The world has responded to the Indian Ocean tsunami with an unprecedented outpouring of financial pledges. But much of that money may never make it to the stricken areas, and some of it was headed there anyway, say aid analysts and government officials in countries still awaiting funds promised for past natural disasters.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is launching an emergency donors conference in Indonesia today, has said he is overwhelmed by governmental pledges of more than $3 billion. But doubts from past experience linger. “I hope all the money will be delivered,” he said.
The United Nations and other aid agencies have found that after the television cameras are turned off and officials try to collect on pledges, they often hear the equivalent of “the check is in the mail.”
Iranian President Mohammad Khatami complained in December that of $1.1 billion pledged after the Bam earthquake in 2003, only $17 million had arrived.
After Hurricane Mitch devastated parts of Central America in 1998, governments and institutions gathered in Stockholm in 1999 and offered nearly $9 billion in emergency relief and long-term reconstruction, an Inter-American Development Bank report states. Five years later, less than a third of the money has materialized.
There have been significant shortfalls in governmental and institutional aid promised to India, after the 2001 Gujarat earthquake, to Mozambique, after floods in 2000, and after other disasters, according to records kept by the U.N.'s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Aid for countries recovering from man-made disasters can also be slow to appear. A donor conference for war-torn Liberia in February also brought promises of more than half a billion dollars. But by the end of 2004, only $65 million had been delivered, a U.N. official said.
“The word pledge doesn’t always mean commitment,” said David Roodman, a research fellow at the Washington-based Center for Global Development. “A country is considered lucky if they get half of what is pledged at these donor conferences.”
Part of the problem is that there are different ideas about what constitutes aid. A pledge is not a promise to deliver suitcases full of cash or wire the amount to a country’s bank account. Some of the funds may be in the form of low- or no-interest loans, as is the case with half of Australia’s pledge of $765 million made Wednesday.
Or it may be stretched over time, as is the case with the more than $690 million offered by Germany on Wednesday. The funds, intended for reconstruction, are to be spread over five years.
Some governments count the cost of using military ships and helicopters in their aid pledges, although the United States has said that its $350-million pledge doesn’t include the tens of millions of dollars worth of military assets it has offered for the relief effort.
Sometimes, governments and other groups take money out of aid funds already designated for the area and offer it as emergency relief. Britain, the United States and Norway have all said that their donations for tsunami relief are new funds on top of already planned assistance.
The World Bank’s $250-million pledge was made available from existing programs in the affected countries and will include emergency credits and grants. The funds may be replenished so the donation does not jeopardize ongoing programs in the area, World Bank spokesman David Theis said.
Aid also can come with strings attached, such as a requirement that the money be used to buy goods from the donor country. Japan often imposes such restrictions.
Debt relief can also be counted as aid.
Almost as worrisome as the money not arriving at all is the prospect that it will divert funding from other causes.
The amount pledged for the tsunami disaster is greater than all the money the world contributed for the top 20 crises in 2004, Jan Egeland, the U.N.'s emergency relief coordinator, said this week.
He urged donors not to take the money for tsunami relief out of funds they had already set aside for other humanitarian and development aid.
If nations worldwide take money for the tsunami victims out of their overall aid budgets, “it will be destruction for programs in Africa,” he said Wednesday.
And some crises receive more aid than others. After the 2000 floods in Mozambique, international donors provided about 40 cents per affected person, said Simon Maxwell, the director of the Overseas Development Institute, a London-based think tank on international development and humanitarian issues.
For the Russian republic of Chechnya in 2003, it was about $40 per person. And for the tsunami relief, if all the pledges arrive, it would amount to about $600 for each person in need.
The wild card in all this is the extent of private donations. Pledges from individuals and private firms reached more than $700 million Wednesday, meaning that in some countries, ordinary citizens may end up giving more than their governments.
“Our research shows that gifts by private individuals mostly do arrive,” Maxwell said. “The problem lies with pledges of long-term development aid from governments.”
That reality led Egeland to append his effusive thanks to donor governments this week with a plea:
“Come with the money you pledged. The people concerned will always remember, we will remember the people, but the people who made the pledges should also remember.”
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Governments and registered aid organizations, along with the World Bank and Asian Bank of Development, have pledged more than $3 billion.
Largest national donations, in millions
*--* Australia $765 Germany $690 Japan $500 United States $350 Norway $183 France $103 Britain $95 Sweden $75.50 Denmark $75 Spain $68
Sources: United Nations, Associated Press