NEW YORK — When the tsunami hit Dec. 26, lingering on the UN palate was the bitter taste of the billions of dollars siphoned off from the Iraqi oil-for-food scheme.
So as the humanitarian response roared into action - and the donor dollars flowed - UN officials took up the mantra, "transparency and accountability."
"What we cannot afford is scandals, any kind of scandals with that money going in the wrong direction or into the wrong pockets," UN emergency coordinator Jan Egeland said May 12.
So far, it seems, so good.
Six months after tsunamis struck coastal communities in 11 countries, a UN-run website (http://ocha.unog.ch/ets/ Default.aspx) offers a scorecard of how 13 UN agencies have spent $322 million to date. In all, roughly half of the $2.8 billion that states have pledged has actually been delivered.
"This unprecedented generosity," Mr. Egeland said in unveiling the site last month, "should be met by unprecedented transparency in how the money is spent, when it is spent, where it is spent, so that those who contributed know where we spend our money."
As the wide-ranging UN activities evolve from lifesaving and relief to recovery and reconstruction, no major revelation of corruption, fraud, or mismanagement has yet surfaced. "I'm sure down at the local level, there are misuses of funds," says David Lockwood, the UN Development Program's deputy regional director for Asia and the Pacific. "People take advantage of confusion."
Yet the greater opportunity for corruption will only now present itself, says Mr. Lockwood, as large reconstruction contracts for highways, bridges, and other projects are awarded. To curb kickbacks and other fraud, he says, the UN has an open competitive bidding process. The firms PricewaterhouseCoopers and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu have pledged thousands of pro-bono hours to help with financial management. And most important, the UN recently implemented a new tracking system it says will account for each dollar its agencies spend. Every financial transaction must now be entered online.
Yet some relief groups criticize the UN for getting off to a sluggish start. "In the immediate relief and lifesaving phase, that's when effective coordination is crucial - the more effective the coordination, the more likely you are to reach all those who have needs," says Ahuma Adodoadji at aid organization CARE USA, who traveled to hard-hit Aceh in March. "But [given] the scope and speed of the [tsunami] experience, even the best prepared would have had a challenge. That's why I'm cutting them some slack here. By March, they'd gotten their act together."
Mr. Adodoadji and others praise the UN for the humanitarian information centers it created, and efforts to synchronize activities to limit redundancy and replication.
UN agencies such as Egeland's, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization issued warnings that various epidemics might sweep tsunami-hit areas unless donors responded more quickly and generously. No such diseases materialized; indeed, there were relatively few food shortages and no need for UN-built refugee camps. Nevertheless, Egeland and other UN officials claim this as an achievement - drawing the ire of some observers.
"Standard public health books state most people die in the immediate disaster of a tsunami," says David Rieff, a policy analyst and author of "A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis." "The fact the UN can predict a worst-case scenario, then take credit for averting it because 'We were on the ground' is extremely self-serving."
Yet the bigger question is how effectively the UN is responding to South Asia.
"Everyone comes back and says, 'Well, the response has been remarkable in terms of the resources mobilized.' The big question is how do you convert those resources into assistance that meets the needs and long-term interests of those affected by the tsunami," says Nicholas Stockton of the Humanitarian Accountability Project International, based in Geneva. "All the reports tend to suggest that little of that consultation has taken place."
Mr. Stockton likens it to a public- service monopoly: unresponsive to customers and bogged down by the bureaucratic interests of the organization itself. Indeed, there are media reports of NGOs building homes for villagers on land not belonging to them; or of such poor construction that they flood during heavy rains.
Meanwhile, each of the affected countries has delivered a five-year plan to the UN, donors, and international financial institutions that lays out the direction in which they'd like to go. Former President Bill Clinton, now the UN special envoy for tsunami relief, has vowed to help raise the billions more reportedly needed. And the UN has plans of its own: to nudge these countries toward meeting the "UN Millennium Development Goals," such as halving poverty by 2015.
"These communities were already poverty-stricken before the tsunami," says Lockwood. "If you're going to invest all this money, the expectation is you're going to restore their lives to a level better than what they had before."