Since Typhoon Ketsana, Relief Funds Still Cannot Be Tracked

As Cambodians struggle to cope with the latest round of flooding to hit the country, the government has conceded that a 3-year-old plan to systematically track how millions of dollars worth of emergency relief funds get spent has yet to be carried out.

After Typhoon Ketsana killed 43 people, destroyed the homes and farms of nearly 50,000 families and inflicted $132 million in damages in late 2009, the National Committee for Disaster Management (NCDM) issued a lengthy report the following year laying out a tentative recovery plan.

With the help of the World Bank, the NCDM recommended $191 million worth of recovery and re­construction projects for the next five years and tentative funding from the bank and other donors.

The NCDM report also conceded that separate annual emergency relief funds allocated by the Council of Ministers to other ministries, and from the ministries to the prov­inces, could not be tracked.

“It became evident during this assessment that the stream of funding to the provinces for emergency relief could be neither traced nor ascertained,” the 2010 report said.

At the time, NCDM Deputy Secretary-General Ross Sovann placed the annual relief funding, in place since 2000, at roughly $250,000. As part of another $9 million plan to manage future disasters, the NCDM hoped to have a data system to track the government’s relief money in place by 2013.

Last week, NCDM Vice President Nhim Vanda said that system was not still ready.

“We still don’t have such a system in place yet because we are looking for a consultant and conducting seminars,” Mr. Vanda said before declining to elaborate or answer more questions.

Mr. Sovann and Keo Vy, the NCDM’s deputy director of information, declined to comment on the tracking system.

In late 2009, Chum Vuthy was among a team of non-government staff who helped the NCDM prepare its Ketsana report.

Mr. Vuthy, who at the time was working for the Asian Disaster Preparedness Center, a Bangkok-based group that helps communities in the region cope with natural disasters, was assigned to work on the part of the plan that included preparation for future emergencies.

Now a private consultant, Mr. Vuthy is working with the NCDM to formulate a risk management strategy. He corroborated the NCDM’s assertion that it still lacked a data system for tracking emergency relief funds.

“So far, it is not in place. However, the government tries…to achieve this,” he said.

Mr. Vuthy blamed the absence of a tracking system on both the NCDM’s dysfunction and its lack of resources.

“The problem is a dysfunctional structure. They have a committee, but the committee doesn’t work…because they don’t have enough resources,” he said.

Mr. Vuthy declined to comment on the possibility that the emergency relief funds were being misspent, but he said failures to keep proper track of the money was putting Cambo­dians at additional risk.

Severe and deadly flooding has hit the country twice since Ketsana.

This year’s floods have already killed 122 people over the past month and affected 1.5 million Cambodians, about a tenth of the population.

“The frequency of disaster occurrence is increasing…so the vulnerable people increase and the livelihood of the people is lower,” he said. “That is the reason we need a strong system.”

Mr. Vuthy said the government funded tracking system was to be included in a pending Law on Disaster Management, which has also been in the works for at least three years, but he did not know when it might be passed into law.

In March, the Asian Development Bank (ADB), which also helped with the 2010 post-Ketsana report, came to much the same conclusions about the NCDM as Mr. Vuthy.

In addition to not meeting regularly and lacking an annual budget to cover its own operations, the ADB report said most NCDM staff did not even know their job descriptions.

“Overall, the review finds that there is no solid foundation for the practice of [disaster risk management] in the country as key legal and policy instruments…are still in the process of development,” it said.

A spokesman for the press unit of the Council of Ministers, which allocates the government’s annual emergency relief funds, knew nothing about the council’s role in the process and said the money came from the Finance Ministry and was overseen by the NCDM.

The NCDM’s Mr. Vanda declined to comment on the money beyond the fact that there was still no system in place to track it. Officials at the Finance Ministry could not be reached for comment.

As for the nearly $200 million in recovery and repair spending the NCDM decided the country needed after Ketsana, the World Bank promised $40 million.

The Bank’s latest project report, in August, says $5.9 million of that money had been dispersed to date and that work was behind schedule.

According to the same report, the project is to include risk mapping, a disaster information and early warning system and new building codes. It does not mention a data system for tracking the government’s emergency relief funds.

The local World Bank office referred questions about its Ket­sana relief work to a project coordinator in Washington, who has not replied to a request for comment since last week.

After severe flooding in 2011, the ADB laid out a $55 million plan to help Cambodia recover from the damage and an additional $4.5 million to strengthen the NCDM and help communities reduce the risks of future disasters.

ADB senior country economist Peter Brimble said the bank keeps track of its own aid by working with the particular ministries that spend it, not the NCDM.

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