UN seeks aid boost from oil-rich nations

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The United Nations is putting the oil-rich nations of the Middle East on notice that they should take their global responsibilities more seriously and dig deeper to assist regions of the world afflicted by famine, disease and hunger.

Launching its annual appeal for funds to combat humanitarian crises, especially in Africa, the UN's chief aid coordinator, Jan Egeland, said it was not fair that 90 per cent of aid continued to come from just 10 countries, including the United States, Japan and European nations.

He made his remarks as he and the secretary general, Kofi Annan, asked for a record $4.7bn for the UN's consolidated appeal for 2006, which would aim to help 31 million people in 26 countries. "We have never ever asked for so much money before in a year," admitted Mr Egeland. The UN has been encouraged to ask for more partly by the responses this year to calamities such as the Asian tsunami, the Kashmir earthquake and hurricanes.

"In a world of plenty, continued suffering is a terrible stain on our conscience," said Mr Annan, who spoke of the "unimaginable" conditions suffered by people in the wake of natural disasters who are left without homes, clean water, food and basic medicine. "It is inexcusable that we not strive, with every resource at our disposal, to eliminate suffering," he added.

Donor countries are being asked to meet in January in Geneva to commit to the fund. The UN hopes to dedicate about $1.5bn - almost a third of the total - to Sudan and $1bn to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Mr Egeland put the amount being asked for into perspective. "We're asking the amount of 48 hours of military spending" around the world, he said. The fund is equivalent to two cups of coffee bought for the planet's one billion richest people.

There is growing frustration at the UN that the richest oil-producing nations largely eschew contributing to the UN's appeal, particularly in a year when oil prices have soared.

"The top 10 donors are more or less the same now as a few years ago," said Mr Egeland, who corralled relief for tsunami victims earlier this year. "There are growing economies on many continents which should become bigger donors. We expect the oil-rich countries to give more."

The UN's initial request for its 2005 consolidated appeal was only $1.7bn. But after several revisions and 10 appeals for disasters such as the tsunami and a cholera epidemic in west Africa, the total for the year is expected to reach $5.9bn. The number of countries contributing rose to 74 this year, compared with 29 in 2004, again largely because of the tsunami.

But what the UN asks for it doesn't always get. Generally, the UN receives only about three-quarters of the funds it requests every year. Making matters worse, donor countries often wait until the last minute to make their payments. Mr Egeland said he would be pressing donors to give earlier.

The money would be used to fund humanitarian operations by 18 different UN agencies and about 113 non-governmental organisations. Beyond Africa, areas slated to benefit from it include Chechnya, the Palestinian territories and flood-ravaged Guatemala.

In Africa, countries targeted for assistance include Burundi, the Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia, Republic of Congo, Somalia, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Within Sudan, areas of most concern are in Darfur and the south of the country.

Mr Egeland noted that efforts to end suffering in strife-torn Darfur are still being frustrated. "It's not going well in Darfur at all," he said. "We are stretched to the limit. We're hanging in there by our fingernails."

While 2005 witnessed an extraordinary response to natural disasters and to the tsunami in particular, it remains hard to find funds for other crises. The UN received only 40 per cent of the money it needed to react to less publicised crises, for instance in Djibouti, the Central African Republic and Guyana."We hope in 2006 we will have a year with more equity," Mr Egeland said.