U.S. Disaster Relief Efforts Hampered

Tropical Cyclone Nargis hit the nation's largest city and rice-producing delta on May 3, 2008. More storms headed toward the country as the U.N. warned that inadequate relief efforts could lead to rising death tolls.
By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 8, 2008

Americans are responding to the devastation wrought by the cyclone in Burma last week with an outpouring of support to U.S. charities and disaster relief groups, but geopolitics are complicating their efforts.

Aid workers and supplies from some U.S. nonprofit groups are not being allowed into the country, and some of those charities said yesterday that they are refusing to funnel aid through the Burmese government. Instead of directing philanthropic dollars through the ruling junta government, some charities said, they are directly assisting relief agencies on the ground in Burma.

Still, Americans are opening their wallets to help those left orphaned, hungry and homeless by the storm that hit the nation Saturday.

Save the Children, one of the largest aid groups operating in Burma, said it received $644,000 in private contributions in 24 hours and will issue a plea for $10 million.

Other U.S.-based charities launched multimillion-dollar drives to deliver rice, fresh water and plastic sheets, and students at Harvard University are selling red Burma T-shirts to raise money for victims.

"This has touched a lot of people around the world, absolutely," said Patrick McCormick, a spokesman for UNICEF, which is raising money for its emergency response. "The response has been very, very good."

Direct Relief International said it has received cash donations from thousands of Americans and has a team of doctors waiting to be dispatched from Los Angeles. But because the agency's workers have been denied visas to enter Burma, the charity is instead directing support through vetted partner organizations already there, said Brett Williams, the group's emergency response coordinator.

"The government has said they were open to charitable contributions, but they want to act as the coordinating body," Williams said. "We're not going to do that."

Although there is no official tally of the charitable response to the cyclone, philanthropy experts predicted that initial donations would be less than for some previous catastrophes.

Because the government in Burma is trying to control the charitable response, some Americans could be turned off from donating as they have after other natural catastrophes, said Patrick M. Rooney, director of research at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

"I think they will be hesitant to give money that's going directly to the junta just because of concerns about how that money will be used," Rooney said. "Is it going to help the army or to help the people?"

Some Web sites are trying to direct people to charities, such as those already in Burma, that are operating their relief efforts independently from the nation's government.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company