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Several factors behind surge of aid to tsunami victims
by Lisa Hoffman
Scripps Howard News Service


January 06, 2005

In 1991, when a cyclone and tidal surge took the lives of more than 130,000 people in Bangladesh, Americans, like most others elsewhere in the world, barely took note.

Now, after an earthquake and tsunami killed a comparable number in the Indian Ocean region last week, donations from the U.S. public are pouring in at the rate of more than $1 million a day.

The difference? Experts in humanitarian disasters credit a perfect storm of factors that have converged to spawn an extraordinary - and likely unprecedented - wave of generosity for victims of a tragedy on the other side of the world.

"This is definitely a watermark," said Margaret Carrington, spokeswoman for the United Nations World Food Program.

And it's only just begun.

NBC has scheduled a telethon Jan. 15. An expanding roster of movie, music and sports stars are drumming up contributions. Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton are embarking on a joint campaign to solicit even more. The White House announced Wednesday that President Bush was chipping in his own check for $10,000.

Already at $200 million, the public pledges are close to matching the $350 million the American government has promised to spend.

Not since the Live Aid concert of 20 years ago, when a reported $110 million was raised by televised rock shows in Philadelphia and London for famine victims in Ethiopia, has such an outpouring of U.S. public donations swelled the wallets of relief agencies so fast on behalf of desperate people so far away.

At work in reaction to the devastating tidal wave that killed at least 150,000 in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and other countries are interrelated factors, such as:

- Timing. The tsunami hit the day after Christmas, a time when many Americans are feeling blessed with gifts, generous to the less fortunate and wrapped in the warmth of family.

- Simple cause. Unlike the ongoing humanitarian calamity in Darfur, Sudan - triggered by a mix of ethnic and religious strife of complex origin - the tsunami was a relatively easily understood act of nature. "It's uncomplicated," said Kenneth Bacon, head of Refugees International in Washington.

- Wall-to-wall media coverage and abundance of compelling video images. Armed with video and digital cameras intended to record happy vacations, many of the tourists caught in the disaster supplied Internet and TV news outfits across the globe with gripping images of death and destruction, along with first-person accounts of the horrors of the disaster.

- The "there but for the grace of God go I" factor. Unlike in the deltas of Bangladesh or the remote Iranian countryside of Bam, where 50,000 died in an earthquake exactly one year before the tsunami struck, Americans could picture themselves in the horrific predicament of many tourists.

One minute they were lounging on vacation on a lovely beach; the next, their children and spouse were washed away by a killer rush of water. Helping make the impact more personal was that, unlike the purely peasant victims in Bam or Bangladesh, many of those who died in Thailand and Sri Lanka were from the West, Carrington said.

"It has resonance with Americans," said Sid Balman, spokesman for InterAction, a coalition of U.S.-based international humanitarian groups.

- The desire of Americans to convey a more benevolent image than the negative one held of the United States in much of the world these days. By opening wide hearts and wallets to help millions of poor Muslims and others rebuild their lives, Americans may feel they can counter some of the overseas animus stemming from the wars in Iraq and on terrorism.

Americans also may feel this is an opportunity to return the sympathy and good will bestowed from overseas on the United States after the 9/11 attacks.

While relief groups applaud the generosity of America's citizens, citing it as a fundamental facet of the nation's personality, they already are worried that, when the next disaster strikes elsewhere in the world, such beneficence may be tapped out.

Mindful of the immense need for relief in other corners of the globe, now and in the future, the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders already is asking people to stop earmarking their contributions for tsunami victims. Instead, the group hopes the public will free it to use the funds elsewhere, now or when the next tragedy inevitably occurs.

In a letter this week to the Refugees International Board, Bacon sounded the same sentiment.

"We are all transfixed by reports of the rising tsunami death toll, but we can't forget that more than 3 million people have died from war-related causes in the eastern Congo, and more than 2 million have died as a result of fighting in Darfur and other parts of Sudan," Bacon wrote.


E-mail Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)

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