A Wave of Aid That Doesn't Match the Disaster

Help wanted: Two Muslim women walk past a Pakistan Earthquake Relief Fund sign posted on a window at a Chicago restaurant. Aid officials believe that the international response to the Oct. 8 disaster hasn't been generous enough.
Help wanted: Two Muslim women walk past a Pakistan Earthquake Relief Fund sign posted on a window at a Chicago restaurant. Aid officials believe that the international response to the Oct. 8 disaster hasn't been generous enough. (By Charles Rex Arbogast -- Associated Press)
By John Lancaster
Sunday, November 13, 2005

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan

As a journalist who covered last year's Asian tsunami, I never thought I could feel anything like nostalgia for that terrible event. But that was before I saw what the earthquake had done to the Allai Valley in Pakistan.

A ruggedly beautiful place of terraced farm fields and stream-laced forests, the valley is -- or was -- home to an estimated 200,000 people, more than half of whom are thought to have lost their dwellings in the massive earthquake that devastated northern Pakistan on Oct. 8. By the time I landed on one of its upper slopes in a Pakistani army helicopter three weeks later, landslides still blocked most roads into the valley, and many survivors had yet to receive any help.

At the ruined village where I spent an afternoon, families were living in crude shelters made from empty cement bags and salvaged timbers. That night, I camped nearby with a handful of soldiers who had taken over the grounds of a wrecked medical clinic. As I lay shivering on the hard earth, too cold to sleep and cursing myself for not having brought a better sleeping bag, I could not imagine how the villagers would cope with the imminent arrival of winter and its heavy snows.

Soon we are likely to know. In the aftermath of the earthquake, which killed at least 73,000 people and left an estimated 3 million without homes, United Nations officials have warned that the death toll could rise sharply from hunger, disease and exposure. Logistics and harsh weather make the earthquake an even bigger humanitarian challenge than the tsunami, say the officials, who have chided foreign donors for not reacting with the same urgency and largess.

Even allowing for a degree of hype about the current crisis, it is hard for anyone who has witnessed both relief operations to argue with their basic point: The world has been stingier in its response to the earthquake than in its response to the tsunami.

A comparison of the global response to the two disasters shows how decisions by donors -- governments, corporations and individuals -- are often shaped more by emotion and timing than by hard-headed appraisals of need.

The tsunami, to be sure, was breathtaking in its scope and destructiveness. Triggered by an undersea earthquake near Sumatra, it ravaged coastal communities on the rim of the Indian Ocean from Indonesia to East Africa, killing more than 200,000 people in 13 countries. On the island nation of Sri Lanka, my vantage point on the disaster, more than 30,000 people, out of a population of 20 million, died.

I will never forget the sight of an estuary near the eastern city of Batticaloa that was lit one evening for miles by fires burning along its banks. It took me a moment to realize that what was burning was corpses that had been doused with gasoline and set alight to prevent disease. The emotional trauma suffered by millions of survivors in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, to say nothing of the physical damage, will linger for years.

But if the scale of the disaster was overwhelming, so, too, was the generosity of the global response. A U.N. emergency appeal to donor governments brought in 80 percent of the $977 million target in three weeks. By contrast, three weeks after the earthquake, the U.N. had managed to raise just 20 percent of the $550 million it was seeking. The humanitarian relief operation that followed the tsunami was the largest in history, involving military forces from 40 countries.

The private sector was similarly big-hearted. In the United States, the tsunami sparked what by some reckonings was the greatest outpouring of charity ever mustered in response to a foreign disaster, from Hollywood celebrities writing million-dollar checks to schoolchildren "adopting" shattered villages in countries they had barely heard of. One aid group, Doctors Without Borders, was so swamped with donations in the first week after the disaster that it took the unprecedented step of asking people not to send any more money for tsunami relief.


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