Utterly undeserved hell is being visited upon Japan. Aftershocks continue from the monster quake. The tsunami has devastated the northeast coast. Hundreds of thousands have fled their homes, thousands are missing, and hundreds are already reported dead. Japanese officials fear a meltdown at the quake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
And now, here comes the United Nations, with Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon voicing sorrow and promising, as summed up by a UN press release, that “the UN would do all it could to mobilize humanitarian assistance and disaster risk reduction teams as soon as possible.” This comes with the usual UN offers of staff on standby and inventories of high-energy biscuits.
Here’s the real favor the UN could do for Japan: Back off.
There’s no need to doubt the sorrow of Ban and his colleagues, or the good intentions of many members of the UN staff. But the UN’s history of dealing with disaster relief is, itself, a saga of disaster. In the relief operation for the tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in December, 2004, the UN trumpeted itself as the only outfit fit to lead and coordinate such an effort. As events actually played out, it was the U.S. Navy that arrived first to do the emergency heavy lifting, while the UN was still getting organized. In collecting funds for the multi-billion dollar relief effort, the UN promised complete transparency, but with its usual welter of confusion, delays, obfuscation and bureaucracy, the UN delivered nothing of the kind. A Financial Times investigation a year later found that as much as one-third of the tsunami relief funds were swallowed by “salaries and administrative overheads” — roughly triple the cost of relief provided more swiftly and efficiently by private charities. Similar problems have dogged one UN relief effort after another, from cyclone relief money effectively handed over to pad the pockets of Burmese officials, to the lavish “love boat” and staggering overhead involved in Haitian earthquake relief efforts.
Of course, Japan is a wealthy democracy, with far fewer of the potential pitfalls of sending aid to Indonesia, or Burma, or Haiti. But by the same token, Japan is far better equipped to handle this disaster, and within hours of the tsunami had already mobilized its own troops and ships for a massive rescue effort. Japan has well-equipped allies, such as America, which are already offering help. There’s no need to launder any of this through the “coordinating efforts” or high-overhead red tape and delays of the UN.
Ban, in his remarks on Friday, noted that Japan is one of the world’s strongest benefactors. Japan certainly is, and, not least, it is spectacularly generous to the UN — where it is the second largest donor after the United States. But for the UN to now rush to the aid of Japan would hardly qualify as an act of unmitigated gratitude. Big UN relief efforts involve big UN overheads and a UN bureaucracy both opaque and devoted to its own brand of multilateral affirmative action — in which the first priority is to serve the grand collective of the UN, rather than its suffering clientele. For Japan and its wealthiest allies to cycle their relief resources via the UN — which is what a UN relief effort in this case would amount to — would be to add a layer of mess and expense that nobody needs right now. Except maybe the UN. Japan has enough problems to deal with. Don’t add the UN to the mix.