Smoke and Mirrors


Kicking back at his Texas ranch over the holidays, Bush was attacked for the initial piddling response to the tsunami, but then, upping the amount to $350 million and potentially to a billion, he looked good.

By Monday the U.N. reported that total donations were up to $2 billion, and Bill Clinton and Bush’s father were joining up to get more money. But as The Guardian (U.K.) points out, those who pledge money often don’t come through. The $2 billion includes $500 million from Japan and $530 million from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. Robert Smith, spokesman at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told The Guardian on Monday, “We should be very cautious about these figures. Let’s put it this way: Large-scale disasters tend to result in mammoth pledges which . . . do not always materialize in their entirety. The figures look much higher than they really are. What will end up on the ground will be much less.”

OCHA’s Rudolf Muller noted, “There is definitely double accounting going on. A lot of the money will be swallowed up by the military or will have been diverted from existing loans.”

In the case of the U.S., where the $350 million will come from is unclear. Officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development claimed that its emergency funds were exhausted—and that was when Bush was still talking about pledging only $35 million.

Officials point out that while it might appear that governments are offering more money, what actually happens is that they switch aid money between existing sources and other projects. Most of the time, the promised amounts haven’t materialized. As an example, The Guardian cites Bam, the Iranian city destroyed by an earthquake a year ago. At the time, foreign nations and organizations promised $1.1 billion, but only $17.5 million ever came through. When Mozambique faced huge flood damage in 2000, nations promised $400 million, but less than $200 million materialized. In 1988, Hurricane Mitch killed 9,000 people and left 3 million homeless in Honduras and Nicaragua. Governments promised $3.5 billion, and development banks pledged $5.2 billion more. But only a third of that was received.

In the aftermath of the tsunami, some of the money, especially in the case of the military, might be reallocated from existing funds. Jasmine Whitbread, international director at Oxfam, said, “We are concerned that humanitarian aid could be sucked from other crises, such as Sudan and Congo, where the needs are just as great.”

Additional reporting: David Botti and Nicole Duarte

Most Popular