Tsunami Carried Lessons to World on Preparedness; Region Hit by Disaster Marks Anniversary

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Byline: Betsy Pisik, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

NEW YORK - The eight-second earthquake that created the catastrophic Indian Ocean tsunami one year ago today also produced an unexpected silver lining: The world is more focused on preparing for massive disasters and fine-tuning the emergency response.

The tsunami slammed into the coastlines of 13 countries, killing more than 230,000 and destroying the livelihoods of millions more.

Since then, the United Nations and other aid agencies say they have learned valuable lessons on how to be more effective in the event of such huge need.

Officials with the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) say they adapted techniques that made them more responsive everywhere from the hurricane-battered Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico to the quake-sloughed mountains of Kashmir.

"The tsunami did provoke an extraordinary response and got us thinking of new measures," Mark Bowden, OCHA's head of policy planning, said in an interview with The Washington Times.

The impact of the tsunami has been felt in global calls for early-warning systems, improved procurement practices, more effective fundraising, better relations with host countries, closer coordination between agencies and private charities, and the use of high-octane "special envoys" to cajole governments into turning their pledges into cash.

Former President Bill Clinton is doing such a good job as the U.N. special envoy on the disaster that the government of Pakistan insisted on another former American president, George Bush, to keep the pressure on donors to Pakistan's own earthquake-relief effort.

With winter approaching, Mr. Bush will work to turn pledges into cash, among other tasks.

Keeping track of incoming monetary donations, disbursements to agencies and spending on the ground is a vexing task in large-scale relief efforts, where accounting often is seen as secondary to providing immediate assistance.

A sophisticated financial-tracking system was created and installed to reassure donors that their money wouldn't be misused.

This month, the U.N. General Assembly created a $500 million central emergency relief fund to respond immediately in future disasters before aid begins flowing.

Even major missteps turned out for the better.

"Funding dramatically increased after [OCHA Director] Jan Egeland initially described donor response as stingy," according to an internal assessment that will be published early next year.

"It also appears that donor pledges have been translated into disbursements more quickly than in other large disasters."

The tsunami raised the bar for nearly every aspect of disaster- relief money: how much is needed, how quickly it can be raised and spent, and how well it can be accounted for.

Traditionally, relief efforts have been murky audit targets with staff making varying salaries, expenses going through the roof, and non-uniform accounting systems that veer from detailing all costs to lumping transportation, insurance and merchandise together.

A new financial-tracking system, developed for OCHA at no charge by accounting giant PriceWaterhouse Coopers, was meant to bring transparency to the process and increase internal accountability. …