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Bridges not cash plea to beat Honduran corruption

HONDURAS LAST week appealed for 'bridges not money' to head off fears that financial aid for the Hurricane Mitch disaster relief effort will be siphoned away by corrupt officials and businesses.

In an exclusive interview with NCE last week, international co-operation minister Moises Starkman said the government was determined to make sure that the rebuilding process was transparent and corruption-free.

'We are well aware of specific voices, some of them without much knowledge of our country, objecting to financial aid on the basis that it will be misspent. So we want the projects more than the money. This shows our good intentions,' said Starkman, who is co-ordinating overseas aid following Hurricane Mitch.

He continued: 'We had to ask for international aid because we could not handle this crisis on our own, but we don't want it to be seen as a negative point. We want to show the international community that we can act responsibly, and this is the best way of making it clear that the government is determined not to waste international assistance.'

Starkman will call on donor countries to accompany projects 'through all of their phases'. He said the key to transparency was to open the country up 'so that consultants and contractors can come over here and follow the project right through'.

In September, Honduras was ranked as the third most corrupt country in the world in the Transparency International index, with only Paraguay and Cameroon ranking higher.

President Carlos Flores has said that a US or European audit company will be employed to independently oversee the rebuilding process.

But one international development agency worker based in Central America claimed misuse of funds would be hard to rule out. 'You can't bore into corruption too much here because it is a national sore. The country has been swamped with aid from the Reagan era (during the Contra war), and to a large extent it is still run by the military,' he said.

Around 6,590m of Honduras' road bridges were either swept away or damaged beyond repair by floods. So far it has only been able to buy 700m of temporary Bailey bridges with World Bank money diverted from other projects.

The country has 19 priority bridges which are urgently needed to re- establish communications between important cities.

The German Federal Agency for Technical Relief is set to ship out a further 410m of bridge following talks with British manufacturer Mabey & Johnson, but more permanent solutions are needed in the long term.

UN Bureau for Emergencies spokesman Trygve Olfarnes said that most donor countries would be capable of providing projects instead of cash, but added: 'It is unusual to bring in foreign contractors to do this kind of job. We would normally use contractors or resources belonging to public sector departments in the recipient country.'

A spokeswoman for the British Department for International Development said an assessment team had returned from Honduras on Sunday, and would report to Secretary of State Clare Short this week. 'Any action on long term aid will be taken on the recommendations of the report,' she said.

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