ELSEWHERE in this paper we carry a little story about a Zimbabwean man based in Canada who has been arrested in Toronto for allegedly swindling the public in the name of aiding victim
s of the tsunami tragedy in south-east Asia.
The man, Elmon Muringwa, had devised a scheme to collect funds from the public as a charity worker for an organisation that does not exist. At the time of his arrest he was in possession of a bogus Red Cross identification card.
Needless to say, the money never reached the claimed victims.
The story of Muringwa is one of many throughout the world of people who have tried to profit out of the disaster by collecting funds in the name of charity. Others have set up bogus relief institutions to collect money from the unsuspecting public.
The government in Sri Lanka is probing allegations that there is a syndicate selling children orphaned by the tragedy. There is no evidence yet but Interpol has issued a warning that there might be a surge in crime orchestrated by felons trying to profit from the disaster.
We live in a cruel world where adults are not ashamed of stealing from a beggar’s bowl. But still the international response to the disaster has been overwhelming. The British public raised a reported £100 million. Zimbabwe has joined the international community in this noble move to gather resources for those afflicted by the floods.
The formation of our own Zimbabwe Tsunami Disaster Fund committee — which is representative of the broad spectrum of Zimbabwean society — is a welcome development. The chairman of its publicity committee is Information permanent secretary George Charamba who I believe also has a task on his hands to publicise the crisis which has been created by the HIV/Aids pandemic closer to home. Then there are reported food shortages which government is reluctant to admit, let alone address.
However, much as though I welcome the setting up of the fundraising committee, it is with some trepidation looking at our record as Zimbabweans of handling relief funds. Funds collected in the past for various relief activities, including bus disasters, have failed to reach the intended targets or have taken too long to do so.
This is dangerous as it undermines public confidence in relief mobilisation. The government has had its fair share of scandals for anyone to trust it where money for relief efforts is involved.
In cases where allegations of abuse have been raised, the government has not called for independent audits or state enquiries. This is a worrying trend which is not only endemic in government but also in civic society organisations handling relief funds.
The fiasco in the handling of the Aids levy is instructive in exposing the aptitude of civic society to misuse public funds.
But central government has been more culpable in abusing relief funds.
Three years ago the Ministry of Local Government deposited $4 million received for victims of the Masvingo bus disaster in a bank account in Harare with instructions the disbursement be undertaken after four months.
The money was expected to grow whilst in a high interest account before it could be disbursed. That was the logic. But it meant the money did not get to those in need quickly enough.
The Nyanga Bus Disaster Fund of 1991 is another example that immediately comes to mind. When a B&C bus crashed in Nyanga killing 91 schoolchildren and teachers from Regina Coeli Mission, there was a huge response from the public to assist.
Almost every school raised funds to assist the families of the deceased. There were donations in cash and kind from the corporate sector but parents and others were never told how much was raised. It is however a fact that funds disappeared while in the hands of government officials. Many members of the public or the corporate world have not forgotten.
There were no arrests or censure of those suspected of diverting the funds from the victims or relatives of the disaster.
Perhaps Didymus Mutasa’s Anti-Corruption and Anti-Monopolies ministry can investigate, even at this distance in time.
It is unfortunate that when the public shows reluctance to respond positively to relief mobilisation, it is the beneficiaries who are disadvantaged.
It would be sad if funds to be collected for victims of the tsunami end up in the wrong pockets or are subjected to senseless bureaucracy so they only reach the intended beneficiaries after many months. As it is, Zimbabwe dilly-dallied in response to the south-east Asian crisis with officials paralysed until President Mugabe returned from his holiday.
Whatever the case, let’s now assist our friends in south-east Asia and East Africa who bore the brunt of the natural disaster with generosity of spirit whatever our own needs.