and their pledges is quite impressive: Australia, US$764 million (Bt29.3 billion); Germany, $674 million; Japan, $500 million; the United States, $350 million; the United Kingdom, $96 million; and the European Union, $30 million. Altogether, about $7 billion has been pledged thus far. After their visits to the tsunami-affected areas, however, Bush Sr and Clinton warned that another $4 billion would be needed.

While any additional aid would be more than welcome, the real challenge for countries affected by the tsunami is to actually get their hands on the $7-billion pledge that the international community has made. While promises are easy to make, they are easy to break, too. This has happened before. A case in point is the earthquake that killed 25,000 people and flattened the ancient city of Bam, Iran, on Boxing Day of 2003, exactly one year before the Asian tsunami. After this catastrophe took place, the international community made a pledge of $1 billion to Iran. Unfortunately, it is estimated that the aid that has actually been delivered to Bam stands somewhere between $17 million and $115 million.

For a number of reasons, victims of natural disasters do not get the aid that the world promises. For one thing, a lack of coordination and monitoring means that a lot of international aid falls through the cracks. What’s more, the corruption in, and bureaucracy of, local governments reduce the actual amount of aid by the time it gets delivered.

“There is the risk of multiple funding of the same project. In Indonesia, [for instance,] we also have to avoid corruption for which it is well known,” said Hugh Goyder, an independent development consultant.

It is easy for countries or individuals from around the world to make pledges and not keep them when the media has moved on to other, more happening global events. In other words, the Asian tsunami no longer makes headlines. But those who make such pledges should remember, to paraphrase the American poet Robert Frost, that they “have promises to keep”, and victims of the Asian tsunami have “miles to go before they sleep”.

The writer is director of programmes at the Jakarta-based United in Diversity Forum.


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