UN agency makes unusual Pakistan aid appeal, while Washington pushes for transparency

GENEVA (AP) — As Washington demands more transparency from Pakistan on how it's spending its flood aid money, a U.N. agency has launched an unusual appeal for relief funds to be sent directly to a Pakistani or Swiss bank account — with none of the usual monitoring safeguards.

It's a sharp departure from U.N. protocol that has raised concerns in the international aid community as questions mount over rampant corruption in Pakistan, and whether it may be preventing the money from going where it's needed most.

The press release by the U.N.'s obscure International Telecommunication Union asks donors to wire money to the National Bank of Pakistan or Switzerland's UBS AG to "assist the flood-affected victims" and rebuild telephone networks — but offers no specifics on concrete projects.

ITU's request affects only a tiny fraction of the total aid for Pakistan. But it touches on corruption fears raised in particular by the United States, which has provided the largest portion of the $800 million pledged for Pakistan's flood relief.

While urging more international donations, Washington's aid chief warned this week in a visit to the country that the purse strings may be cut for Pakistan's long rehabilitation effort ahead if the government cannot prove that it is spending money properly.

"It will require a demonstration of real transparency and accountability and that resources spent in Pakistan get results," Rajiv Shah told the AP. The U.S. State Department declined to comment on ITU's aid campaign.

ITU spokesman Sanjay Acharya defended the appeal, which was made at the request of the Pakistani government.

"We cannot possibly say 'No, we don't trust you,'" Acharya said. For the Pakistani account, he said, "it's their responsibility. We can't monitor that."

The request is sensitive because the global body is desperately trying to rally cash assistance for one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history, while guaranteeing that each dollar will be accounted for.

Reports indicate that millions of dollars regularly disappear into Pakistani officials' pockets, and the country's politicians score among the worst in polls by corruption watchdog Transparency International.

In Islamabad, Information Ministry secretary Najibullah Malik promised that all money would be distributed transparently.

But some analysts expressed grave reservations.

"It's like the Nigerian or Ivory Coast messages asking for help, when they give you the bank account," said Riccardo Bocco, a professor at Geneva's Graduate Institute. "It looks quite funny. I don't know if it's a new practice in the U.N. world, but I doubt it."

ITU's appeal is highly unusual because the U.N. has placed a heavy emphasis on monitoring in recent disaster relief efforts, especially after widespread criticism of the U.N.-managed oil-for-food program. A U.N.-ordered probe found that the program was bilked of $1.8 billion through kickbacks and illegal surcharges to Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime.

Money from public aid appeals rarely goes straight to governments.

Normal U.N. appeals are "clearly defined," said Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the U.N.'s aid coordination office OCHA, whose money requests are accompanied by a detailed breakdown of planned operations. She wouldn't speak specifically about ITU, and said that generally for the U.N. "each project has a cost, and we add up all of these to form the appeal."

But the ITU's plea for money is separate from the United Nations' $459 million consolidated appeal for Pakistan, and the agency functions as a largely independent body within the U.N. system.

Acharya conceded that details were still hazy on the two funds his agency was promoting. The "Prime Minister's Flood Relief Fund 2010" is under the direct control of the Pakistani government, while money in the ITU account in Switzerland will be disbursed with the help of Pakistan's Ministry of Information Technology, he said.

Pakistani Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira recently reported that the prime minister's account has received 1.4 billion rupees ($16.2 million). He said some people have donated by handing checks to the prime minister.

"We would like the people to donate generously," Kaira said.

Meanwhile, Malik praised ITU for asking donors to help in rebuilding telephone networks, and said Pakistan needed foreign financial assistance. Officials are completing an assessment of damage caused to the networks, and the "money given to Pakistan will be used in a transparent manner," he told the AP on Wednesday.

Along with the government, local and international agencies and the U.S. military, a number of Islamist groups have been providing aid to flood victims. One is alleged to be a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group blamed for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India.

Pakistan's government vowed Wednesday to stop banned Islamist groups from giving aid.

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AP writers Frank Jordans in Geneva, and Chris Brummitt and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad contributed to this report.

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