Red tape and confusion hamper Bangladesh relief effort. Voluntary agencies play key role in helping government distribute aid

Bangladesh is struggling to get its massive relief operation off the ground. One of the world's poorest countries (the average annual per capita income is $120), Bangladesh's economy has been propped up by huge amounts of foreign aid that donors are now augmenting with emergency flood relief. An initial shipment of American aid, which will total more than $150 million, arrived in Dacca Monday.

President Hussain Muhammad Ershad, who has survived repeated challenges to his rule since taking power in a coup in 1982, now faces his worst crisis ever. In Bangladesh's turbulent 17 years of independence, government failures to quickly ease suffering after natural disasters have often been a catalyst for political turmoil. The government is pressing for a quick response as water levels begin to recede after more than two weeks of floods from heavy rains.

``This government is scared by the enormity of the situation,'' says the head of a large private relief agency. ``There is a lot of politics involved in disaster relief.''

President Ershad says the government is doing the best job possible. He and his aides have been making high-profile, televised visits to flood victims around the country, and say foreign donors have pledged $280 million in flood aid.

Some Bangladeshi officials say that figure is misleading. Only $40 million of the $280 million is new aid, one official says; the rest was pledged earlier, as part of Bangladesh's regular aid budget.

More important, say other government and private aid sources, emergency operations are being hampered by official disorganization, limited distribution channels, and what they term public-relations ploys by government and donors.

These sources maintain that the relief effort is uncoordinated, with no central agency dealing with the influx of aid, and that foreign donors lack an overall plan.

Last week, for instance, efforts by two major Western organizations to contribute 2 million desperately needed water-purifying tablets were stymied by bureaucratic wrangling.

In another case, four helicopters donated by Saudi Arabia to carry supplies were delayed so they could be repainted in the Saudi national colors.

``There is no basic assessment of what is needed,'' says a senior Bangladeshi official close to the relief operation. ``All the relief work is being used for publicity and the building up of image.'' And, he adds, in his view, ``the government as an institution is not working.''

The government and Western donors are relying heavily on Bangladesh's vast network of voluntary development organizations, many of which admit that their ability to reach the stranded millions is inadequate.

By one official count, Bangladesh has 11,000 NGOs (nongovernment organizations) - which includes tiny community groups that sprang up to cope with the aftermath of Bangladesh's devastating 1971 war of independence. But fewer than 600 of these NGOs are involved significantly in development work, experts here say.

In the past, many NGOs have had a contentious relationship with the government. They accuse the government of corruption which, development experts say, can affect 20 to 30 percent of the aid in foreign-financed programs and in the 1970s, ran as high as 60 percent.

Bangladeshis, including prominent opposition politicians, have accused the NGOs of being agents of imperialism and being interested in religious conversions more than development.

But in recent years, the role of the voluntary agencies has grown as foreign donors channeled increasing amounts to the NGOs to lessen the possibility for government corruption, and the government appears to have recognized the organizations' links to the countryside.

``The ability of the government to do large-scale relief and rehabilitation work is very limited,'' says Fazle Hasan Abed, executive director of Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), an NGO which was started in 1972 with six people and $300,000 and has grown to 3,000 people with a $8 million budget.

``They need us, even if they don't say so,'' Mr. Abed says.

But the voluntary agencies also say they will not be able to cope with the large amounts of foreign aid expected in Bangladesh in coming months.

``We're having resources thrown at us, and we're saying, `Whoa, the NGOs can't handle it,''' says Stafford Clarry, head of CARE Bangladesh.

``There are some pretty savvy people here who are saying that too much money spoils the NGOS,'' Mr. Clarry says.

Meanwhile, the 80,000-member Army is the main government representative for carrying out relief operations. The Army handled flood relief efforts last year also, but Ershad admits it will be difficult this time around to get aid to the estimated 30 million people (one-fourth of the population) who have been left homeless in outlying areas.

As part of an effort to streamline operations, the government has reportedly authorized CARE to distribute 10,000 tons of donated food stocks next week. In the past, local district councils were in charge of distributing the food, which led to complaints about corruption.

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