The UN's humanitarian bureau-cracy at the heart of the tsunami relief drive in Asia has been the subject of scathing criticism by Hilary Benn, Britain's international development minister.
He complained that the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNHCA), headed by Jan Egeland, suffers from competing UN agency battles, poor training, lack of regular resources and no clear means of holding donors, agencies or relief operations to account.
Benn complained that the UN was "as a result, losing credibility with agencies struggling to get the right people into the right skills in place quickly."
He said the UN High Commission for Refugees was "supposed to coordinate but does not have the power of resources to do the job properly."
In a speech reflecting a long-term ministry assessment of the UN's relief capability, including its failures in Darfur, Benn concluded the UN agencies had unclear and overlapping mandates and suffered from a lack of prioritization and leadership.
Serving notice he would put forward a reform program as part of the UK presidency of the G8 next year, Benn said UN agencies often "measure needs on their own, in an uncoordinated manner and then appeal for funds to meet those needs. This does not produce a comprehensive assessment of need or effective response."
He complained that a series of emergency appeals by the UN through this year "involved little coordination and suffered from duplication and confusion over which agency leads in which sector."
He added that some UN agencies saw appeals as an opportunity to seek funding for development projects.
He said the UNHCA conducted few good evaluations of how it handled a disaster.
"There are no clear means of holding donors or agencies to account. There are no agreed goals or performance indicators," he said.
The thinking behind Benn's speech to the Overseas Development Institute, which he made on Dec. 15, has the support of the finance minister, Gordon Brown, and reflects a long-term debate in the humanitarian community on how to deal with disasters.
There is a widespread view that the UNHCR is trying to prove its effectiveness, but does not have the regular resources to plan its work, partly due to the US refusal to fund UN work.