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Six Months After Tsunami, Aid Questions Linger

The devastation and loss of life caused by last December's tsunami triggered the biggest outpouring of financial contributions and the largest mobilization of aid resources the world has seen in response to a natural disaster. But six months later, a significant portion of the more than $6 billion pledged by nations and other donors has yet to materialize. Meanwhile, experts are warning of corruption and discrimination in aid distribution.

Within weeks of the tsunami, as heartbreaking images of death and destruction flashed across television sets worldwide, a second flood took hold: a torrent of aid in the form of massive relief operations as well as financial contributions from governments, organizations, corporations and individual citizens. Speaking several days after an international donor conference, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan marveled at the level of giving, including more than $850 million by the United States and more than $1 billion by the private sector worldwide.

"The generosity and support we have seen over the last few weeks have set a new standard for our global community," said Mr. Annan.

But former President Bill Clinton, whom Mr. Annan designated as envoy for tsunami recovery efforts, has pointed out that the funds cannot be made available overnight.

"It is going to take time for the governments to appropriate this money and then time to get this money out," said Mr. Clinton.

Worker at reconstruction site in Banda Aceh
Aid pledges are promises, or statements of intent, that may or may not be kept by the governments or groups that make them. Roberta Cohen, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, says the international community has a spotty track record in following through on pledges.

"It is notoriously bad in terms of pledges actually materializing,” she said. “What do they [people] say? When the cameras roll the governments give. And then when the interest wanes, some of the money does not see the light of day."

Ms. Cohen points out that a large chunk of the money pledged after Iran's devastating earthquake in 2003 has not been delivered, and that aid donations have also lagged for war-torn countries like Afghanistan.

As for tsunami aid, the jury is still out. Estimates of funds actually spent range from $2.5 to $3.5 billion, roughly half the total promised. But Roberta Cohen notes that long-term reconstruction efforts for affected nations are only just getting underway, and more funds may be forthcoming.

"Donor governments need to see reconstruction plans. They do not just hand over money to affected governments. And those plans were not available until May, when Indonesia and Sri Lanka and others said, 'Well here is our plan,'" she explained.

As with all foreign assistance, there are concerns over how the money will be spent, and whether corrupt officials in aid-receiving nations will steal funds intended for destitute citizens.

At an Indonesian camp for tsunami survivors, refugee Hajjah Anisar bears witness to the practice.

She says, "One thing about the foreign aid is that they handed it over to the local authorities. We will never get it. We will only get the aid if they give it to us directly."

But corruption is not the only concern. Observers urge vigilance to guard against aid-receiving governments funneling assistance to favored domestic constituencies, and away from foes or those less-valued by society.

"Is there discrimination in how the aid is going [distributed]? Discrimination, for example, to people of lower castes, like in India,” said Ms. Cohen. “In Sri Lanka, is the money going in equal portions to Muslims, to Tamils? Is the money going to women who need it?"

Ms. Cohen praises the international communities' prompt initial response to the tsunami, and in particular the efforts of the armed forces of the United States, Australia and other nations in getting aid and emergency responders to affected regions. But six months out, it is not clear how much aid money will be delivered for long-term reconstruction and how much of it will reach those who need it.