Quake aid must be seen to be dispersed fairly

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 May, 2008, 12:00am

Yesterday afternoon marked two weeks since the Sichuan earthquake struck. No one could have anticipated then that it would still be fuelling fresh reports and images depicting the scale of the human tragedy and suffering, physical devastation and lingering danger.

Nonetheless, two weeks later is an appropriate time for the central government and disaster relief officials to take stock of the challenges that lie ahead. Thanks to a massive rescue operation, swift humanitarian aid and a nationwide period of mourning, the disaster response so far has restored a measure of order and composure amid chaos and suffering. It has also enhanced the national cohesion needed to face the task of recovery, reconstruction and rehabilitation of survivors that lies ahead. China has rightly won international applause and pledges of support for its efforts.

But grave dangers remain. The authorities were quick to act on the risk of disease outbreaks arising from lack of food, water, shelter and sanitation, and the presence of thousands of decaying bodies. Experts say infection control will be a priority for months.

Now there is another, more volatile risk, particularly in the event of aftershocks: unstable lakes created by landslides in the quake, and countless dams and reservoirs that have been weakened. These hazards need to be assessed and mitigated if they are not to do a lot more damage - a task that could take weeks.

The big challenge, however, will be to take proper care of millions of survivors. Perhaps understandably, in the conditions, mixed messages have emerged from the quake zone about what help is needed. Hong Kong people and Chinese communities around the world have opened their hearts to appeals for cash to pay for aid from charities and non-governmental organisations. Wealthy individuals have made substantial donations. Foreign organisations have spontaneously raised substantial sums.

However, normal rules of accountability tend to be overlooked in the emergency response to natural disasters. As a result, donations are open to abuse by unscrupulous individuals. For example, the Red Cross Society of China has been forced to dissociate itself from allegations of irregularities in the sale of its tents at inflated prices by a retailer in Chengdu , capital of Sichuan.

Beijing is to be applauded for reacting swiftly to such reports. The government's Audit Commission and the Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection have both sent inspectors to audit relief supplies and investigate allegations of misuse of relief by cadres.

But to address the problems at their root, the authorities will need to enhance the transparency of aid programmes. Drawing up a list of priorities for what is really needed would help potential donors plan their donations. Establishing transparent channels to ensure that aid finds its way to the people for whom it is intended would instil confidence among both donors and recipients and spare hard-working officials unwanted suspicions over their probity.