Do not rush to condemn the United Nations: it is still the best disaster relief agency we have

Tuesday 04 January 2005 01:00

For the United Nations, the new year already threatens to be as tumultuous as the old. In 2004, the UN suffered numerous indignities - some justified, some not - which undermined its authority. Now, the UN's response to the Asian tsunami disaster has come in for severe criticism. And it emerged yesterday that Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, had recently called a secret meeting whose aim was nothing less than - in the words of one participant - "to rescue the UN".

In theory, the Asian disaster has provided the UN with a golden opportunity to reassert its authority. With a multinational workforce and unparalleled experience in rebuilding broken communities, disaster relief on this scale should be the UN's forte.

The images broadcast into our homes from the devastated Indian Ocean rim, however, have not shown a comprehensive relief programme being implemented by efficient teams of UN workers. Rather, they have been of a haphazard and patchy effort. There are stories of crates piling up in airport depots, and some of the most effective relief so far has been provided not by foreign aid workers but by local people. The right-wing attack dogs of the US airwaves have been quick to blame the UN's "bureaucracy". Nor has the involvement of numerous UN agencies in the relief effort given the impression of a cohesive approach.

When President Bush announced last week that he was setting up an "international coalition" made up of the US, Japan, Australia and India to lead aid efforts, this was widely seen as another blow to the credibility of the UN. The US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was quick to stress that all efforts would be through the UN and that the US coalition would simply provide the necessary heavy-lifting power, but the inference was clear: others needed to step in where the UN had been seen to fail.

But it would be wrong to rush to judgement about the UN's response to this disaster. Much has been made of the apology of Jan Egeland, the UN emergency relief co-ordinator, for calling the initial US pledge of $35m in aid money "stingy". But the fact that the US has now pledged 10 times that amount - and launched an appeal for more donations spearheaded by Mr Bush and his two predecessors - demonstrates that Mr Egeland's initial judgement was sound. In the relief effort, too, the UN deserves credit for what it has done. Within hours of the Boxing Day catastrophe, the UN sent out disaster assessment co-ordination teams to gauge where relief was most needed. This operation involved almost a dozen nations and a vast number of islands. The estimates of UN agencies about where aid should be directed have been crucial. Without the UN's expertise, the relief efforts would by now have degenerated into chaos. Instead, a sense of order is growing.

When evaluating the UN's performance in response to the catastrophe, it is also necessary to bear in mind that its effectiveness depends on the co-operation of local countries. Without this, its task is impossible. Indonesia, by its own admission, was slow to recognise the scale of the disaster and reluctant to allow outsiders into Sumatra, where it has been trying to put down an insurgency. Thailand was wary about accepting help for fear it would harm its lucrative tourist industry. The Indian government considered it a point of principle to deal with the disaster itself, and has restricted access to the Andaman and Nicobar islands. This has all impeded the UN's work, and it is difficult to see how a US-led coalition could have managed any better.

There are undoubtedly lessons to be learnt by the UN. Much more thought needs to be devoted to co-ordinating aid distribution. But we should be wary of giving too much credence to those who might try to use the response to this disaster as a way of undermining the UN in pursuit of their own political agendas. The UN is not perfect but, in the wake of great natural disasters, it is still the most effective, and respected, distributor of life-saving aid the world has.

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