Will Clinton's charm change tsunami pledges into cash?
NEW YORK - Former US President Bill Clinton has always been an inveterate charmer with an ability to win friends and influence people. Even during his days in the White House, he was known to be lively and ebullient compared to his colourless vice president Al Gore who was considered a bore.

The contrasting personalities were best laid out by a stand-up comedian who remarked jokingly that Clinton was such a politically seductive guy that he will be quick to take you to bed -- only to have the wooden Al Gore put you to sleep.

Notwithstanding his sexual escapades both inside and outside the White House, Clinton was given a standing ovation when he addressed the 191-member UN General Assembly the very week his political enemies began a hearing in Capitol Hill to impeach him.

Last week, he returned to the world body, this time as the UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, an appointment made by Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Clinton, who has already visited some of the tsunami-affected countries, including Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, was formally introduced to the UN press corps by Annan, his new boss.

When he was faced with the inevitable question about widespread rumours that he is harbouring ambitions to take over Annan's job which is mandated to end December 2006, Clinton was dexterously evasive.

He did not provide either a positive or a negative answer, leaving the lingering question up in the air. "I support the Secretary-General we have. I like him, I admire him, I think he's doing a good job," he said.

As for his own future plans, Clinton said: "I like the job I have. So I'm going to do the job I've got. I am his (Annan's) employee. It would be unseemly for me to be anything else right now."

It would also be unseemly for a former US president to be the Secretary-General taking orders from the US ambassador to the UN, and it would break a longstanding tradition to have a Secretary-General from one of the five veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council -- in this case the United States.

Still, Clinton's answer is in marked contrast to the response given by former US Secretary of State Colin Powell who was rumoured to be interested in the job of World Bank president. "I don't want to be an employee of the World Bank in any capacity," he said.

With that blunt answer, Powell's name was taken off the list of contenders for the World Bank job, which eventually went to former US Deputy Secretary of Defence Paul Wolfowitz. Unlike Powell, Clinton was less forthright in his answer.

The big story, however, was not Clinton's evasive answer but rising complaints that donors who pledged money for tsunami recovery are painfully slow in honouring their commitments. When Annan was asked about the sluggish flow of pledged aid to tsunami-affected countries, he told reporters: "Pledges are good but cash is better."

But unfortunately liquid cash is not forthcoming. So far, about $6.7 billion have been promised for tsunami relief by donor countries, private individuals and corporations, of which about $5.8 billion have been pledged by 92 governments.

"Such generosity had never been recorded in the history of the United Nations," says Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland.

But of the $6.7 billion pledged, only about $2.5 billion have been "recorded as committed or paid up." The problem, Egeland says, is to convert pledges into cash commitments.

The familiar refrain is that the pledges come in only when the world media saturate newspapers and home television sets with the horrors of the tragedies -- be it earthquakes, floods or hurricanes. But no sooner TV cameras move out of the devastated areas, the tragedies are quickly forgotten -- and the bucks stop there.

The UN now wants to be more aggressive in following-up on pledges, and issue periodic reports keeping a running tab on the cash flow, listing who offered what, and who defaulted on their commitments. The shortfall in anticipated resources can significantly hamper rebuilding efforts in all of the tsunami-affected countries.

Last week, the New York Times reported that recovery has been exceedingly slow in Aceh province in Indonesia, where nearly 126,000 died in the tsunami disaster.

"There is little sign in Aceh of the billions of dollars in donations from governments, aid organisations, civic groups and individual people who reached out to help from around the world," the Times said. Clinton doesn't think there is "donor fatigue". "We don't know whether donor fatigue has set in, and whether commitments aren't being kept, until we have national plans (of reconstruction).''

Clinton said there are "lots of NGOs that have enormous amounts of money. I mean the Red Cross has got a staggering amount of money. And you can't really expect them to spend it until there's a plan on which they can spend it, where they can say, okay, this is where I fit into this plan; this is where I belong and what I am going to do."

Standing besides Clinton, Annan told reporters: "I rely on him to make sure that donors not only pledge but disburse the money needed for recovery and reconstruction, and that it actually reaches the communities who need it most." Let's stay tuned to see how Clinton's charm offensive will work.

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