Saturday, January 01, 2005

Swine Before Pearls

The UN plan to provide relief to tsunami victims reflects an image of the organization itself. The press release Multifaceted UN response to tsunami focuses on both large and small reads like a repackaging of inconsequential UN field programs to give the appearance of action. They include "monitoring fisheries in India", undertaking disease planning exercises, providing safe delivery kits for expectant mothers and harnessing the International Labor Organization to undertake long-term rehabilitation and employment recovery. As a statement of good intentions it would be adequate but as a program for coping with one of the worst natural disasters in modern times it leaves much to be desired. The hollowness of the program is betrayed by the pathetically small amounts of specific physical relief it can point to. For example, in:

Sri Lanka: UNFPA is carrying out reproductive health assessments. UNICEF continues to help ferry the wounded and dead to area hospitals while providing 10,000 bed sheets, towels, drinking water bottles, cooking utensils sets and mats to assist the displaced and stranded. UNHCR has been distributing non-food items.

These very same pots and pans are featured in another press release titled UN launches unprecedented multiple effort to aid victims of Asia's devastating tsunami. The repetition does not provide assurance. Rather it provides confirmation that these are indeed the folks who brought us Kosovo, Rwanda, Congo and the Sudan. 

Overall, UNHCR has seven offices in Sri Lanka, where it has worked for nearly two decades helping displaced populations as well as returning refugees. The agency will provide 18,000 pieces of plastic sheeting, 17,000 plastic mats, rope, and non-food relief packages for 2,000 families, including cooking sets, plastic jerry cans, mosquito nets and clothing.

Every organization responds according to its repertoire and a UN captured by 'advocacy groups', riddled with ethnic politics, hamstrung by corruption and managed by individuals derived from academia and NGOs is no different. The problem is not that such people exist -- they are tolerable in some roles -- but that they have been put in charge of serious business. The bloggers at Diplomadic describe some of the public relations tricks that are played to make the UN facade seem real. To begin with, much of the UN relief consists of rehandling national aid.

"Notice to the UN: The USA is by far the biggest donor to the UN system. We pay for about 25% of the whole operation, but when you look at operations like WFP or UNHCR, we cough up about 40%. That wheat and rice that the WFP is bragging about? It is almost all from the USA."

Then there is the tactic of taking credit for assistance provided by others. The UN claims that they have set up an "air-freight handling centre" in Aceh, according to  UN Undersecretary Egeland:

I discussed today with Washington whether we can draw on some assets on their side, after consultations with the Indonesian Government, to set up what we call an “air-freight handling centre” in Aceh. Tomorrow, we will have to set up a camp for relief workers – 90 of them – which is fully self-contained, with kitchen, food, lodging, everything, because they have nowhere to stay and we don't want them to be an additional burden on the people there.

Diplomadic claims that the actual UN effort amounts to setting up a camp for their "relief workers" complete with "kitchen, food, lodging, everything", but that air ops are managed by the US and Australia and that trucking, drivers and fuel is provided by USAID. These are "some assets on their side" that make the UN achievement possible. UN inadequacy at meeting any serious crisis was indirectly admitted by French President Jacques Chirac, who suggested that the UN and the EU set up a "'humanitarian rapid reaction force' to help deal with similar catastrophes in future." But Chirac's suggestion makes no sense unless that rapid reaction force is provided with a standing capability and ready stockpiles. Under present arrangements, the UN must go to its principal supporters to muster national contingents and contributions to march under its flag. Because that process takes time it negates the 'rapid' in Chirac's proposed "humanitarian rapid reaction force".

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today that an international donors conference is tentatively being scheduled for Jan. 11 in Geneva. ... The EU's development aid commissioner, Louis Michel, proposed the international conference to coordinate assistance to the countries affected by the Dec. 26 earthquake and resulting tsunamis.

Finally there is the tactic of denying 'legitimacy' to any unsanctioned effort. The UN has criticized the United States, Australia, Japan and India for going ahead with tsunami relief efforts without waiting to course it through the UN. Since the UN effort will consist of national contributions to be determined at a conference in Geneva anyway, one would have thought the issue inconsequential. But grabbing political credit is never unimportant. Former British International Development Secretary Clare Short upbraided the US for daring to spend American taxpayer money without UN approval:

United States President George Bush was tonight accused of trying to undermine the United Nations by setting up a rival coalition to coordinate relief following the Asian tsunami disaster. The president has announced that the US, Japan, India and Australia would coordinate the world’s response.

But former International Development Secretary Clare Short said that role should be left to the UN. “I think this initiative from America to set up four countries claiming to coordinate sounds like yet another attempt to undermine the UN when it is the best system we have got and the one that needs building up,” she said. “Only really the UN can do that job,” she told BBC Radio Four’s PM programme. “It is the only body that has the moral authority.”

Michael Totten is nonplussed.

What a bizarre assertion. If the UN didn’t exist, what on earth would we do? Would south Asia drown in wreckage and mud while we tried to create a UN from scratch before we could send in some aid? ... The US, Japan, India, and Australia don’t have the moral authority for crisis relief? Who bestows this moral authority? Clare Short? Who gave her the authority to do that?

Leaving the issues of moral authority aside, the operational question is whether the world is better and more efficiently served by the UN organizational model. The real thought experiment that proponents of UN legitimacy must pass is whether they would entrust Paris, not just Kigali to the bureaucrats on the East River. Clare Short is probably perfectly happy to entrust Rwandan lives to the United Nations; whether she would entrust her own to it is another question.

The December 2004 tsunami reminds us that there are catastrophes which cannot be confined to the Third World. In the immediate aftermath of the waves which devastated shorelines throughout the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, a large number of editorial writers dismissed suggestions that natural disasters were Divine punishment visited on mankind. But the notion is not so strange if one substitutes stupidity for sin as the cause of chastisement; because it is tautologically true that catastrophes always punish any unworthiness as a species. By far the greatest conceit of the late 20th century was that the postmodern world would never again suffer the lash of planetary cataclysms; that we were past any tests nature might administer; exempt from the consequences of stupidity. Only an international political class secure in its own invincibility could have thrown such scraps as the UN provides to the people of the Third World and demanded such peremptory obedience of the US, as if it were exempt from the laws of physics; men too precious to perish by fire or water.

And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.
-- Bertolt Brecht