Friday, December 29, 2006

Two Years Later, Billions of Dollars Raised For Tsunami Aid Remain Unspent

Over $3 Billion in Relief Funds Languish in Bank Accounts While Thousands Who Lost Their Homes in Post-Christmas 2004 Disaster Remain Homeless; Fraud and Waste In Katrina Recovery Effort Now Likely to Top $2 Billion

By Mierion Jones
British Broadcasting Corporation

As Southeast Asian nations mark the two-year anniversary of the devastating tsunami that ravaged the region, more than half of the billions of dollars raised worldwide to help survivors of the disaster has not been spent, a BBC News investigation has found.

More than $3 billion in tsunami-aid donations by individuals and governments are still sitting in bank accounts, while thousands who lost their homes are still living in tent cities, waiting for new homes to be built.

[Meanwhile, U.S. government investigators probing fraud and abuse in the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort now say that the price tag is likely to exceed $2 billion. The investigation is zeroing in on multi-million-dollar contracts awarded by the Bush administration to politically-connected large firms.

[In Indonesia, aid finally reached the most isolated areas of Aceh province on Sumatra island Friday, a solid week after flash floods caused by heavy rains killed more than 100 people and forced 400,000 to flee, Indonesian officials said.

[Relief workers had faced problems with slow and limited supplies, as well as access difficulties due to the floods and landslides which have destroyed roads and bridges in worst-hit Aceh and neighboring North Sumatra.

[And with even more eerie timing, a strong earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter scale, struck in the Pacific off the southern Taiwan coast on Tuesday -- exactly two years to the day after the monstrous 9.0 tremor that struck off Banda Aceh, Indonesia and set off the calamitous 2004 tsunami. Fortunately, no such wave resulted from Tuesday's quake.

[No damage or injuries were reported in Taiwan, though the earthquake was felt across the island, swaying high-rise buildings and knocking objects off shelves in the capital, Taipei.]

International Red Cross Alone Holding $1.3 Billion

Former President Bill Clinton, a United Nations tsunami envoy, expressed deep concern for the slow pace of rebuilding. "Only 30 to 35 percent of the people have been put back into permanent housing," he said. "We have to do better than that."

A review of the U.N.'s Department for Aid and Development (UNDAD) database by BBC News found that of the estimated $6.7 billion of tsunami-aid money which has been raised from around the world, nearly half of that -- $3.3 billion -- has still not been spent.

More than a third of the money -- $2.2 billion -- was donated to the International Red Cross and its affiliates around the world. But according to the IRC's own figures, most of that -- $1.3 billion -- is still in the bank.

The IRC had promised to build 50,000 permanent houses in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. So far, however, only 8,000 units have been completed. The British Red Cross contracted with a private firm to build over 2,000 houses. So far, only 16 houses have been built -- although another 300 are nearing completion.

U.N. Housing Official Upset With Slow Pace of Recovery Effort

The slow pace of the recovery effort is disturbing to Miloon Kothari, the United Nations' special envoy on housing. While on a visit to the tsunami-ravaged areas of the region, Kothari told BBC News of his displeasure: "When we see figures saying funds have been disbursed but have not been utilized that is very disturbing."

An architect by profession, Kothari criticized the length of time the reconstruction is taking. "It should really not take this long to build permanent housing," he said. "I do not accept the explanation that it is going to take four to five years -- in some cases, seven. [As] an architect, I know how long it takes to build a house."

Britain's Disaster Emergency Committee has promised to complete all its projects within three years and they confirmed last week that they believe they are on target to do so. But the IRC says it cannot fulfill the committee's targets within that time frame.

The IRC hopes to complete half the houses it pledged to build -- some 25,000 units -- by the time of the post-Christmas disaster's third anniversary a year from now.

IRC Official: Completing Projects By End of 2007 "Unrealistic"

Johan Schaar, who is the head of the tsunami operation for the IRC says he understands Clinton's frustration with the pace of the recovery effort, "but these things take time.

"I understand his concern and his frustration obviously and we should not be satisfied if anyone still lives under a tent under appalling conditions," Schaar said. "But I think most of [the victims] will live in houses towards the end of next year, and [even] then, it will [still] take a long time before this effort is fully completed."

Schaar told BBC News that his organization made clear a few weeks after the tsunami struck that "this was at least a five-year effort. Anyone who talked about this being completed in two or three years was [being] totally unrealistic."

Aid By Donor Nations -- Including China and the U.S. -- Fall Far Short of Expectations

Renewed civil war between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels in the north of Sri Lanka has hampered the rebuilding effort there, but it and similar events elsewhere do not adequately explain the reason for a lackluster performance of donor nations in meeting their tsunami-aid pledges.

According to the UNDAD database reviewed by BBC News, Spain promised $60 million and delivered less than $1 million. France pledged $79 million and came up with just over $1 million.

When a BBC News correspondent contacted the Spanish and French government officials responsible for their nations' tsunami aid, they said "all the figures are confirmed, therefore you can be sure they are accurate."

The Chinese had promised even more -- $301 million -- but, to date, has delivered only $1 million. In the Maldives, Kuwait allocated just under $10 million, but a single cent of the funds have yet to be spent. For its part, the United States pledged over $400 million for Indonesian tsunami aid -- the largest pledge of any nation -- but so far has delivered less than $70 million.

Revelations Set Against Backdrop of Uneven Disaster Aid Worldwide

The revelation of billions of dollars in tsunami relief aid going unspent two years after the disaster comes only days after the release of a report that found that millions of people are missing out on vital aid despite record-breaking disaster-relief donations by governments and the public worldwide last year.

Emergency disaster-relief aid donations worldwide reached at least $17 billion in 2005 -- the highest on record, according to the just-released World Disasters Report, compiled by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent.

But while the two highest-profile, media-grabbing disasters of the past two years -- the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 -- attracted billions of dollars in relief donations, countless other crises were neglected, the report says.

The IFRC calls on governments, aid agencies and the media to redress the imbalance.

More than 99,000 people were killed and 161 million affected by natural disasters last year, according to the IFRC's report.

Magnitude, Timing of Tsunami Major Factors in Unprecedented World Response

The report noted that the 2004 tsunami alone -- partly because of its shocking magnitude and partly because it struck during the height of the holiday season, on the day after Christmas -- led to unprecedented generosity in the early months of 2005, heightened even further later in the year by Katrina.

The cost of the twin disasters totaled about $160 billion -- more than double the decade's annual average, the federation says. Governments alone pledged more than $12 billion in aid -- the highest figure since the IFRC began keeping records of such donations in 1970.

Individuals gave more than $5.5 billion to a myriad of relief agencies worldwide for survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami alone -- the most such agencies have ever collected in a single year.

Yet, despite these enormous contributions, many millions of people are still suffering, the report says.

Perennial Crises in Africa Draw Far Less Attention and Money

Emergency appeals for disasters -- both natural and man-made -- in Chad, Guyana, the Ivory Coast, Malawi and Niger raised on average less than $27 per person in humanitarian aid compared with $1,241 per person for the tsunami.

Appeals for the Republic of Congo, Djibouti and the Central African Republic collected only 40 percent of funds pledged, while appeals for the tsunami and the more recent South Asia earthquake were overflowing, at 475 percent and 196 percent respectively, the report said.

Uneven World Media Coverage Partly to Blame for Disparities

IFRC President Juan Manuel Suarez Del Toro said such huge disparities were unacceptable.

"The generous response in 2005 shows people and governments are committed to helping those in need," he said. "Now we must ensure aid goes where it is most needed and that it is not skewed for political, security or media reasons."

The report argues that uneven coverage by Western-dominated international news agencies -- with their ability to sway the public and politicians -- contributed to the inequitable spread of funding.

Hurricane Katrina, which struck the U.S. Gulf Coast in August 2005, killing about 1,300 people, generated 40 times more Western print coverage than Hurricane Stan, which killed more than 1,600 people in Guatemala only weeks afterwards, the report says.

Money sent by Guatemalans working abroad to areas affected by the hurricane totaled $413 million -- 20 times more than the UN appeal had raised by early December 2005.

Underreporting of Local Calamities By Aid Agencies Also a Factor

Many millions of people also miss out on potentially life-saving aid because crises go unrecorded, the report says. In Guatemala, for example -- as in many countries -- the main disaster databases fail to record vast numbers of localized floods, mudslides or earthquakes.

And man-made disasters often go unreported altogether. No one records, for example, how many migrants die in the Sahara or in small boats while attempting to reach Europe. These small crises add up to more deaths and affect many more people than a few major events, the report says.

The IFRC advocates directing political will towards creating conditions in which humanitarian agencies can operate in the more hidden and dangerous parts of the world.

The report also calls for large, common emergency response funds; developing a global measure of humanitarian need; and agreeing trigger points for action with donors and host governments.

Underlying Causes Can't Be Ignored Either, IFRC Chief Says

Markku Niskala, the IFRC's secretary-general, also called for a better understanding of the underlying causes of disasters, such as food insecurity and regional conflicts, such as the current crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan.

"For many people, daily life contains the seeds of crisis. Neglecting their vulnerability turns today's risk into tomorrow's disaster," he said.

Meanwhile, In U.S., Katrina Fraud Now Likely to Top $2 Billion

As billions for tsunami aid sit unspent in bank accounts, fraud and waste in the recovery effort from Hurricane Katrina is now likely to exceed $2 billion next year because half of the lucrative contracts awarded by the U.S. government for cleanup work -- valued at $500,000 or greater -- are being awarded with little to no competition, according to government investigators.

The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, already has determined that the Bush administration squandered $1 billion on fraudulent disaster aid to individuals after the 2005 storm.

Now, the GAO investigators are shifting their attention to the multi-million-dollar contracts awarded by the administration to politically-connected firms that critics have long said are a prime area for abuse.

The probers will release the first of several audits next month examining more than $12 billion in Katrina-related contracts. The charges range from political favoritism to limited opportunities for small and minority-owned firms, which initially got only 1.5 percent of the total work.

"Based on their track record, it wouldn't surprise me if we saw another billion more in waste," said Clark Kent Ervin, the Homeland Security Department's inspector general from 2003-2004. "I don't think sufficient progress has been made."

Rash of No-Bid Contracts Called "Inexcusable"

Ervin called it "inexcusable" that the Bush administration would still have so many no-bid contracts. Under pressure last year, Federal Emergency Management Agency Director David Paulison pledged to rebid many of the agreements, reached under his predecessor, Michael Brown, only to backtrack months later and reopen only a portion of them.

Investigators are now examining whether some of the agreements — which in some cases were extended without warning rather than rebid — are still unfairly benefiting large firms.

"It's a combination of laziness, ineptitude and it may well be nefarious," Ervin said.

FEMA spokesman James McIntyre said the agency was working to fix its mistakes by awarding contracts for future disasters through competitive bidding. Paulison has said he welcomes additional oversight but cautioned against investigations that aren't based on "new evidence and allegations."

"As always, FEMA will work with Congress in all aspects to ensure that we are carrying out the agency's responsibilities," McIntyre said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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Volume II, Number 4
Special Report Copyright 2006, British Broadcasting Corporation.
"The 'Skeeter Bites Report" Copyright 2006, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.


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