The nursery school mnemonic 'Thirty days hath September, April June and November' is one that senior officials at the United Nations appear not to have heard of. That would be a fair inference given that the worthies who administered the infamous oil-for-food program paid unscrupulous contractors for 31 days of 'work' in June while the aid effort was in place. But then again numeracy appears never to have been a strong suit of the bloated UN bureaucracy as can be seen from its varying response to the tsunami tragedy.
On the day after the Boxing day carnage, UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland lost no time in calling for a press conference during the course of which he termed the US and Western response as 'stingy'! An astounding and ill-informed characterisation given that few even in the affected areas were sure of the magnitude of the tragedy in the immediate aftermath.At barely a quarter mile from the beach in Chennai, I felt the earthquake but was unsure of what to make of it. A few hours later, when I heard reports of the wave from fishermen streaming away from Marina Beach, the devastation it wrought was still difficult to comprehend. Later when I visited Marina and other beaches in the area, the sight of overturned cars and boats along with compound walls destroyed and huts laid bare provided strong visuals of the extent of property damage but the toll on human life was still being tallied.
Fishermen on Chennai's coastline, like their compatriots elsewhere, take to the ocean well before dawn and their families were still hopeful they would return. Indeed, a fortunate few did only to find their homes washed away along with many of their kith and kin.
The Tamil Nadu government appears to have been quick off its feet. The tehsildar's office in the neighborhood of my family home, had loads of rice ready for distribution in short order. But that is another story. In the midst of the developing story of a tragedy approaching Biblical proportions, reports of Mr Egeland's premature and jejune attack piqued my attention.
Having lived for the past several years within minutes of the UN's headquarters and among the thousands who labour within, I am unsurprised by frequent and even gratuitous attacks against the US. Indeed, by the standards of a bureaucracy that seems to revel in a culture of anti-Americanism, Mr Egeland's choice of words was relatively mild. Nevertheless, the UN functionary was forced to reverse course in short order when aid from the US and close allies such as Japan and Australia quickly crossed the $1 billion mark. He has now promised 'transparency' in the administration of the aid- cornucopia. That uncharacteristic desire for accountability is, of course, premised on the UN being the sole channel for administering the vast sums of money not just from the US government but from its many charitably inclined citizens and private sector organisations.
As yet, it is not certain that the purported disbanding of the 'core group' of Australia, India, the US and Japan will result in the UN being the primary vehicle for coordination of aid to the tsunami victims. Nevertheless, the UN's considerable public relations machinery (staffed with some 700 plus employees) has lost little time in planting its imprimatur on the affected by organising a visit to the tsunami areas by Mr Kofi Annan. Equally unsubtly, they put out the word that its organisational capability for disaster relief and ability to empathise with the afflicted relief surpasses that of individual countries. That is despite a manifest lack of history in that area.
At an individual level I was witness to the latter when, during the course of a visit to a heritage site south of Chennai a few days after the tsunami struck, I ran into a senior UNICEF official and her family. The official's husband was bemoaning the loss of a vacation on the beaches of Tamil Nadu as his wife was called to work on account of the tragedy!
In the end, this massive human tragedy can only underscore the limitations of a world body that on most occasions is subservient to the interests of a cabal of bureaucrats and opaquely administered nations. In the aftermath of the devastation, victims from Indonesia to Sri Lanka seem not to care that the US and Australia were at the forefront of the rescue effort. Even India's response, which in yesteryears was always prickly about the presence of US forces in its backyard, has been largely muted if not tacitly welcoming of US efforts.
Back in the US, there have been growing calls, particularly among the so-called neo-cons for an association of democracies to counter the often malignant maneuverings of a UN that is in thralldom to despots and dictatorships. It was no accident that the US chose to be associated with a 'core group' of democracies. Incidentally, it is also no accident that aid from the oil-potentates have been outrageously parsimonious.
A push in the direction of democracies will do much not only to advancing the agenda of the US but also of India and other similarly situated countries. A very welcome outcome will be better accountability in a range of areas including disaster relief.
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