Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Accountability, Cutting Both Ways


In “Qatar Grants Millions in Aid to New Orleans,” Stephanie Strom describes our Persian Gulf ally’s $60 million gift to higher education and other causes in the Big Easy,

including $17.5 million to Xavier University of Louisiana, the only historically black Catholic university in the United States.

Other beneficiaries are Tulane University, Children's Hospital in New Orleans, Habitat for Humanity, Louisiana State University and the March of Dimes.

While a spokeswoman says the Education Department funnels the donations it receives to where they’ll both do good and let foreign donors see their impact, Qatar is sending its donations directly to the beneficiaries rather than through the federal government. Why? While Strom uses the words “transparency and accountability” in her story, the Qatari ambassador, Nasser Bin Hamad M. al-Khalifa, is more polite:

"Our past experience is that while you can give to any organization or to a government," [Khalifa] said, "you have no control over the money and then you discover the people most affected have not benefited."

Ambassador Khalifa is using an advisory board consisting of former corporate and U.S. government luminaries like James A. Baker, Laura D’Andrea Tyson, and former Exxon Mobil CEO Lee Raymond to suggest projects, but once that’s done, Qatar is just taking out its checkbook and buying places like Xavier an expanded school of pharmacy.

The U.S. and international aid organizations routinely sidestep central governments in disbursing aid of all kinds, usually muttering under their breath about transparency and accountability, which is Geneva-speak for “Your ministers don’t need a twelfth Mercedes.”

I’m sure the Qatari government doesn’t think its aid money would go to a new sports car for some Education Department functionary, but it would be justified to think that its aid could simply be mishandled and evaporate without doing any good. I still find it disturbing, from a soft-power perspective, that the U.S. government is probably not considered competent right now to make good use of a gift from the country that is probably its most sincere ally in the Persian Gulf.

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