Congress Should Investigate UN Tsunami Relief Effort

This week marks the anniversary of the tsunami disaster which struck large sections of Southeast Asia, South Asia, and East Africa on December 26, 2004. The tsunami claimed some 231,000 lives and displaced 2 million people. The disaster prompted an outpouring of humanitarian help from around the world, with an estimated total of $13.6 billion in aid pledged, including $6.16 billion in government assistance, $2.3 billion from international financial institutions, and $5.1 billion from individuals and companies.[1]


The huge international relief effort is being co-coordinated by the United Nations, and involves an astonishing 39 U.N. agencies, from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO).


The Financial Times Inquiry


When the U.N. took over the tsunami relief operation in early 2005, the world body pledged full transparency, in light of its disastrous handling of the Iraq Oil-for-Food Program. The U.N.’s under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, Jan Egeland, boasted in an opinion editorial that “only the UN has the universal legitimacy, capacity, and credibility to lead in a truly global humanitarian emergency.”[2] Egeland had earlier criticized the U.S. contribution to the tsunami relief effort as “stingy.”[3]


A recent investigation by the Financial Times, however, has raised serious questions regarding the U.N.’s handling of the tsunami relief effort, in particular the way in which it has spent the first $590 million of its $1.1 billion disaster “flash appeal.” The appeal includes nearly $50 million from the United States.[4] The two-month FT inquiry revealed that “as much as a third of the money raised by the UN for its tsunami response was being swallowed up by salaries and administrative overheads.”[5] In contrast, Oxfam, a British-based private charity, spent just 10 percent of the tsunami aid money it raised on administrative costs.[6]


Unable to obtain figures from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the FT approached several U.N. agencies directly to establish exact numbers for tsunami relief expenditure. Many “declined or ignored” requests for information, while others offered incomplete data. The newspaper found that of the $49 million spent by the World Health Organization as part of the tsunami appeal, 32 percent had been spent on “personnel costs, administrative overheads, or associated ‘miscellaneous’ costs.” At the World Food Program (WFP), 18 percent of the $215 million spent by the agency went toward “staff salaries, administrative overheads and vehicles and equipment.”[7]


The Financial Times concluded that “a year after the tsunami, pledges of transparency and accountability for the UN’s appeal appear a long way from being realized. This is primarily blamed on dueling UN bureaucracies and accounting methods plus what in many cases appears to be institutional paranoia about disclosure.”[8]


Accountability and Transparency is Needed at the U.N.


The FT’s findings should raise significant concern over the U.N.’s ability to manage a huge, multi-billion dollar humanitarian relief operation. The last such operation that the U.N. oversaw, the Oil-for-Food Program, was an unmitigated failure. The investigations into the scandal by the Security Council-appointed Independent Inquiry Committee (IIC), in addition to several congressional committees and U.S. federal agencies, cast a spotlight on widespread corruption, mismanagement and incompetence within the U.N., and exposed a deeply rooted culture of secrecy at the heart of the United Nations Secretariat. The scandal gravely tarnished the image of the world body as well as its leadership, including Secretary General Kofi Annan.


The Oil-for-Food revelations coincided with a wave of other U.N. scandals, including widespread abuse of refugees by U.N. peacekeepers in the Congo, sexual harassment at the top of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division (EAD), and significant corruption at the U.N. World Meteorological Organization (WMO), all of which seriously damaged the U.N.’s global standing.


With public confidence at an all-time low, it is imperative that both Congress and the Bush Administration seek assurances that U.S. and international donations for tsunami relief are both properly spent and accounted for.


Key Recommendations


  • Congressional Hearings and Investigations

Both the House and Senate should hold hearings on the U.N.’s management of the tsunami relief program and call for senior U.N. officials, including Jan Egeland, to testify before Congress. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN), and the newly created House International Relations Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, headed by Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), should strongly consider extending their investigations into the Oil-for-Food Program to the U.N. tsunami relief operation.


  • Bush Administration Pressure

The White House and State Department should call on the U.N. to give a full accounting of all its expenditures on tsunami relief operations, including its payments to international aid consultants, who are paid as much as $10,000 a month.[9] All U.N. expenditures on relief efforts should be made publicly available and open to scrutiny.


  • Withhold Funds From the United Nations

The growing doubts over the U.N.’s handling of the tsunami relief operation reinforce the need for Congress to withhold funds from the U.N.’s assessed budget unless a series of reform measures are implemented by the world body. These must include the establishment of an independent oversight body for the U.N., a far greater degree of openness and transparency, as well as independent auditing procedures.




The growing scandal over the U.N.’s handling of the tsunami “flash appeal” should set off alarm bells in Washington. A picture is beginning to emerge of yet another U.N. operation mired in secrecy, hugely lacking in transparency and oversight, and without a doubt open to widespread mismanagement and corruption. It is increasingly clear that the U.N. has learned little from the Oil-for-Food scandal, and is continuing to operate in a fashion that is out of step with the expectations of U.S. taxpayers, who fund the U.N. to the tune of $3 billion a year.


Both Congress and the Bush Administration must demand answers from the U.N. bureaucracy, and expect that all donations are spent appropriately. It is imperative that tsunami relief go directly to the impoverished victims of the disaster, and not be used to subsidize the salaries or administrative overheads of a vast army of U.N. bureaucrats and consultants. A clear signal must be sent from Washington that any misuse of international funds will not be tolerated. If it is to maintain the long-term support of the United States, the United Nations will have to be substantially reformed and must operate as an efficient, honest, and accountable public body. 


Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., is the Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation. The author is grateful to James Dean, Deputy Director of Government Relations in Foreign and Defense Policy at the Heritage Foundation for his advice and suggestions.

[1] Figures quoted in “Responses to the Boxing Day Tsunamis,” Financial Times, December 23, 2005.

[2] Jan Egeland, “Sobering Lessons for the United Nations,” Financial Times, March 30, 2005.

[3] See Bill Sammon, “UN Official Slams US as ‘Stingy’ Over Aid,” The Washington Times, December 28, 2004. In response to Egeland’s statement, it should be noted that the U.S. Congress approved $656 million towards post-tsunami relief and reconstruction in May 2005. Total U.S. assistance to countries hit by the tsunami amounted to $840 million in 2005. Nearly 600,000 tsunami victims have benefited from U.S. support. Private U.S. donations amounted to more than $1.8 billion. See “U.S. Assistance Exceeds $840 Million One Year After Tsunami,” U.S. Agency for International Development Fact Sheet, December 21, 2005.

[4] According to the Financial Times, “the flash appeal covered the money donated by governments to the UN in the first weeks after the disaster to fund early aid work.”

[5] Shawn Donnan, “Little Clarity on How Aid Gets Spent,” Financial Times, December 23, 2005.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] This salary figure is cited by Shawn Donnan, ibid.