Tsunami relief aid: Rogues and reality
NEW YORK -- When low-lying areas in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) were being ravaged by floods in the late 1950s, the quick-witted political cartoonist on the 'Observer' Aubrey Collette couldn't resist the temptation of taking a dig at local politicians who where lining their pockets with international aid flowing into the country for flood victims.

Collette turned to a Shakespearean character Brutus who was quoted in the play Julius Caesar as saying: "There's a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads onto fortune."

Although Shakespeare (when his identity was being challenged in England, the legendary 'Observer' editor Tarzie Vittachi joked that the English playright was really a local chap by the name of Shakes Perera) wasn't referring to the floods in Hanwella and Ratnapura, Collette's message was that some of our corrupt politicians at that time were making a fast buck out of the miseries of flood victims.

Since history has a way of repeating itself, how many are going to enrich themselves on the tsunami tragedy which has already claimed the lives of nearly 30,000 (and rising) in Sri Lanka, and more than 150,000 (and counting) in south and southeast Asia?

The sceptics have already expressed fears that some of the whopping $5.0 billion in aid pledged by the international community for tsunami victims may find itself into the hands of sleazy politicians, crooked bureaucrats and fly-by-night non-governmental organisations -- whether in Sri Lanka or Indonesia, two of the hardest-hit countries.

In the US, there is already a warning against bogus tsunami relief organizations, scam artists and telemarketers who are using the internet to solicit donations (some of it which may never reach tsunami victims).

The warning has already gone out against two bogus online organizations: 'The Foundation for Victims of Flood and Earthquake' and the 'Tsunami Disaster Help Fund.' A spokesman for the New York Attorney-General's office says: "We're asking people to donate only to charities they know and trust, rather than something set up in a piecemeal fashion."

Everyone seems to be cashing in on the monumental tragedy-- the good, the bad and the ugly. By and large, the Sri Lanka expatriate community in the US has been selfless in devoting its time and energy in raising funds and collecting dry nations and urgently-needed drugs. These include both individuals and religious leaders. But there are a few rotten apples too in the extended community.

A Sri Lankan who is soliciting cash donations -- to be delivered to his home address -- is known to have defrauded several Sri Lankan students last year by not delivering on his promise to have their visas extended in the US. The newspapers publicising his relief efforts seem to have been suckered into his scam.

At least one group of expatriates has sent out a widely-circulated email advising Sri Lankans back home to report any misappropriation of aid monies. The message reads:

"Dear Friends: The whole world is doing all what it can to help Sri Lanka. But at the same time we hear of so much corruption taking place on a grand scale. Our aim is to get all these information and take swift action at the highest levels. You are requested to inform us if you know of any corruption, and the names and details of the persons giving out information will not be divulged. You are strongly urged to send us only genuine information. Please let's help Sri Lanka to stand on its feet and kick these crooks to the ground".

With billions of dollars pouring into the United Nations and to relief organizations worldwide, there are legitimate fears of waste, mismanagement and corruption in the delivery and use of these monies.

The United Nations says it is suffering from an embarrassment of riches because the estimated pledges of about $5.0 billion is five times more than what Secretary-General Kofi Annan requested ($977 million) at the summit meeting in Jakarta last week.

On the negative side, there is still scepticism over the eventual delivery of the billions of dollars already pledged. Asked if governments could falter on their pledges, Annan told reporters last week: "If we go by past history, yes, I do have concerns. We have got lots of pledges, but it is quite likely that, at the end of the day, we will not receive all of it."

"Governments must not only pledge immediate aid for the millions of victims of the tsunami. They must deliver it before it is too late," says Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America.

"And they must support people rebuilding their lives after the cameras have gone. Like all the people in the humanitarian crises that never hit our TV screens, they need the continued, not just fleeting, generosity, of rich governments," he added.

This is widely known in the US as "the CNN factor". Since the TV screens (mostly Cable News Network or CNN) are being inundated with harrowing pictures of the tragedy in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the pledges continue coming. But after the cameras stop rolling, the aid flows too will screech to a halt.

The UN's "flash appeal" in response to Iran's earthquake 12 months ago was only 54 percent funded ($32 million dollars requested, only $17 million delivered).

A series of similar appeals for disasters that hit Haiti from March to September 2004 was only 36 percent funded (only $13 million dollars received of the $37 million dollars requested by the UN).

But donor governments' generosity has also been influenced by political factors -- specifically in the aftermath of the US-led military attack on Iraq and the separatist insurgency in Russia's Chechnya province.

Iraq and Chechnya's 2003 appeals were both 91 percent funded, while Cote d'Ivoire only received 54 percent, Liberia 45 percent in 2003, and Mozambique only 15 percent of what was requested.

At the Jakarta press conference last week, Annan said that in some situations, only a measly 14 percent was delivered of the total requested.

And that's the reality of international aid flows. But the response to the tsunami tragedy is expected to be different primarily because it does not brook comparison to any other natural disasters in the world.

But let's keep our fingers crossed hoping for the best because the costs of reconstructing the disaster stricken areas could be an estimated $10 billion to $15 billion -- or even much higher.

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