The United Nations failed to adequately co-ordinate the relief effort in the wake of the Boxing Day tsunami, according to a report commissioned by the International Federation of the Red Cross.
It highlighted poor information sharing; agencies competing to spend vast sums of donated cash, the money itself, and duplication of effort among charities as hampering the relief operation.
One example given in the World’s Disaster Report details how there was an oversupply of surgeons at the end of January in Banda Aceh, leading to “20 surgeons competing for a single patient”.
In another, a charity worker arrived at a village with WHO and UNICEF measles vaccinations, only to find that some of the children had been vaccinated by an unknown agency, which left no records.
Matthias Schmale, the UN’s international director, said: “We share the concerns of the report. Is the UN playing an effective role in rehabilitation? It would be foolish of me not to acknowledge that there are serious challenges.”
He said that after the sheer scale of a disaster such as the tsunami or Hurricane Katrina, “chaos is automatically what follows. There is no intentional bad practice, but it is part of an initial response.”
He agreed that the “adrenaline rush” of the first few days may have prevented experienced charities, such as the Red Cross itself, sharing information, but added that it did not lead to loss of lives. However, he said that the sheer numbers of smaller agencies – 300 to 400 – a lot of whom were “new players” who had never been abroad before “made co-ordination much more difficult”.
The report, written by independent observers, criticised the UN as failing to “unite all the UN agencies, let alone other organisations”. Mr Schmale refused to criticise the UN directly, saying that, in general, it had done “a remarkable job”.
But he added that the report was a “wake-up call” for aid agencies to manage information better in response to a disaster.
An accurate death toll will probably be known, but around 250,000 people are thought to have died when the tsunami struck on Boxing Day 2004, with more than 130 Britons killed. Angali Kwatra, an Asia specialist with Christian Aid, agreed that the relief effort was hampered by duplication of effort.
“There was such an outpouring of money and hundreds of different agencies, many of whom hadn’t worked in Indonesia or Sri Lanka before.
“If someone flies in with a suitcase full of money to build a school, then that’s great, but it doesn’t help in the strategic planning and rebuilding of the area.”
The British Red Cross’s Asia Earthquake and Flood Appeal triggered an unprecedented response from the British public, raising