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Poor Nations Complain Not All Charity Reaches Victims

The New York Times

January 29, 2006

By Stephanie Storm

Some foreign governments have begun to criticize international aid agencies for the way they raise and spend money, echoing the demands of many American donors that a larger part of their charitable gifts be used for the purposes for which they were originally intended.

The health minister of Niger fired the opening salvo at the end of the year, charging that some international aid groups had overstated the extent of the hunger crisis in his drought- and locust-ravaged country as part of a strategy to raise money for their own purposes.

''We will not allow any NGO or any other organization to manage funds behind our backs and make publicity, propaganda even, to raise money,'' said Aby Ibrahim, the Niger minister, referring to nongovernmental organizations by the international shorthand by which they are known, Reuters reported.

He said Niger would begin investigating organizations to ascertain how they are using the money, though relief workers there say there is no evidence that his government has carried through on that threat.

Such a posture is risky, since volunteer organizations could simply withdraw and leave Niger to cope with its problems on its own.

But many governments are prickly about seeming unable to handle domestic crises on their own. Officials of relief groups hinted privately that just such sensitivity might have motivated Mr. Ibrahim's outburst and said they stood by their assessments of Niger's problems.

''Unless the international community renews its commitment to deal with the consequences of the food crisis in Niger, including the prevailing level of malnutrition, the country faces a second year of extreme suffering and hardship,'' said Trevor Rowe, of the United Nations World Food Program.

Since Mr. Ibrahim spoke, other government officials have expressed frustration with how aid groups deploy the private money they raise.

An official in Sri Lanka said his government had quietly complained to the French government about Doctors Without Borders after the group contacted donors following the tsunami in December 2004 and asked if it could use more than three-quarters of the money it had raised for that disaster to address other crises.

Indonesia, too, is vexed that aid agencies have scaled back their commitments to build housing in Banda Aceh after raising money for that purpose and other projects to aid tsunami victims.

The countries are asking: ''Are you spending the money you collected for my country and where are you spending it?'' said Richard Walden, president and chief executive of Operation USA, a Los Angeles-based disaster relief organization.

Nonprofit organizations operating in the United States have been struggling for several years to balance donors' increasing demands for control over their gifts with their desire to help the needy.

Some organizations embraced the new vigilance. Richard E. Stearns, president of the United States office of World Vision, a Christian relief and development agency, acknowledged that countries were pressing for more accountability of where their contributions end up, but he said he was not concerned.

''Reputable charities welcome the heightened scrutiny, since it serves to distinguish those organizations that operate with integrity,'' he said.

Other groups are concerned that governments may be looking for a way to steer private donations into their own control.

Jean-Herve Bradol of Doctors Without Borders, which provides charitable medical assistance to disaster victims and has become a favorite of donors around the world, said the scrutiny suggests that governments have designs on disaster-related fund-raising.

President Bush, for instance, drafted two predecessors -- his father, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton -- to encourage Americans to give to relief organizations working in the tsunami-stricken region.

The former presidents took the concept one step further after Hurricane Katrina when they helped form a separate charity to raise money for reconstruction along the Gulf Coast.

President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan also has created a fund to aid victims of the earthquake there.

''Usually, they have international forums where they commit public money to achieve public goals like rebuilding roads, hospitals and schools,'' Mr. Bradol said. ''Today, they are very keen to raise money from private sources. It's shocking in France when I see French families doing more globally for Sri Lanka and Indonesia than the French state itself.''

His organization has been questioned by the Sri Lankan government about its decision to spend only a little over $26 million on tsunami relief of the more than $120 million it collected worldwide after the tsunami last year.

Harim Peiris, who resigned in November as head of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation after a change in government, said his government had a dialogue with the organization about its activities, ''or relative lack of them,'' and the money it had raised for disaster relief.

''The government of Sri Lanka has also alleged and is disappointed that many international NGO's raised money for post-tsunami work but have not expended that money in Sri Lanka,'' he said. ''In fact only a small fraction has been spent here.''

Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the director of the Indonesian Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency for Aceh and Nias, which is charged with overseeing and monitoring the rebuilding there, said that it was not his job to judge whether relief groups were spending the money they raised for the tsunami to help those victims.

Mr. Kuntoro complained, though, that aid agencies had reneged on their housing commitments. Eight months ago, nonprofit groups pledged to build more than the 120,000 houses needed, he said, but are now likely to build fewer than half that number.

The Indonesian government will spend $400 million to make up the difference, he said, money that would have paid for roads and other infrastructure.

''One NGO that I will not name pledged to build 6,000 houses, but in December reported that it could only come up with 1,500 houses,'' he said. ''In general, it's like that.''

Brian Peterson, a spokesman for World Vision, wrote via e-mail that the group lowered the number of houses it planned to build to 4,000 after Indonesia reduced its estimates of what was needed.

''We have also faced increases in the prices of construction materials, which have impacted the number of units that World Vision is able to construct,'' he wrote.

He did not respond to a message asking how many houses World Vision had originally planned to build.

Organizations received more than $1.3 billion in private donations to assist their work in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other countries devastated by a wall of water on Dec. 26, 2004. By the end of last year, though, groups had received less than 6 percent of that amount, or roughly $75 million, for Pakistani earthquake victims.

Similarly, groups find it easier to raise money for countries where famine is a product of natural phenomena, than for countries where people are starving because of war or government policy.

After contacting donors for permission to use the money they had earmarked for the tsunami for other purposes, Doctors Without Borders was able to pay for operations in Niger, Pakistan, Sudan and Haiti, among other places, Mr. Bradol said.

''So I'm not very concerned with the Niger authority's remarks,'' he said. ''We have treated more than 60,000 kids there who otherwise would have died of severe acute malnutrition without launching any specific fund-raising appeal.''

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