Sichuan charity trail a cause for concern

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 August, 2009, 12:00am

Nothing dampens the spirit of giving more than the feeling of being short-changed. For that reason global aid agencies have striven to combat perceptions that money donated to relieve suffering and poverty in far away places is at risk of being bled dry by bloated aid bureaucracies, waste and corruption.

If people who give money in good faith have reason to worry whether it really is going to a deserving cause, they can be understandably wary about putting their hands in their pockets. The bywords in keeping the warmth of charity and compassion glowing are therefore transparency and accountability.

Beijing's Tsinghua University has raised concerns with a finding that most of more than 76 billion yuan (HK$87 billion) raised for relief of last year's Sichuan earthquake disaster found its way into the coffers of a number of provincial governments, rather than aid and other non-government organisations. It was treated as revenue designated for government quake relief. About 17 billion yuan of it is still sitting in government accounts. Only 5 per cent of donors knew where their money went and half were unsure.

In the wake of the disaster Beijing indicated a preference for donations over material and manpower aid. But mainland governments are not known for upholding high standards of financial accountability and transparency. Without them the audit trail of these massive sums, much of them raised abroad and from overseas Chinese, could easily go cold.

Most quake donations will, no doubt, find their way into reconstruction and rehabilitation. There is, therefore, no need for Hongkongers to worry too much about the more than HK$1 billion they donated in the first week after the quake. But it is not a satisfactory state of affairs.

The official explanation for it points to the root of the problem: the mainland does not have an adequate social infrastructure of independent non-government organisations with experience and expertise in converting money into practical aid where it is needed, on the ground. As a result it is entrusted to officials of an authoritarian state that is accountable only to itself.

The potential consequences of that were evident in the weeks following the quake, with reports of misuse of charitable donations. That was amid chaotic conditions, but there is no longer such an excuse. Non-government relief organisations are not in themselves the answer. They too need to be held accountable, as evidenced by rivalry between competing aid agencies that contributed to chronic delays in rebuilding Indonesia's Aceh province after the devastation of the Asian tsunami.

In this case, the way such a large amount of quake aid money has been handled is an example of a much wider problem. There remains no transparent culture of scrutiny or independent analysis to ensure efficient and clean government. Rather there is hostility to it, as we were reminded this week by the subversion trial of a quake activist who was investigating the part that corruption played in the collapse of shoddily built schools while other buildings remained standing. This all goes to highlight the need for the development of strong civil institutions, from a more independent judiciary to NGOs, as a check on resistance to accountability and transparency.