Copyright Canoe CA

[ October 28th 2001 ]

The Canadian government should take a lesson from Tomb Raider Angelina Jolie on how to crack open its dusty coffers and quickly get humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. UN goodwill ambassador Jolie, 26, who is set to reprise her role as Lara Croft in a sequel to the blockbuster movie, has so far donated more to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) than the government of Canada.

The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) Web site reports it gives $1.6 million in ongoing aid to the UNHCR, an international agency that helps uprooted peoples with shelter, food, water and medicine.

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Maria Minna, international co-operation minister, and Prime Minister Jean Chretien have announced an extra $2.2 million in funding to the UNHCR as part of an overall $16-million refugee aid package to Afghanistan.

All told, the UNHCR should be getting $3.8 million from Canadian taxpayers. But the UN agency that keeps the books reports Canada's actual UNHCR contribution stands at $1.19 million, far less than Australia's $3.06 million, Denmark's $1.44 million and Finland's $1.21 million. Even Jolie kicks Canada's butt with her $1.53 million personal donation to the UNHCR.

Oliver Ulich, a spokesman for the UN office for the coordination of humanitarian aid, says aid announced by governments with great fanfare at a press conferences rarely live up to their billing. "The announcements are irrelevant really. It's nice to hear what their intentions are, but we really depend on the money coming into our bank accounts and that hasn't been happening as quickly as we would like," says Ulich.

Although he admits there's the inevitable lag time due to government administrative procedures, Ulich says politicians tend to play fast and loose with their donation figures. "Quite frankly, sometimes governments will report contributions to the press two or three times," he says.

For example, on Sept. 29, Chretien pledged $5 million in new funding for Afghan refugees after he met in New York City with Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations. An additional $10 million was added after the U.S-led retaliation against the Taliban began Oct. 7 bringing Canada's total aid pledged to the region to $16 million.

Ulich says it sounds good, but announcements don't feed people. "It makes fundraising so much more difficult if donors, based on hearing these pledges, think you've got all the money you need," he said, adding that the UNHCR will post a deficit of $15.7 million. "It's important to just talk about the real funds not the PR funds."

Jinette LeBreton, CIDA spokesman, says the agency has begun distributing $6 million of the money pledged and time is needed to process payouts to Non-Governmental Organizations. But she said agencies don't need to have a cheque in hand before aid begins flowing.

"Usually the NGOs, as soon as they know CIDA is pledging the money, they go ahead and the bank will know the payment will come, so they go ahead and start buying the food," she said. As for the discrepancy between funding announced and what shows up on the UN books, she said some of the agencies may be outside the UN Donor Alert Appeal for Afghanistan so they may not show up on their balance sheet.

The UN issued the appeal when it became clear that the retaliation against the Taliban, after 20 years of civil strife and two years of severe drought, would add up to a humanitarian disaster for about 7.5 million Afghans. The UN alert says more than $1 billion is needed to provide refugees with the basic necessities of life for six months. So far the appeal has raised $231.3 million.

At an Oct. 21 concert, Music Without Borders, Canadian musicians including the Tragically Hip, Barenaked Ladies, Alanis Morissette, Bruce Cockburn, Our Lady Peace and Choclair raised more than $1 million for the appeal.

The United Nations Association in Canada received a cheque for $700,000 from 18,000 tickets sold to the Air Canada Centre show. A further $358,548 was raised through viewer pledges during TV broadcasts. Sharon Bradford of the UNAC said about $1.06 million has been raised so far and cheques are still coming in. "Brilliant, talented Canadians did this. They made a difference. The UN is hoping this might spearhead initiatives around the world to help with this appeal," she said.

The money will go to various UN agencies including the UNHCR, UNICEF, the World Food Program, the World Health Organization, and the UN Population Fund, she said. Far from the money game, aid agencies on the ground say they desperately need funds now before the harsh central Asian winter closes in.

UNICEF has only raised one-third of the $36 million it needs to get relief to thousands of children before roads become impassable. "It's been a grim picture for a long time, but we knew there would be a really high death toll this winter," said UNICEF worker Gordon Weiss from Islamabad, Pakistan. "We estimate 100,000 children under the age of five will die this winter if aid doesn't reach them in time."

Weiss said in a few weeks about one million people who live in remote areas will be cut off and risk dying from a combination of exposure and malnutrition. "We've pretty much run out of time at this stage," he said. But even getting aid into Afghanistan doesn't guarantee it will get to those who need it.

After international aid agency staff were expelled from the country Sept. 14, Afghans working for the UN and other international aid groups have reported looting by Taliban soldiers and other armed bands. The disruption to lines of communication and supply have escalated, says Khaled Mansour of the World Food Program's Central Asia office in Islamabad, Pakistan.

"In Kandahar, the WFP office remains surrounded by Taliban guards and our vehicles are no longer in the compound where they were parked. The radio has been removed. All the windows have been broken and there are papers strewn everywhere," Mansour said.

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