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Outlook: The First Wave of Relief

Peter D. Bell
President and CEO, CARE
Monday, January 3, 2005; 2:00 PM

When disaster strikes, especially one of the magnitude of the tsunami that killed so many thousands of people last week, how can anyone even begin to help? Where do you start? In an article in Sunday's Outlook section, Peter D. Bell, president and CEO of CARE, offered a look at how his organization is responding.

Bell describes how Scott Faiia, CARE's country director in Sri Lanka, heard last Sunday morning that water was rising. He dispatched trucks to the coast, assuming his drivers could take people to safety. Slowly, the enormity of what was happening became clear. Meanwhile, back at headquarters in Atlanta, the phones were ringing with sympathetic Americans offering help. Some wanted to jump on a plane and get over there. Others wanted to adopt orphans. That kind of help had to wait while CARE organized its effort to keep people alive.

Bell was online Monday, Jan. 3, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss his article, Launching the First Wave of Relief.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Wheaton, Md.: Has there been a lot of international criticizm of the U.S. assistance even though the U.S. has given more than all other nations combined?

Peter D. Bell: Thank you for your questions. At the outset of the emergency response, the US Government response seemed inadequate, but President Bush and Secretary Powell quickly stepped up the US response, and the US has increasingly been assuming the leadership role expected of us. The response of individual and corporate donors to organizations like CARE has also been generous.


Arlington, Va.: We see reports of families who lost children spontaneously adopting children who lost parents which to me seems like a very natural response with the government asking people to "return" the children to go through proper channels. Is there any estimation of just how many kids have been orphaned? I have to say that in trying to select where to send my donations I am leaning towards trying to find a place that is going to be attempting to take care of the orphaned children.

Peter D. Bell: Thank you for your question. At this point, we know that the tsunami has left 10s of thousands of orphans in its wake. But we still have no exact estimate of the numbers. CARE works with entire families and communities and is providing support to children within these communities. We are very careful to respect the cultures and values of the people with whom we work.


Arlington, Va.: Organizations such as yours have been doing relief work for a long time. Do you have any idea why so many people feel the need to create their own new organizations at this time to try and help? We see all sorts of people collecting items in the garages to send over to Asia while everyone in the relief community keeps saying that the best thing to do is donate cash instead. Do people feel the need to be in control of their donations or feel that money is too impersonal? I think it's great that so many want to help out and obviously the ex-pats with links to their homelands want to take "things" back to help their countrymen, but I wonder if their really doing as much good as they could. I also worry about the potential for scam artists throwing up Web sites and collecting money that no one will ever know what happened to it.

Peter D. Bell: I can well understand the desire of people to give very concrete, even hands on assistance, but the truth of the matter is that it is much more valuable for Americans to provide cash contributions at this point. They allow humanitarian organizations to buy food, water, and other supplies in the region where they are needed and quickly move them to affected communities. There is a real danger of airports becoming clogged with in-kind contributions from well-meaning donors. There is also a real advantage in relying on organizations that have years and even decades of experience in the affected countries and communities.


Washington, D.C.: Any guarantee that our financial aide, whether via the Combined Federal Campaign or a personal check will get in the right hands? Is it best to send money to CARE, the Red Cross, UNICEF, whom?

Peter D. Bell: In order to assure that your contribution gets to the crisis area as quickly as possible, I would suggest donating directly to an established humanitarian organization operating in the area, such as the ones you have listed.


Stamford, Conn.: Will CARE be involved in long-term relief too? If so, what form will it take?

Peter D. Bell: CARE has been in the most affected countries of the disaster for decades, which facilitated our immediate response in all cases. We realize that for most of the affected families and communities, this is a disaseter not just of a few weeks or months but for years to come. CARE is committed not only to saving lives and reducing suffering now but also to rebuilding livelihoods and getting people back to some sense of security in their lives.

First, we will help to rebuild access to safe water and to reconstruct shelter and then to help families find new sources of income. Our ultimate goal is to get back on to our track prior to the crisis - that of reducing and eventually ending extreme poverty and deprivation. In the best of circumstances, perhaps we can eventually transform the current disaster into an opportunity for building a better future.


Silver Spring, Md.: How can people donate things other than money to help the tsunami vicitms (e.g. extra Christmas toys, clothing, etc.)?

Peter D. Bell: I would urge you not to donate toys or other in-kind goods to the disaster victims in Asia. It would be better to give cash which can be used to buy items that are in dire need and available within the region itself. Donated goods are likely to wind up clogging transportation terminals and could even cause more harm than good in the short term.


Silver Spring, Md.: For those donating money, where will the money go and how will it be used?

Peter D. Bell: If you donated money through CARE, we would channel it to one of our country programs in Asia that has mounted an emergency response - that is, Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka or India. We would base our decision on where the greatest need is at the time and the effectiveness with which we can respond. All of our programs are focused on people who are extremely poor and without assets to fall back on in these dire circumstances.

Once we have responded to the immediate needs, then we will begin to focus resources on preventing the spread of infectious diseases and the process of rebuilding homes, schools, clinics and roads. We will also begin to help people to rebuild their livelihoods (for example, 95% of the fishermen in one district of Sri Lanka where CARE is working have lost their boats and must replace them).


Springfield, Va.: How will the current outpouring of aid from all over the world be able to be fruitfully absorbed in the disaster areas?

Peter D. Bell: Even now, when there are tremendous demands for immediate live-saving assistance, it is important for aid agencies to begin planning for the longer-term rebuilding of lives and livelihoods. There is no question that literally billions of dollars are going to be needed even to get the people affected by this disaster back to where they were prior to December 26. Ideally, we would want to help these people, most of whom were extremely poor before the tsunami, by improving their economic prospects and the education of their children. Then they will be less vulnerable to future natural disasters.


Oakton, Va.: Can you describe CARE's specific immediate and long-term plans to provide assistance to the tsunami victims?

Peter D. Bell: In each of the affected countries, CARE is providing immediate life-saving responses, and is also engaged in medium-term and longer-term planning.

For example, in India, we will
i) immediately, identify the most vulnerable people and communities and provide immediate relief,
ii) in the medium term, restore vital systems such as water, environmental cleanup and hygiene, and provide psychological support for bereaved people, and
iii) in the long-term, we will rebuild roads, schools, housing and help people find ways to earn income.


Arlington, Va.: It seems that we're hearing about aid and Sri Lanka more than the other countries and the aid they're getting. Do you feel there is, and will be, a balance in the distribution of everyones donations?

Peter D. Bell: The two most heavily affected countries are Indonesia and Sri Lanka, so that it is natural that most media attention should go to them. It turns out, however, that the hardest hit area of Indonesia was also extremely inaccessible, which is why the media were slow in getting there. Over the last few days, however, we have seen increasing attention to the huge problems that Indonesia faces. Within CARE International, our Emergency Response Director is working closely with our Country Directors in the affected countries to be sure that resources are allocated to where they are most needed and can be best used.


Bethesda, Md.: Understandably, having a wave of untrained Americans arrive on the shores of Sri Lanka and other affected countries amid the ongoing chaos of recovery is senseless. However, there ARE many ways that teams of Americans could help, particularly in the months ahead. Is an organization like CARE equipped to help guide well-intentioned Americans who really are serious about offering their on-site assistance? Are there other organizations who do this as well?

Peter D. Bell: CARE does not use volunteers in emergency settings, but some organizations do. On our website, www.careusa.org (click on Donation FAQ), we have listed a number of them and I would suggest you contact those that are interesting to you.


Bethesda, Md.: It is great to see our military being used to relieve suffering in the tsunami aftermath, rather than just to invade sovereign nations and inadvertantly kill thousands of civilians (as many as 15,000 in Iraq, per Jefferson Morley's recent piece in The Nation). Do you have any idea if this the biggest purely humanitarian deployment to date, not counting Somalia (which had a strategic component as well)?

Peter D. Bell: I have not researched your question, but I cannot think of another case where the USA has deployed so many resources to provide logistical support in the aftermath of a natural disaster in a distant part of the world.


Silver Spring, Md.: With the civil wars going on in that Southeast Asian region, how hard will it be for other organizations (not as established at CARE in the region) to help out?

Peter D. Bell: It is extremely important in both Sri Lanka and Indonesia for humanitarian agencies to be sensitive to the long-standing conflicts in those countries. One tremendous advantage that CARE has in Sri Lanka is that we have long been working with communities on both sides of the civil war there. I am already seeing encouraging signs that the two major ethnic groups there are putting aside their differences in order to advance their common future.


Kansas City, Kan.: CARE supports nice (to say the least) offices in Atlanta. I am told that your deputy Susan Farnsworth makes a salary in six digits. Why is it better to support CARE than, say, Save the Children, Catholic Relief Services, World Vision, or other more modest NGOs?

Peter D. Bell: We have very high regard for all of the agencies that you have listed, and work closely and collaboratively with all of them. In setting executive level salaries at CARE, we survey salaries more generally in the non-profit and for-profit areas. Our salaries are competitive with our peer organizations, but are below those of for-profit corporations.


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