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Asia: Tsunami Prompts Record Outpouring In Aid -- But Why?

  • Mark Baker

Aid organizations say they are amazed by the enormous public response to the 26 December tsunami disaster in Asia. While governments have pledged around $2 billion, private groups and individuals have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars more. It is being called the biggest aid effort in human history. RFE/RL spoke to aid groups and experts to see what lies behind the generosity.

Prague, 5 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The international medical aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said it had raised more than $50 million for tsunami relief in just eight days.

By contrast, the group's recent fundraising drive for Sudan's Darfur region raised less than $1 million over two months.

Aid organizations around the world say the outpouring of sympathy -- and funds -- following the tsunami is unprecedented. The pace of collections far surpasses the 2003 Bam earthquake that killed 25,000 in Iran and 1998's Hurricane Mitch, which ravaged poor countries in the Caribbean.

Gabriele Faber-Wiener, a spokeswoman for Medecins Sans Frontieres in Vienna, said that because the tsunami hit popular tourist spots in Thailand and the Indian Ocean, it touched people far removed from the disaster zone.

"People are very, very concerned emotionally because there are so many people [outside the region] that are directly [affected], who have victims in their families or know somebody," Faber-Wiener said. "I myself -- I live in Vienna -- [know] at least three or four people [who are directly affected], are victims of this disaster. This of course is much different than other disasters that we have been facing and assisting in the past. The victims [were in] African countries or in Asian countries or Central America, but [there were] no tourists. This is the big difference, I think."

The tsunami has killed around 150,000 people in countries lining the Indian Ocean outward from the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Some 9,000 foreign tourists are dead, missing, or unaccounted for. Many of them are Europeans.
The challenge remains now for governments and aid agencies to put the donations to good use.


Professor Tim Allen, an aid ethics expert at Britain's London School of Economics, said the media at home have played a strong role in connecting the tragedy to Europeans. He said newspaper and television accounts of survivors and their harrowing tales gave the tragedy a feeling of immediacy.

"The media plays a huge part," Allen said. "What we've seen on our television screens here in the U.K. has sort of connected us directly to parts of the world where many of us have been. We've seen many Europeans who have died and we've heard these terrible stories about their lives. It creates an immediacy."

Part of the generosity is simply the fact the tsunami was a natural disaster -- and not a man-made one, such as war. Experts said natural disasters always attract more in aid because of a general sense that innocents are slaughtered. But Faber-Wiener said that even judged alongside other natural disasters, the tsunami relief effort is unique.

"It's the nature, of course, of natural disasters, compared to, let's say, victims of war or different kinds of disasters," Faber-Wiener said. "But even if we compare it to Hurricane Mitch in Central America [in 1998], or when I compare it with the floods in Mozambique, [the amount of aid is] much much more."

The sheer volume of donations has forced Medecins Sans Frontieres to suspend collections for tsunami relief.

"Medecins Sans Frontieres has very strict rules concerning fundraising and [using] earmarked funds, and right now we face the situation that the donations to the tsunami victims to help the tsunami people are overwhelming," Faber-Wiener said.

She said continued aid will be needed but that her organization -- and the types of immediate relief it offers -- has surpassed initial tsunami funding targets.

The challenge remains now for governments and aid agencies to put the donations to good use.

Allen said he is concerned that many of the affected areas might not be able to cope with the rapid influx of millions of dollars -- though he pointed out that Indonesia and India over time can absorb the money.

"A serious concern that I would have is that the amounts being raised here are really quite enormous, and it's going to be hard for these countries to absorb that much money quickly," Allen said.

An even greater concern might be for the "other" global disaster zones that find themselves suddenly out of the spotlight. Allen said the nature of aid is that it seldom goes to where it's needed most.

"But there is a direction of attention away from parts of the world where hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people dying in the most appalling circumstances to an emergency that has an emergency and appeal to voters in donor countries," Allen said.

Bam, Iraq, Darfur, Afghanistan, Congo -- the world is arguably full of deserving aid recipients.

A recent study by the New York-based International Rescue Committee pointed out that in eastern Congo alone, some 4 million people have died in six years of conflict and the death rate continues at some 30,000 people a month.
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