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Party time for the UN

By Kanchan Gupta
January 10, 2005 12:39 IST
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Tragedies bring out the best and the worst in us. There has been a groundswell of concern, compassion and care for the survivors of Black Sunday. But there are also loonies who have seized upon the worst disaster to visit humankind in living memory to peddle their warped politics.

The Communist Party of India-Marxist, in the latest issue of its weekly publication, People's Democracy, has darkly hinted that Black Sunday was god's retribution for the people voting the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance Government to power in two successive elections and keeping it in office for six years.

Islamist web sites across the Net are belligerently accusing the United States of America for the terrible disaster and the loss of more than 150,000 lives, two-thirds of them Muslims inhabitants of coastal Aceh, Indonesia. The same loonies had claimed that the USA and Israel were behind the 9/11 terror attacks. For good measure, the Islamists have added that as on 9/11, Jews were forewarned by the USA on 12/26, too.

True blue loonies aver that they spotted UFOs shortly before the Indian Ocean rose in mad fury. According to them, 'aliens, trying to correct Earth's wobbly rotation,' stepped on the wrong tectonic plate. And, boom! Others have described the disaster as divine finger wagging for the current travails and tribulation of the Shankaracharya of Kanchi.

Impact of tsunami in India

Meanwhile, the real life, high political drama over dispensing aid to the tsunami-hit countries reached its expected denouement in Jakarta on Thursday, January 6, with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan having his way yet once again. He and the UN now preside over a vast fortune of aid money, totalling more than $4 billion -- of which $3.7 billion have been pledged by governments around the world and $630 million by private groups and individuals.

For a while, it seemed that President George Bush would carry out his December 29 declaration to its logical conclusion and successfully put into place an alternative aid disbursement and monitoring system by forging a four-nation 'core group' comprising the USA, Japan, Australia and India. But in these times of hard luck, good deeds are rare. And this, too, had to pass.

It's a pity that the US caved in rather than stand up to a sulking Kofi Annan and his petulant fellow travellers in Europe who have been busy kicking up a storm this past week against the nascent 'core group.' Former British International Development secretary Clare Short's denouncement of the alternative arrangement was most telling.

'I think this initiative from America to set up four countries claiming to coordinate sounds like yet another attempt to undermine the UN when it is the best system we have got. Only really the UN can do that job... It is the only body that has the moral authority,' she primly declared, '(The US) is very bad at coordinating with anyone and India has its own problems to deal with.'

From Somalia to Bosnia, Rwanda to Darfur, we have seen the UN in action, and how! We now have documentary evidence that shows the UN converted Iraq's 'oil for food' programme into a massive exercise in fraud and deceit. According to one estimate, as much as $10 billion may have been skimmed off from this programme, the world's largest UN-supervised and managed humanitarian aid project. News reports on the 'oil for food' scam have mentioned the name of a certain Kojo Annan as one of the beneficiaries. He happens to be Kofi Annan's son.

Prevent, prepare and protect

Iraq is not the only place where the UN has covered itself with less than glory in disbursing and managing aid. We have seen millions of dollars squandered or siphoned off in Angola, Somalia and Cambodia. In Kenya, UNICEF botched a project worth millions of dollars.

At the height of the infamous famine in Ethiopia during the 1980s, the UN spent $ 75 million in building and upgrading apartment complexes for its administrators and staff as food rotted in the docks due to lack of transport. In East Timor, $50 million of aid money, administered by the UN, has been reportedly used for building hotels and malls instead of schools and health centres.

As much as 70 per cent -- and that is a conservative estimate -- of the UN's operational costs goes towards staff salaries, inflated bills, first class air travel, fancy cars, fancier accommodation, often in five-star hotels, huge allowances and other pecuniary benefits. Half the UN's workforce, whether at headquarters spinning red tape or in the field administering aid, former Secretary General Boutros-Ghali famously told The Washington Post, 'does nothing.' But everybody has his or her snout in the trough.

A pioneering study on how the UN operates while administering aid provides a revealing insight: In a particular year, the 'Executive Board of the (UN) Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation received $1,759,584 for travel and lodging. During the same time it spent $49,000 on education for handicapped children in Africa, and $1,000 to train teachers in Honduras.'

All this, of course, is necessary to disburse and administer aid. Little wonder, then, that the UN should have described the US as 'stingy' for its initial contribution to the tsunami aid fund. While others are accountable, not so the UN, it is accountable to none -- the robe of moral supremacy that it claims to wear, is but a figment of its imagination. But who is to tell the king that he struts around naked?

After a rather bleak 2004 when the UN found itself squeezed out of Iraq and the lucrative multi-billion-dollar 'oil for food' programme, and scandal after scandal of financial malfeasance and worse surfaced, painting the world organisation, to quote a particularly colourful though apt description, as a 'miasma of corruption beset by inefficiency,' a 'Kafkaesque bureaucracy' that deliberately obfuscates the truth and maintains a conspiracy of silence, it is party time for Kofi Annan and his aid administrators.

All those who have pledged money to help the survivors of Black Sunday, Kofi Annan has been quick to tell them in Jakarta, should pay up and pay up fast. The party has begun, the bills can't be allowed to pile up.

PS: If you wish to help survivors of Black Sunday, help organisations like Bharat Sevashram Sangha whose monks still travel by second class sleeper on Indian Railways and yet are among the first to reach disaster sites with food, clothes and medicine.

The tsunami tragedy: The complete coverage

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Kanchan Gupta