The Will to Help

THE heart-wrenching scenes of Kurdish suffering were abruptly shoved off the front pages and lead broadcasts last week by scenes of Bangladeshi suffering. The death toll from the cyclone that pummeled the low tidal coast of southeastern Bangladesh April 30 is still mounting; estimates range up to 200,000 and beyond. Millions of homeless survivors are endangered by contaminated drinking water and lack of food. In the same way, if less dramatically, the Gulf war and other major events have pushed into near invisibility the famines in Sudan and war-riven Somalia, though they remain among the most acute disasters on the world's growing list. Meanwhile Peru and its neighbors struggle to contain a cholera epidemic, people in the Soviet Union confront severe food shortages, and many parts of Eastern Europe and the developing world are imperiled by economic devastation in varying degrees.

These simultaneous emergencies are straining the international community's relief capabilities. Yet governments, international relief organizations, and caring citizens in many countries continue to respond, digging deeper into their reserves to help the world's afflicted.

The institutions and people engaged in disaster relief (and that really includes all of us) must guard against "compassion fatigue." It begins when we grow inured to the anguish, when the sufferers are aggregated as statistics rather than dignified as individuals. Our streams of caring are inexhaustible, but they must be kept free of silt.

There is no shortage of resources. These are, if not unlimited, far more abundant than we sometimes acknowledge. The greatest hurdles are lack of organization and political obstructionism, whether caused heedlessly by bureaucratic inertia or deliberately in party, class, or tribal clashes. Lack of organization can be remedied, and relatively easily where there's the will. And the world community must make it clear that political manipulation of disaster relief is a crime against humanity.

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