- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 25, 2005

NEW YORK — The eight-second earthquake that created the catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami one year ago today also produced an unexpected silver lining: The world is more focused on preparing for massive disasters and fine-tuning the emergency response.

The tsunami slammed into the coastlines of 13 countries, killing more than 230,000 and destroying the livelihoods of millions more.

Since then, the United Nations and other aid agencies say they have learned valuable lessons on how to be more effective in the event of such huge need.

Officials with the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) say they adapted techniques that made them more responsive everywhere from the hurricane-battered Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico to the quake-sloughed mountains of Kashmir.

“The tsunami did provoke an extraordinary response and got us thinking of new measures,” Mark Bowden, OCHA’s head of policy planning, said in an interview with The Washington Times.

The impact of the tsunami has been felt in global calls for early-warning systems, improved procurement practices, more effective fundraising, better relations with host countries, closer coordination between agencies and private charities, and the use of high-octane “special envoys” to cajole governments into turning their pledges into cash.

Former President Bill Clinton is doing such a good job as the U.N. special envoy on the disaster that the government of Pakistan insisted on another former American president, George Bush, to keep the pressure on donors to Pakistan’s own earthquake-relief effort.

With winter approaching, Mr. Bush will work to turn pledges into cash, among other tasks.

Keeping track of incoming monetary donations, disbursements to agencies and spending on the ground is a vexing task in large-scale relief efforts, where accounting often is seen as secondary to providing immediate assistance.

A sophisticated financial-tracking system was created and installed to reassure donors that their money wouldn’t be misused.

This month, the U.N. General Assembly created a $500 million central emergency relief fund to respond immediately in future disasters before aid begins flowing.

Even major missteps turned out for the better.

“Funding dramatically increased after [OCHA Director] Jan Egeland initially described donor response as stingy,” according to an internal assessment that will be published early next year.

“It also appears that donor pledges have been translated into disbursements more quickly than in other large disasters.”

The tsunami raised the bar for nearly every aspect of disaster- relief money: how much is needed, how quickly it can be raised and spent, and how well it can be accounted for.

Traditionally, relief efforts have been murky audit targets with staff making varying salaries, expenses going through the roof, and non-uniform accounting systems that veer from detailing all costs to lumping transportation, insurance and merchandise together.

A new financial-tracking system, developed for OCHA at no charge by accounting giant PriceWaterhouse Coopers, was meant to bring transparency to the process and increase internal accountability.

Officials say it’s a significant improvement over previous systems and has been expanded beyond the initial $1.1 billion U.N. tsunami appeal.

But the system remains difficult to use or understand, and is only as transparent and detailed as the information submitted by the myriad agencies, funds and private charities that report spending.

About $10.5 billion of the $13.6 billion pledged to tsunami relief by governments, corporations and private-sector organizations already has been spent, said Eric Schwartz, Mr. Clinton’s deputy.

Of that, $1.1 billion was raised and administered solely by the United Nations in a flash appeal.

The system was undertaken not only to reassure donor nations rattled by the U.N. oil-for-food scandal, but to aid the organization in keeping track of where resources are going and who is responsible for what.

“There has never been a common database,” said Mr. Bowden, “and it’s vital for accounting and providing a high level of accountability and transparency.”

The tsunami forced aid agencies to take stock of where their emergency provisions are pre-positioned, and to question whether they have enough tents, water-filtration systems and sanitation kits, blankets and other immediately needed items.

Generally, Mr. Bowden said, OCHA and its partners were low on crucial supplies and had to borrow from one emergency to cover another.

U.N. officials stress that it’s also important to work with local militaries, because their helicopters and cargo flights often are the only way to get food, supplies and workers into areas that have been cut off.

Many of the tsunami survivors still live in shantytowns of salted driftwood, tents and scrap — the best they can manage a year after the wall of water washed away their lives.

To them, the United Nations has not made good on promises.

But to victims of other disasters, including more recent hurricanes and earthquakes, the feeling is often one of envy — that relief agencies have done so much more for the tsunami survivors than for them.

Margareta Wahlstrom, an OCHA deputy who coordinated myriad private charities and aid agencies for months after the tsunami, said that now that disaster victims have seen what the United Nations can do, they expect rapid and plentiful assistance.

“It has raised expectations,” she said. “They say, ‘Why can’t you do that for me?’”

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