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In U.S., a Multitude of Forces Drains the Spirit of Giving

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 23, 2008; Page A01

Maybe it's the pinch of $4-a-gallon gas and the economic downturn. Maybe it's distrust of Burma's ruling junta or concern over human rights violations in China. Or maybe the American people are going through "disaster fatigue," the feeling that we've seen it all before.

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But the simple fact is this: In the weeks since a cyclone laid waste to Burma's delta region and an earthquake devastated a central Chinese province -- catastrophes that collectively left 184,000 people dead or missing and displaced millions -- Americans have donated an estimated $57 million to disaster relief charities as of yesterday.

Compare that with the $207 million that Americans donated in the first five days after an Indian Ocean tsunami struck southern Asia in 2004. Or the $226 million raised in five days after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast.

Americans historically respond to natural disasters with an outpouring of giving, but the charitable response to the cyclone that hit Burma on May 3 and the earthquake that struck China on May 12 has been modest at best.

The relief group AmeriCares collected $10 million within two weeks of the tsunami. But the charity said it has raised a combined $1 million for its efforts in Burma and China.

"It's very clear that the breadth and depth of the people who have been touched emotionally doesn't compare to the tsunami," said Curtis R. Welling, chief executive of AmeriCares.

The $57 million estimate was provided by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, which surveyed disaster relief charities. As of yesterday, about $21.7 million had been raised for the cyclone, $30.9 million for the earthquake and $4.3 million for either disaster, the survey found. The center also tracked donations after Katrina and the tsunami.

The American Red Cross is leading its peers, having collected $14 million for the earthquake, $1.8 million for the cyclone and $3.8 million for its international relief fund as of yesterday, spokesman Michael Oko said.

Experts attributed the downturn in giving to a medley of forces, including a domestic economy that has left many Americans with little disposable income, a distrust of disaster relief charities and geopolitical tensions.

Charities said they are expecting more donations, particularly from Chinese Americans, who are pooling resources to help in the earthquake's aftermath.

"We're seeing a mobilization of Chinese Americans and the Chinese diaspora that I have never seen before," said Randy Strash, emergency response director for the Christian charity World Vision.

At GlobalGiving, the online philanthropy marketplace, there is growing interest among donors in earthquake relief efforts, marketing director Joan Ochi said.

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