Wednesday 12 January 2005

Big Fleas

As the doggerel goes:
Big Fleas have Little Fleas
Upon their backs, to bite 'em.
Little Fleas have Lesser Fleas,
And so Ad Infinitum.

And the great fleas themselves,
in turn, have greater fleas to go on,
While these again have greater still,
and greater still, and so on.
- De Morgan, after Jonathan Swift
Here's some data about UNICEF, from 1997 :
"By the 1990s, say observers, UNICEF had become a bloated UN bureaucracy:
  • Administrative costs for "regional offices" and headquarters is $346 million -- more than a third of the approximately $1 billion budget.
  • This doesn't include spending on UNICEF's 210 field offices or the organization's "national committees," which raise 35 percent of the agency's budget and keep 25 percent to 40 percent of what they raise to cover their own administrative expenses.
  • An independent audit in 1994 by Booz, Allen, & Hamilton found bloated overhead costs, lack of financial control and a proclivity for luxury travel accommodations and overstaffing.
  • There has also been corruption, with UNICEF's Nairobi, Kenya staff accused of stealing $1 million in relief funds and wasting $8 million to $9 million more.
But that's only at the top level. A quick visit to the UNICEF site will show (amongst all the press statements condemning Israel) that there are thousands of UNICEF people on the ground in many nations, making a positive difference. It may be said that with some justice that UNICEF as an organisation is a parasite - but most people working for it are hard-working and dedicated. They are as much victims of the upper echelons as the children whose needs aren't being met.

The type of parasite they have to deal with aren't just their Lords and Masters, nor the tapeworms and maggots that infest their charges. From The Australian :
The staff of UNICEF's Sri Lanka operation are in their Colombo offices dealing as best they can with a flood of desperate people, people at the end of their tether, people in overwhelming need of immediate help.

CNN's Christiane Amanpour, for instance. Amanpour, or at least her producer, wants two orphans, preferably brothers who have lost at least six other members of their families, please, on the coast road between Bentota and Galle, tomorrow after two o'clock local time for a Sri Lanka – Land In Turmoil prime-time special. It is now 7.30pm. When approached by his assistant with this ambitious demand, Martin Dawes, UNICEF's spokesman, himself a former television journalist, sighs slightly. "Just try and give it to them," he says, turning away. UNICEF is trying to be helpful to the press.
Of course the author is Andrew Gilligan, most famous for having been overly-creative in his reporting when he worked at the BBC. Still, he appears to have cleaned up his act.
You have to feel sorry for the 24-hour news people. There is an awful lot of space to fill. And since they haven't got time to go out much, they have taken to feeding off each other, producing worthy successors to those legendary media myths of previous big news events – the "furious Afghan winter", the "uprisings of the Arab street", the "siege of Baghdad".

This time, for starters, we have had the "race against time to feed the hungry" story. Watching some of the TV coverage, as we are able to, gives the very strong impression that people in Sri Lanka are starving. All the aid agencies agree that they are not.

This is not Africa, or even Indonesia. Not all Third World countries are the same; and while Sri Lanka may be less developed than Britain, it is not primitive.

The Sri Lankans are about 75th in the league of the world's 190-odd states, with a reasonably effective, if bureaucratic, government, plenty of food in the unaffected parts – the great majority – and a sophisticated commercial sector.

They need tiding-over relief, but Save the Children's emergency co-ordinator, Gareth Owen, told me there would have to be incompetence on the most monumental scale for anyone to die of starvation here.
I can remember a time when UNICEF wasn't the kleptocrat-ridden organisation it is today. When they actually did more good, and with none of the Israel-bashing rhetoric they have on their website - criticisng Israel's anti-terrorist barrier because it interferes with Palestinians' rights to mobility, while maintaining a discrete silence over the targetting of school busses by self-detonating fanatics.

Maybe UNICEF can do a Gilligan, and "go and sin no more". One can but hope, because there are many people in it who are still Believers. Like me.

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