Post-tsunami chaos wastes aid

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 5 Oct 2005 00:00 GMT
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Indian boy stands amidst new fibre-bodied fishing boats in the southern Indian village of Tharangampadi. REUTERS/Arko Datta

LONDON (AlertNet)

- Flush with unprecedented funds, many aid agencies wasted money after the Indian Ocean tsunami by failing to consult survivors, the United Nations or other relief groups, according to a report by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

"Depending on how you look at it, you can say this has been the best-funded emergency in the world - or the most expensive humanitarian response in history," a U.N. officer told the IFRC&${esc.hash}39;s World Disasters Report published this week.

The Indian Ocean tsunami which slammed into 13 countries on Dec. 26 generated a record amount of aid - pledges and donations have topped ${esc.dollar}12 billion.

Unlike many other disasters, basic needs were covered relatively quickly.

But on the flip side, the vast amount of funding meant aid agencies could afford to hire their own helicopters and boats and make individual assessments and distribution arrangements rather than co-ordinate with one another and through the United Nations.

"Instead of being a facilitator the U.N. became an obstacle," one observer said.

By the third week of January there were at least 200 agencies on the ground in Aceh, the Indonesian province that bore the brunt of the disaster. But less than a quarter of them sent reports to the U.N.&${esc.hash}39;s emergency co-ordinating agency OCHA.

"Without knowing who was doing what, and where, some communities were inevitably overwhelmed with aid while others were neglected," the annual IFRC report said.

Rivalries between agencies competing to spend unprecedented budgets and wanting to "fly the flag" discouraged information sharing, leading to duplicated work and wasted resources.

AID MISMATCH

One result of the poor co-ordination was a surplus of doctors and lack of midwives, the report said.

Surgeons poured into Banda Aceh where 10 field hospitals were set up but none worked at full capacity as relatively few tsunami survivors were injured. One U.N. witness in the Indonesian town of Meulaboh saw 20 surgeons "competing for a single patient".

By contrast there was a dearth of midwives and nurses. Women had to give birth without medical assistance. The report said women&${esc.hash}39;s aid needs - sanitary protection, the contraceptive pill and headscarves for Muslim women - were often overlooked.

There was also concern that not all the agencies were providing aid of the right type or standard.

Major aid groups were alarmed to see Scientologists - followers of a controversial church founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard - arriving to provide what they called "trauma care".

And when medical agency Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) went to vaccinate children in one Aceh village, staff found someone else had got there before them but had left no record of which children had been vaccinated.

The IFRC report said international agencies should also have made better use of national agencies and local organisations. Instead they weakened Indonesia&${esc.hash}39;s own aid agencies by luring local staff away with high salaries.

"GLUT OF MONEY"

Not only did agencies and officials fail to ask tsunami survivors what they needed, they also neglected to pass on key information on issues such as when they would be relocated to more permanent shelters or receive compensation. This put extra stress on people who were already traumatised.

"I don&${esc.hash}39;t want to see another cooking pot - I have as many as I will ever need. I want to know where my family is going to be living in one month&${esc.hash}39;s time." Parvita, a widow from South India&${esc.hash}39;s Tamil Nadu state, said.

The IFRC said it was vital to ensure the massive influx of aid did not end up harming the communities they were trying to help. In India, it said the rush to provide people with fishing boats could encourage recipients to sell them on and upgrade to mechanised boats, leading to over-fishing.

"There is a glut of money, a glut of goodwill," said Raju Rajagopal of the Bhoomika Trust, an Indian disaster relief agency. "You can&${esc.hash}39;t stop people wanting to get involved, but now we have to take time to make sure the relief doesn&${esc.hash}39;t destroy communities."

One glaring example of inappropriate aid was the mountain of clothing sent to southern India, including heavy sweaters which are useless in the tropical heat.

The unwanted clothes ended up dumped on roadsides. Municipal workers had to be diverted from the relief effort to gather them up. As well as blocking roads, wasting workers&${esc.hash}39; time and taking up storage space they proved a hazard to local livestock who tried to eat it.

But Rajagopal said lessons had been learnt. There was not a lot of dumping of medicines as seen after the 2001 earthquake in the western Indian state of Gujarat.

Communicating what is not needed can be as important as what is required, the report said.

See also: Information is a life-saver, says disasters report PHOTOS: Disasters around the world TIP SHEET: How to &${esc.hash}39;sell&${esc.hash}39; forgotten emergencies VIEWPOINT: Communication is a lifeline Global disaster death toll soared in 2004-Red Cross FACTBOX: World disaster facts and figures FACTBOX: How warnings save lives

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