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Haphazard Charity

Tuesday, January 4, 2005; Page A14

PRESIDENT BUSH stepped up his response to the tsunami yesterday, announcing that flags would be flown at half-staff in memory of the victims, and enlisting his two immediate predecessors to campaign for private donations to disaster relief groups. After a tragedy that has killed an estimated 150,000 people and left as many as 5 million homeless, this response is welcome, as is the outpouring of international generosity that has generated $2 billion of promised contributions in just over one week. But it's hard to avoid marveling at the haphazard pattern of global empathy. Around the world, disasters that cut short hundreds of thousands of lives unfold constantly -- malaria kills 1 million people a year, AIDS kills about 3 million and the current genocide in Darfur has claimed perhaps 300,000 lives so far. Moreover, the tsunami is not the sort of disaster for which outside help is most crucial.

Outsiders' assistance can deliver two things: resources, primarily money but also tents, medicines, helicopters and so on, and technical experts. The tsunami-afflicted countries are fairly well-endowed with both of these. India has already announced that it has the money and know-how to repair the damage it has suffered, and it has also extended help to its neighbors in Sri Lanka. Thailand is a middle-income country with a gross domestic product per person of $2,000, making it twice as rich as Honduras and five times richer than Kenya. Sri Lanka and Indonesia are somewhat poorer, but still far from the bottom of the development rankings. Both countries will continue to experience strong economic growth, because tourism and fishing, the two industries disrupted by the tsunami, represent a small share of output. However terrible the human destruction, this is not like the currency crisis of 1997-98, which left high flyers such as Indonesia with economies that shrunk by more than a tenth in the space of a year. The affected nations will have plenty of their own resources for reconstruction.

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It's also likely that the expertise needed to put broken communities back together will be primarily local. Unlike extremely poor countries, which often lack administrators who can conceive or implement policy, the countries of South Asia have been doing a pretty good job of managing their own development. The biggest reconstruction challenge, in the Indonesian province of Aceh, may be an exception. The tsunami destroyed the structure of the local government by killing many of its employees, and a separatist conflict in the province makes intervention by the central government and army more complicated. Even there, however, the new structures that fill this administrative vacuum are more likely to come from Indonesian authorities than from foreign aid agencies who parachute into the region. The locals know the region and the language; outsiders often do not.

None of which is to say that the world's response to the tsunami has been excessive. Aid agencies have experience in coping with disasters, and this can complement the local knowledge of disaster-struck countries. Foreign logistical support, such as that being delivered by U.S. Seahawk helicopters in northern Sumatra, can widen crucial bottlenecks in a relief effort. In the medium and long term, the expertise amassed inside agencies such as the World Bank on disaster preparedness should be part of reconstruction planning. The United States has a chance to improve its relations with a key Muslim nation by acting aggressively to help Indonesia. But this extraordinary outpouring of generosity ought to prompt a reexamination of the rich world's relationship with far-off misery. If donors can find $2 billion in the space of one week, why does total government assistance to fight continuing development disasters run at just $60 billion or so per year? Now that we know the world's pockets are this deep, couldn't they be opened more frequently?

© 2005 The Washington Post Company