Vanuatu: In search of the aid

A year after the devastating cyclone, little has been rebuilt - despite millions pledged.


    4am. Last March. My birthday, in fact. But there was to be no opportunity to celebrate.

    I was at Sydney airport for a flight to Port Vila, Vanuatu. Checking in, too, were members of other TV crews and employees of relief aid agencies and charities. The queue moved slowly: there was lots of excess luggage.

    We were catching the first flight to depart to Vanuatu since the country had been hit by the biggest cyclone in its history. The initial reports from within Vanuatu were dire.

    In fact, over the next week in Vanuatu I discovered that although the damage was extensive, few died. But the cyclone briefly dominated headlines around the world. Governments competed to announce donations of aid. Individuals gave generously to charities.

    Six months later I went back to see how the initial "emergency phase" had gone. The answer, in September, was fairly well.

    A year after the storm, it was time to go back again; this time to see how much solid achievement there had been from the millions that poured in.

    Exactly how much? Remarkably, no one could tell me.

    Immediately after the storm, governments around the world promised much publicly, officials in Vanuatu's government told me, but little of it went through them. To their frustration, most governments gave to charities directly and those operated independently.

    No records

    The charities I saw operating on the ground last year - including UNICEF, Save the Children, Care, and the Red Cross - seemed, to me, to be doing an effective job.

    Water, food and tents were distributed; doctors flew around the country treating the injured. Basic crop-growing kits followed and medical aid posts were rebuilt

    Australia's government donated manpower, too: We filmed its soldiers.  Australia's government says it spent about $12m in the weeks following the storm.

    But no one kept any central record of what was done where, or how much was spent by whom. No one, apparently, has even tried to guess.

    Vanuatu struggles for tourists one year after devastating cyclone

    So I tried.

    My best estimate, from drawing together figures in various organisations' annual reports, is that between $20m and $35m was donated shortly after the storm. Most people I've talked to say that sounds "about right".

    For longer-term help for a "recovery" phase, a dollar figure for aid has proved even harder to pin down.

    Vanuatu's government doesn't have one. The best they've been able to provide is a list of what they believe was promised. But - as officials stressed privately to me - that does not mean that money was delivered.

    The World Bank said it would give about $70m to Vanuatu; Vanuatu's government says the exact nature of that - how much in loans, how much in grants, and what it can be spent on - is still being negotiated and that the money hasn't yet arrived. On a smaller scale, that's been true of other promised funds too.

    Australia has handed over the money it committed for longer-term recovery - about $26m. But - because Australia's government expects detailed plans for how its money will be spent before it is released - that money, so far, hasn't been spent.

    Feeling abandoned

    It hasn't helped that there have been three governments in Vanuatu since the storm. The sitting government was voted out shortly after the storm; its successor was quickly embroiled in a scandal that saw government ministers jailed; and a new government took office in February.

    All this leaves the people of Vanuatu bereft. I took a small plane to the island of Tongoa. It is a place where subsistence farming is still the main activity - our Cessna almost hit a chicken sprinting across the grass runway.

    People there feel abandoned. There was a flurry of activity by aid agencies after the cyclone, they say, but since then nothing has changed. We filmed children still being taught in tents. People I met are still living with friends, their own homes in ruins.

    Time and again, I heard the same message and question: "The government doesn't care about us. What's happened to all that money?"

    In Port Vila too, I found frustration. Charity workers feel they did a good job while they were able to, but have been cut out of the picture since.

    People in Vanuatu's government feel aggrieved that they haven't received the money they felt they were promised. And they think foreigners are attaching too many bureaucratic strings to what has been handed over.

    The result has been inertia. Vanuatu's preparedness before its cyclone clearly worked - very few died. But the response since has been far less impressive.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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