Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

UN Tsunami Sham Exposed by Auditor-General

by Amrit Muttukumaru

"There is no doubt that, mainly due to the UN’s cavalier attitude and lack of responsibility in approaching its custodian role, there is an appalling lack of coordination and accountability.  The tens of thousands of emotionally-driven donors worldwide, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of hapless victims of the Tsunami, will DEMAND nothing less than full accountability.  This has all the elements to eventually snowball into a scandal far worse than the UN’s sordid Iraqi ‘Oil-for-Food’ programme.  It is hoped that this same charade is not re-enacted in the response to the ‘Kashmir’ earthquake tragedy, which has the potential to be another ‘gravy train’!"

The sheer devastation caused by the Asian Tsunami on the day after Christmas last year and the unprecedented worldwide response to it has possibly made it the most high profile current global issue.  Even Hurricane ‘Katrina’ and the ‘Kashmir’ earthquake have failed to evoke the same emotional response.  Apart from the immense destruction and damage to property, homes, livelihoods and infrastructure the tsunami resulted in the death of around 225,000 persons with hundreds of thousands displaced and affected.  The countries mainly affected are Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand, with Indonesia and Sri Lanka accounting for more than 90% of this toll.

The sums donated and pledged are said to be a staggering US$12 Billion with Sri Lanka’s share being at least US$ 3 Billion.  These monies have been donated to the government’s concerned – mainly Indonesia and Sri Lanka, UN agencies, INGOs, local NGOs and individuals.  It is believed that the majority of these funds have gone to INGOs.  The International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) alone is said to have received a mammoth US$ 2.1 Billion, of which Sri Lanka has been allotted US$ 375 Million.  The donors include countries, multilateral agencies and, most importantly, tens of thousands of emotionally driven persons, inclusive of children from the richer countries, who have dug deep into their savings to mitigate the sufferings of these hapless people.

The least that these donors will demand is some assurance that their precious contributions reach those affected with the minimum 'leakage.'  This is precisely what is absent more than nine months after the Tsunami. 

It is becoming clearer by the day that the UN, which has been tasked with the responsibility of being the worldwide custodian for the transparent and efficient utilization of these massive funds, has sadly failed to fulfill this expectation.  Worse than this and more reprehensibly, the UN is attempting through deception to hoodwink the world that these monies are by and large being spent prudently with accountability to significantly alleviate the sufferings of the hundreds of thousands displaced and affected. 

Nothing could be further from the truth!  This is confirmed by many independent observers inclusive of BBC correspondents.  However, the most damning indictment is from Sri Lanka’s Auditor-General in his recent interim report for the period 26 December to 30 June 2005 presented to the country’s parliament.

Auditor-General

The Auditor-General has referred, amongst others, to glaring deficiencies in the management of Tsunami funds, irregularities inclusive of pilferage in the clearing of donor items at the airport/harbour, incompetence and serious shortcomings in the construction of houses. It was determined that, of the foreign funds amounting to US$ 1.169 Billion, only 13.5% has been utilized for relief and reconstruction.  In regard to local donations amounting to LKR.4.278 Billion, only 37% had been utilized up to 17 August. 

It was also determined that the government had not maintained records of collections by individuals and institutions.  Even the proposed National Disaster Management Centre has not yet been established. 

It was found that 506 vehicles (apparently most of them luxury SUVs) were imported with duty concessions within three months of the Tsunami and that these concessions had been extended to 2008 without parliamentary approval, thus breaching the customs ordinance.  Worse than this, there was no record of the distribution of these vehicles among specific organizations except that the government took possession of 207, NGOs 290 and others 9.  Of course, this does not include the UN and its specialized agencies which surely must account for no small number, judging by the sudden influx of brand new sleek luxury SUVs emblazoned with the UN emblem arrogantly cruising the country’s pot holed roads. 

The Auditor-General has also referred to the utter confusion in the payment of the LKR 5000/= monthly allowance to affected families by pointing out that "from January to May 2005 six different circulars were released for the payment of allowance of LKR.5000."  Hence, is it any wonder that reportedly no more than 3 payments have been made since the Tsunami with even some unaffected families being beneficiaries? 

Quite evidently, the absence of effective coordination has been a conspicuous feature of the response to the Tsunami in this country.  The coordination is so miserable that Nicola Brennan in her article to commemorate nine months after the Tsunami observes that "some have received boats, but no nets.  Others have received nets, but no boats.  Many complain that the boats given are of such poor quality that they are unable to take them out into the ocean for fear they will fall apart…"!

Why is it that TAFREN – ‘Task Force to Rebuild the Nation’   – which is supposed to coordinate and ensure accountability of the entire Tsunami relief and reconstruction process in the country, has so far not responded to the findings of the Auditor-General in spite of requests from the media?

Housing

There is no consensus even on the number of houses that have been destroyed and damaged in Sri Lanka, with varying figures being trotted out even by the same agency at different times, with further confusion on the split between those in the buffer zone and outside it.  For example, while the UN’s Resident Coordinator, Miguel Bermeo, refers to a figure of 96,000, the Census and Statistics Department places the figure at 77,561 - 41,393 destroyed and 36,168 damaged.  The confusion is further confounded with TAFREN placing the number of houses destroyed at 50,783.  Be that as it may, the Auditor-General asserts that only a minuscule 1055 houses have been constructed up to 4 August!  Irregularities unearthed by the Auditor-General include payments made for repairs without ascertaining the value of the damage.

Anomalies and inequities are also evident.  The worst affected northeast has been relatively neglected in the context of the southern Districts being favoured.  For example, although the Hambantota District only requires 1057 houses, 4073 units have been ‘assigned’ to donors by TAFREN.

‘Transitional’ Housing

The achievements claimed in providing transitional housing are, to say the least, highly exaggerated and misleading.  While Tilak Ranaviraja- Chairman, Task Force for Relief (TAFOR) - has claimed in the presence of UN officials that 95% of those living in tents in all affected areas of the country have been provided with transitional homes numbering 42,000 units as at mid-June, this is contradicted by another State agency - TAFREN - which has stated that only 35,193 units have been completed and Miguel Bermeo - UN Resident Coordinator for Sri Lanka - further reducing this figure to "31,000 transitional houses"! 

At a workshop held in late September organized by the government’s ‘Transitional Accommodation Project’ headed by Ranaviraja and UN agencies such as OCHA, it was reported in the presence of Ranaviraja that "currently 52,383 transitional shelters" have been constructed, while the UN’s Bermeo is quoted to have said that "what has been accomplished is remarkable."  This figure clearly contradicts Ranaviraja’s earlier contention that 95% of those living in tents in all affected areas of the country have been provided with transitional homes numbering 42,000 units!  Most importantly, even the number of ‘transitional’ houses said to be required is highly understated, given the number of houses said to be destroyed and damaged!  There are also contradictions in the minimum floor area in transitional houses.  While TAFREN refers to 400 square feet, TAFOR, which executes this project, merely refers to 250 square feet!

Dumeetha Luthra, BBC Correspondent in Sri Lanka, in her article titled: ‘Sri Lanka’s Slow Tsunami Response,’ has written on 25 June, 2005 that "The overwhelming need is for shelter, but so far across the country only around half of the temporary homes are up…:".  Giving an example of their quality she writes, "In the Patharajagama camp, the transitional shelters are an example of how a knee-jerk and unplanned response to relief has left more than 300 people living in dire conditions."  She describes a specific dwelling in this camp (No. 72) as follows: "It's a sweltering tin box.  The walls and the roof of its one room, the size of a garden shed, are made from corrugated metal sheets." - BBC News UK Edition (Website) 25 June 2005.  It is the view of this writer that this is a fair assessment of the ground reality.

An article by Nicola Brennan to commemorate nine months after the Tsunami commences as follows: "Many victims of the tsunami in the south and south-west of the country continue to live in make-shift tents and inadequate temporary houses without a proper plan for future rehabilitation."  If this is the plight of those in the south, the situation in the worse affected northeast must indeed be dire, in the absence of even a rudimentary mechanism to deliver the aid received. 

A group of concerned citizens who have established websites to monitor the recovery efforts under an organization named ‘Recover Lanka’ have observed that "six months after the devastation, the relief, recovery and reconstruction in Sri Lanka is below our lowest expectations."  Clearly, the reality on the ground completely contradicts not only Bermeo’s assertion that "what has been accomplished is remarkable," but also UN Under- Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland’s statement that what has been achieved especially in regard to ‘transitional’ shelters is "a remarkable endeavour."

UN’s Custodian Role

As will be crystal clear from the foregoing, the UN which is the worldwide custodian for the effective utilization of these massive donor funds with transparency and accountability, has largely reneged on this responsibility.  Not only has it failed to ensure this among the Sri Lankan government agencies concerned, particularly TAFREN and TAFOR, and within the NGO sector both local and foreign, but more shockingly the UN’s own accountability is far from satisfactory. 

The UN's own website grandiosely titled "Indian Ocean Earthquake - Tsunami Flash Appeal: Expenditure Tracking" does many things other than ‘Expenditure Tracking’!  It merely gives lump sums for glaringly ill-defined ‘project’ expenditure with no attempt for even a rudimentary breakdown of expenditure.  The Sarvodaya website, while being studious in giving copious donor information,also  fights shy of giving any meaningful breakdown of expenditure.  Even the much-hyped TAFREN ‘Development Assistance Database’ (DAD) website set up with UNDP assistance is no better.  This seems to be a feature in other organizations as well. 

No wonder there are serious allegations of corruption, inefficiency and a lack of coordination at government, INGO, NGO and UN agency levels, which include plausible charges that administrative and personnel costs account for the lion's shareof project costs.  The public is not even aware officially of the exact distribution of these donor funds between these different entities, particularly that of the NGO sector. 

Another area of confusion (willful?) in the UN’s website is the classification of ‘expenditure’ for projects by ‘Country’ and ‘Regional’ which, to say the least, is highly ambiguous.  The rationale for this is not understood since the ‘Regional’ heading essentially comprises of ‘country’ projects. 

The coffers of the NGOs who have reportedly received the greater part of these funds are said to be brimming as never before.  For example, the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) is said to be in receipt of a whopping US$ 2.1 Billion with Sri Lanka allocated US$ 375 Million. While Tony Maryon - Head of the IFRC Delegation to Sri Lanka - asserts that they are "planning to construct 15,000 houses in Sri Lanka," it was reported in mid-September that only 100 houses have been completed, while 100 more are being constructed in Matara.  The request to give a figure for ‘administration’ expenses of IFRC in Sri Lanka was turned down by Maryon.

An outrageous case of irregularity at the UNDP office in Colombo is with reference to the UNDP calling for 'Expressions of Interest' (EOI) for the supply of 13 large Refrigerated Trucks for Tsunami relief.  The advertisement concerned published on 9 July 2005(Saturday) stipulates that the EOIs must be received"no later than Monday 11 July 2005"!  The deadline for "Bid Submission" is given as 13 July 2005!  Could this be the tip of the iceberg of irregularities in the handling of Tsunami funds by the UN itself? 

Why is it that suddenly nothing is being heard of its initial grandiose plans to audit the utilization of the Tsunami Billions worldwide?

Tsunami Auditing

Why is the UN not making available to the local media - let alone the international media - the 'Statement of Findings' of the UN inquiry team which visited Sri Lanka on April 26-27 2005, to purportedly determine whether Price Waterhouse Coopers has the integrity to provide audit or any other services to the UN to ensure transparency and accountability in the utilization of the Tsunami Billions, particularly in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, together with the ‘responses’ of the sole complainant under each of the ‘allegations’?  Is this not of worldwide interest, since no lesser person than former US President Bill Clinton who has been appointed by UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan as UN ‘Special Envoy for Tsunami Relief’ has stated that "The tragedy touched the chord of our common humanity.  Forty countries committed military forces to provide food, water and shelter to the survivors.  Millions of Americans contributed more than $1 Billion to the relief effort.  Millions of others across the world also sent contributions…" – The New York Times (22 June 2005).

Conclusion

The need for effective oversight becomes all the more critical in the context of Sri Lanka and Indonesia being the major recipients of the Tsunami Billions.  This is because, sadly, these two countries are among the most corrupt nations in the world, woefully lacking in the checks and balances to ensure transparency and accountability.  Hence, it is hardly a surprise that, in spite of all the sunshine stories, there is a yawning gap between the rhetoric and reality on the ground; definitely in Sri Lanka and reportedly in Indonesia.  These include UN Resident Coordinator Miguel Bermeo’s fairy tales that "what has been accomplished is remarkable," and "More than 90% of children are back in school, well-uniformed with text books and school bags in hand."!

Things are so pathetic that even the individual recently appointed as CEO of Sri Lanka's powerful agency to spearhead the multi-billion dollar Tsunami reconstruction effort- TAFREN - was found guilty by the ‘Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption’ in its very first report of "corruption."  As is the 'traditional' practice in this country, to date there has been no accountability.  One of the commissioners even resigned due to the absence of any accountability.

What is the UN going to do about this lack of accountability after verifying its accuracy, in its capacity as the worldwide custodian of tsunami funds?  There is no doubt that, mainly due to the UN’s cavalier attitude and lack of responsibility in approaching its custodian role, there is an appalling lack of coordination and accountability.  The tens of thousands of emotionally driven donors worldwide - not to mention the hundreds of thousands of hapless victims of the Tsunami - will DEMAND nothing less than full accountability. 

This has all the elements to eventually snowball into a scandal far worse than the UN’s sordid Iraqi ‘Oil-for-Food’ programme. 

It is hoped that this same charade is not re-enacted in the response to the ‘Kashmir’ earthquake tragedy which has the potential to be another ‘gravy train’!

16 October 2005

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Posted October 17, 2005