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Red Tape, Politics Stall Aid to Survivors

May 11, 1991

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) _ Government warehouses bulge with rice, wheat and cooking oil while millions of cyclone survivors wait in devastated villages for tiny handouts.

A French aircraft carrying relief supplies cannot be unloaded for three days because of what military officers call ″a small matter of red tape″: the supplies were addressed to the French ambassador, not the Relief Ministry.

The military, the most effective institution in Bangladesh, has not been given full authority to help cyclone victims. The new civilian government cannot cope alone, but does not want to owe the army favors.

International aid officials say the suffering of people already beaten down by nature’s fury is being prolonged by stifling bureaucracy, incompetence and political wrangling.

Dissatisfaction with government efforts runs deep in the large foreign aid community, which includes all the major U.N. agencies and several hundred non- governmental organizations.

After their own slow start, aid officials now rush from one meeting to another. Field headquarters are being set up in devastated areas and experts fly in from New York, Geneva and Rome.

″At first, everyone was taken by shock,″ said Hans Einhaus, an official of the U.N. Disaster Relief Organization from Geneva. ″It took four to five days to respond.″

Poor communications and the ″Bangladesh syndrome″ - partial emotional immunity to the nation’s seemingly endless tragedies - are blamed for delays in responding to a calamity that took more than 125,000 lives.

Extensive interviews with senior aid officials indicate that, nearly two weeks after the cyclone raked islands and the southeastern Bay of Bengal coastline, a full-scale effort to rescue the survivors has yet to be mounted.

The government has about 800,000 tons of rice and wheat stockpiled, and another 400,000 are in the pipeline from the United States, Australia, Canada and other donors. Virtually none has been released for emergency distributions, however, and there also is concern that food prices will soar unless some of it is diverted to the market.

″We can’t even find out who gave such instructions, the Ministry of Finance or Relief, and it’s our own damn food,″ a senior relief official said on condition of anonymity. He said 1.2 million tons of food was adequate for Bangladesh.

Similarly, the source said cooking oil was being held back even after the European Community pledged to replenish stocks distributed to cyclone victims.

Supplies being flown in from around the world should, by regulation, first be placed in a government warehouse. This causes delays of at least three days until the required paperwork is completed and the supplies can begin moving to stricken areas.

Half a dozen ministries are involved in the relief effort. Aid officials say it often is hard to determine which ministry is responsible for what.

According to the senior relief official, who has decades of experience, the Relief Ministry is ″a total disaster″ and some important staff members are ignorant of even basic facts about the cyclone crisis. The ministry has been designated as the key coordinating agency.

Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s government, just seven weeks old, says it is doing all it can. But it sits above a civil service encrusted with bureauractic procedures and alongside a powerful military with its own relief operation.

″The new government wants to do well, but the old machinery isn’t working,″ the relief official said. ″The prime minister is full of goodwill, but she is up against an entrenched structure.″

Aid officials based in Dhaka are not surprised by the situation.

Cole P. Dodge, who runs the U.N. Children’s Fund in Bangladesh, said international aid to Bangladesh - valued at about $2 billion a year - provides twice as much assistance as the system can absorb.

Reports in The New Nation, an English-language daily, said 237 shallow- draft rescue boats donated by Japan during a devastating flood in 1988 cannot be used for lack of trained operators and mechanics.

Officials have appealed for similar craft, which are ideal for the shallow waters of the bay, but journalists and opposition party members say they have seen several boats lying idle in the affected area.

Politically, the storm’s timing could not have been worse. The military, which has ruled Bangladesh for 16 of its 20 years, is watching from the sidelines as the fledgling democratic government tries to cope.

″The military is dragging its feet,″ said Mahfuz Anam, executive editor of The Daily Star. ″It has asked the government: ‘Give us the relief job and we’ll get it done,’ but the government can’t give it all to the military. They would extract too many promises.″

Gen. Hussain Muhammad Ershad, the ousted president now being tried on corruption and other charges, effectively mobilized the military during the 1988 floods, putting all operations under the military high command.

With democracy now in effect, opposition parties use the crisis to attack the prime minister. Members of Parliament try to maneuver for as much aid as possible for their constituencies.

Bhola district, where an election is to be held soon, is receiving adequate help but did not suffer great damage. Nearby districts that were more severely affected are receiving substantially less.

A significant break in the inertia and logjams occured around midweek, with the non-governmental agencies taking the lead, said Einhaus, the U.N. official from Geneva. The main highway to the ravaged area now is jammed with trucks carrying relief supplies.

The disaster is far from over. Reports of deaths from disease are are arriving in Dhaka and there is fear of epidemics.

Rice seed must be available for planting by mid-June to ensure the next crop and fishermen need nets to cast for fish in the stormy waters of the bay, said Peter Myers, chief of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in Dhaka.

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