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A Call For Sensible Disaster Relief

A Call For Sensible Disaster ReliefAsgovernments and aid agencies still struggle to meet needs almosta month after the South Asian tsunamis, two staff members of theFeinstein International Famine Center at Tufts say that the systemcan be improved.Medford/Somerville,Mass.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [01.21.05] Unfortunately, the one thing that all major internationaldisasters have in common is an inefficient relief response system,according to experts at the FeinsteinInternational Famine Center at Tufts. But the United Statescan ease the problem by forming a disasters committee to coordinateresponses to major catastrophes like the South Asian tsunamis.

“Thecurrent fund-raising scramble thus illuminates the broader weaknessof the world's humanitarian apparatus: a frail creature with limitedcapacity and reach,” LarryMinear, project director for the Famine Center, and IanSmillie, a development consultant affiliated with the Center,wrote in an op-ed column for The Boston Globe.

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Post-disasterconfusion is endemic not just within the tsunami relief efforts,but also within similar endeavors in Liberia, Darfur, Haiti, andother areas hit by major hurricanes and other humanitarian crises.

Agencies anddonors, they write, have unclear pictures of what is needed andwhat to do. The barrage of post-disaster advertising and solicitationscan also overwhelm potential donors.

Both Smillieand Minear – co-authors of The Charity of Nations: HumanitarianAction in a Calculating World – believe that the periodimmediately following a disaster as enormous as the tsunamis isa good time to evaluate global disaster response efforts.

“Itis, in fact, one of the few times when ordinary citizens havean opportunity to consider the bigger picture and to make personaldecisions about how they might assist,” they wrote.

While theinflux of donations in the days immediately following the tsunamishelped relief efforts, a major problem is that aid agencies hadto begin responding to the tragedy with very little cash on hand.

“Althoughmany [agencies] have ongoing development programs in the region,the money for those is usually not transferable,” Minearand Smillie wrote in the Globe.

That initiallack of funds translates to a delayed, inefficient response. Andonce the fundraising fervor dies down a few weeks after they tragedy,they write, incoming funds dry up.

“Theinternational response mechanism is like operating a volunteerfire brigade – except that the volunteers have to acquirethe fire trucks, the pumps, and the water system before they canleave for the fire,” they explained.

With two billionpeople affected by disasters in the last decade – 90 percentof that total in developing countries – the need for improvementis dire, according to the two development workers.

They citeBritain as an example of a country that approaches disasters sensibly.With its Disasters Emergency Committee, whose members includethe 12 top British charitable organizations, everyone’sroles are known in advance of a disaster. When one occurs, Minearand Smillie explain, television networks, newspapers, banks, thephone company and the post office all work together to coordinatecollection of donations.

The systemwas prompted by the BBC in 1963 when it complained about competingfundraising agencies and some organizations’ questionableagendas.

The Committeealso disburses its funds to member organizations based on thelevel of help that organization is capable of providing to a specificdisaster area. With a minimum reserve of 200,000 pounds, the Committeeis never in danger of scraping the bottom of the barrel. Withthe tsunami tragedy, it raised 76 million pounds in approximately10 days.

“Insteadof a bewildering plethora of agencies and appeals, British donorscan take reasonable assurance that their money will be well managed,”Minear and Smillie wrote in the Globe.

Fundraisingfor disaster relief is not simply a matter of collecting money,they say, but also allocating that money wisely.

“Anefficient appeal mechanism is supported by the assurance thatfunds will be used in an effective, timely, accountable manner,”wrote Minear and Smillie.





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