Tsunami Aid: A Report Card

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A year ago, governments were pledging disaster assistance and people were making donations to help survivors of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. The outpouring was unprecedented, and aid agencies quickly came under pressure to account for their spending.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This time last year, people and governments were pulling out their checkbooks to help the survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami. The outpouring of support was unprecedented, and aid agencies quickly came under pressure to account for their spending. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on how they did.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

In an article for Foreign Policy magazine, a former assistant secretary of State for South Asia, Karl Inderfurth, offered a report card on the international relief effort after the tsunami. He gave it an A.

Mr. KARL INDERFURTH (Former Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia): It's really the gold standard right now of an international response to a catastrophe.

KELEMEN: The United Nations' flash appeal was almost fully covered, which is highly unusual, and Inderfurth says world leaders actually followed through on their pledges.

Mr. INDERFURTH: It was the most generous and quickly funded relief effort in the history of these disasters. $13.6 billion was raised. You had not only governments and international organizations, but private donations were over 40 percent of that total, $5 billion. In the US, 30 percent of households contributed to tsunami relief.

KELEMEN: He said this forced aid agencies to do a better job of accounting for the donations. The United Nations, for instance, set up an online tsunami-expenditure tracking system. Still, a Financial Times report suggested that UN agencies were not transparent enough and spent anywhere from 18 to 32 percent on overhead costs. One aid expert, Jim Bishop, says it's often difficult to separate out overhead costs, especially if they include the salaries for drivers delivering food or medical supplies.

Mr. JIM BISHOP (InterAction): As with any business, a substantial portion of costs are going to be absorbed by personnel costs.

KELEMEN: Bishop is with InterAction, an umbrella group of American relief organizations. In his own reporting on tsunami relief, he found that American non-profits have so far spent about 42 percent of the funds they received in private donations.

Mr. BISHOP: Many of these agencies expect to be involved in long-term recovery efforts, out three to five years, so they have to pace the spending of the funds that they've received to cover the work that's going to be required out through those time frames.

KELEMEN: The report also points out that the massive loss of life and the destruction of infrastructure made early relief work slow going. Bishop said InterAction released the report as a way to make sure the aid community remains accountable. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

BLOCK: If you're planning on making a charitable contribution as the year draws to a close, check out our Web site, npr.org. You'll find tips from experts on giving wisely.

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