Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Montreal Gazette: Myanmar plays the UN and the world for suckers

The Gazette
Published: 7 hours ago

It's hard to say which is more appalling: the way Myanmar's elite skimmed as much as $10 million from international aid money flowing into the country for the survivors of Cyclone Nargis, or the way United Nations officials failed to notice the scam - or worse - for weeks on end.

John Holmes, the UN's top man on humanitarian affairs, says now that the losses are "a significant problem," amounting to as much as 15 per cent of recent cash aid flowing into the country. He admitted that the UN had been "a bit slow" to recognize the swindle.

The country's military government forced the UN to trade hard currency for the local money by the medium of foreign exchange certificates and then set the rate of these instruments in such a way that millions of dollars flowed to bankers and others close to the junta. The usual market rate is 1,100 Myanmar khat per dollar, but the UN has been getting only about 880. The story was broken by a blog ( which covers the UN. We wonder if news of this UN inefficiency would ever have become public without the blog's good work.

That any government could be complicit in such a fraud, at the expense of its own hard-hit people, is staggering.

But it's also alarming that the scam could have gone on since the early days of the humanitarian crisis without being noticed until recently. Nor has it been corrected yet, apparently; Holmes says the UN now hopes the Myanmar government will co-operate in letting UN aid staff get decent value for the organization's hard currency.

The world's people invest their good wishes, their hopes, and their idealism - along with some of their money - in the United Nations. But the high standards those investments require are too often not met by the world body. The UN must keep reforming itself.

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