One of their coordinators, Muthu Kumar, showed me a document all the team leaders have been given, the text of an email from their leader in Tamil Nadu, Balaji Sampath. The document lists three levels of relief work. I don't have a copy of that document, but let me briefly paraphrase what those three levels are:The UN has been given a lot of stick lately by people on the ground, people actually helping rather than merely talking about it.
Level one : providing immediate emergency necessities like food, drinking water, medicine, shelter etc.
Level two : Building them huts and houses to live in and looking after their health needs.
Level three : Giving the affected people back their livelihood, which could involve buying boats for the fishermen who have lost everything, forming cooperatives so they can compete better in the markerplace etc.
It's my contention that the UN is completely useless at Level 1. And that's by the very nature of the beast, not the fault of the bureaucrats. Even if they were all ept (as opposed to inept), and indifferent honest (as opposed to hopelessly corrupt), they'd face the same problems. The first is that the Secretary-General has no troops under his command. Now a reading of the original articles of the UN, in particular Article 7, Chapter 43, shows that this was not the original idea. The UN was set up with the intent that the UN should have a standing military force, and relying on the Veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council to keep it from being misused.
Personally, given the UN today, I'm thankful that not a single nation has given even a small part of its military force to the UN, to do as the UN desires. I wish it were otherwise, but wishes must give way to Reality.
All "UN" forces are ad-hoc, formed after a long diplomatic wrangle, and disbanded afterwards when the immediate need is thought to have passed.
This may under some circumstances be adequate when there's months or years available to act. But when the emergency is acute, when minutes, not just hours matter, it's too slow by several orders of magnitude. It takes the UN a week merely to organise the meeting to discuss the agenda for the meeting to discuss the crisis. This is unavoidable with the current setup.(All quotes unless otherwise attributed are from Diplomadic)
I can tell you, dear readers, that I am temporarily working in one of the countries that got slammed hard by the tsunami and while the UN effort might be in high gear, it must have its parking brake on. No sign of that effort here! Lots of bureaucrats flying in and out, but that's about it.
Fortunately we have a "New World Order" where individual nations are capable of acting as quickly as the situation requires. Case in point : the "core group" of the USA, India, Japan and Australia. Multiple US task forces were diverted within hours or days of the magnitude of the disaster becoming apparent. RAAF personnel were recalled and organised to provide immediate aid within 24 hours, even before we knew how bad things were.
But the UN? Forget it. Individuals in charge of UNICEF strategic stockpiles of emergency supplies may release them from the warehouses, but they have no means to transport them to where they're needed. Too often, the UN efforts are, well, more long-term:
To address the psycho-social needs of children throughout nearly a dozen countries devastated by the tsunami, selective in-service teacher training will be supported to equip teachers with specific methods and activities, UNICEF said.This is a worthy goal, and I disagree with many UN-bashers in saying that it's important and vital work. But first let's make sure there are some children left to go to these schools shall we?
While limited in their capacity and depth of the response to shock, teachers can still be trained to carryout activities which allow children, many of them orphaned, to share their feelings and to better cope with the aftermath of the disaster. In addition, teams of child counsellors will be trained and sent to schools."
We have US C-130s flying in and out of here dropping off heaps of supplies; US choppers arrive today; USAID is doing a knock-out job of marshalling and coordinating US and local resources to deliver real assistance to real people. The Aussies have planes and troops delivering stuff; even the Indians have goods on the way. The UN? Nowhere to be seen. OK, I'm not being fair. Last night they played host to a big "coordination" meeting of donors to announce that the UNDP has another large "assessment and coordination team" team arriving. Our USAID guys, who've been working 18-20 hrs/day, came back furious from this meeting saying everybody would be dead if the delivery of aid waited for the UN to set up shop and begin "coordinating."Well-meaning but clueless Internationalists have even attacked the nations giving immediate aid, saying that they lack the "moral authority" to do so without UN sanction. This is Not Helpful. Neither is pretending that the UN is doing a lot in the short term, by cloaking the real contributors under a false blanket of UN Blue.
A colleague came back from a meeting held by the local UN representative yesterday and reported that the UN rep had said that while it was a good thing that the Australians and Americans were running the air ops into tsunami-wrecked Aceh, for cultural and political reasons, those Australians and Americans really "should go blue." In other words, they should switch into UN uniforms and give up their national ones.Again, this is Not Helpful when the people involved are sleeping rough, working all hours of the day and night, and saving lives.
OK, that's Stage I covered. What about Stage II? Here, the UN has a role - it maintains strategic stockpiles of clothing, bedding, shelter and so on. When - or rather If - they are delivered to those who need them, rather than being allocated to cronies of the local ruling clique, or merely sold to Black Marketeers, then these have a major role to play. The UN's record in this is mixed, at best. But still better than that of national governments, whose stockpiles tend to be geared to military rather than medium-term civilian needs. Distribution is best left to a (hopefully) rebuilt civilian infrastructure, or the remains of the initial surge relief effort provided by national government. It is at this stage that the first "blue helmets" and "white elephant" aircraft will appear.
Stage III - well, if the UN is involved too much, stage III never happens. "Temporary" refugee camps all too often become permanent, or at least last for decades. They eventually get wound up only after the inhabitants have all decided to pack up and leave of their own volition. The most extreme examples are the the Palestinian "Refugee camps" that are indistinguishable from 3rd-world cities and towns, with multi-story buildings, hotels, power stations and so on.
Throughout all this, many UN employees are working as hard as they can, within the constraints that bind them. The lower you get on the UN feeding chain, the more likely you are to find dedicated, hard-working people. Those that rise through the ranks tend to have much of their dedication ablated off, as in order to be successful, they have to make compromises, financial and increasingly moral ones, until at the top it's rare to find anyone with more than a vestige of integrity. Those that do are swamped by the products of Nepotism and Political Cronyism, where a lucrative UN post is too often seen as a reward for an ex-Minister or Party Hack, or just the Maximum Leader's Nephew.
A parallel that I'm continually reminded of is that of the Catholic Church is the Middle Ages, pre-Reformation. UN workers drive about in their air-conditioned SUVs whose cost represents untold wealth to the people they're trying to help. But they have to, it's the only transport they're issued with. Similarly, they travel first-class, stay in 5-star hotels and so on, simply because "the dignity of the
We need the equivalent of Martin Luther to nail his theses to the door of the UN building. Do we need a "Protestant" UN? I don't know. But the current system isn't working.