|Disasters Preparedness and Mitigation - Issue No. 75 - January, 1999 (PAHO)|
Just as the terms "coordination" and "exchange of information" were popular in the past, the new buzzwords in the humanitarian and development lexicon are "accountability" and "transparency."
The days when governments and agencies jealously guarded their books and files from public scrutiny has become unsustainable and just plain unpopular with the international community. Humanitarian operations are no exception to this trend. Indeed, the misuse of donations after the 1972 earthquake in Nicaragua is still deeply etched in the collective public memory. Today, secrecy and "control" of information inevitably lead to suspicions of abuse of power.
Donors, and to a growing degree the public in affected countries, are losing confidence in the honesty and efficiency of the official response to disasters (both by governments and organizations), and in the way that resources are managed. One consequence of this loss of confidence is the marked shift toward channeling assistance and resources to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or through civil society at large - an alternative that is not devoid of its own problems and shortcomings.
Following Hurricane Mitch, the SUMA system proved itself to be a valuable technical tool that helped relief operations managers demonstrate a commitment to transparency and good governance. The humanitarian supply management system, developed a decade ago by PAHO with the support of the Colombian Red Cross, aids countries to manage information on all humanitarian supplies, regardless of ownership or destination.
In Honduras, for example, most agencies - from the Office of the First Lady to the local Red
Cross - used SUMA to gather data, under the supervision of the national office that oversees expenditures. This collaboration was made possible thanks to an open policy of access to information for operational purposes and accountability at the national level.
Information is a powerful tool in disasters. However, it is vulnerable to misuse and mismanagement. Data on humanitarian supplies must be circulated openly and subjected to review and criticism. This is where SUMA plays an important role. An externally-monitored inventory of donations, along with the dissemination of this information, goes a long way toward dispelling potential rumors of a massive disappearance of international aid or other problems. Without an open policy of transparency, primarily within the coordinating agency of governments, the ultimate objective of collaboration and accountability is lost.
Particularly in emergency situations, information belongs to the public in the affected country and to the international community at large. Secrecy and obfuscation are things of the past.
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