WASHINGTON — PHILIPPE BOULL'E laughs ironically at the suggestion that he must be working 24 hours a day. ``Wrong,'' says the New York director of the United Nations Disaster Relief Organization, ``48 hours a day.''
Indeed, international relief officials have difficulty recalling such a frenetic time with so many people in diverse points of the planet at risk from a variety of disasters, natural and man-made.
After weeks of squalor and desperation, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Kurdish refugees are finally going home. In Bangladesh, 4 million to 5 million people remain at risk following the country's deadliest cyclone in 20 years. Peru's cholera epidemic is threatening Latin America. Costa Rica and Soviet Georgia are digging out from earthquakes.
Even Burma (also known as Myanmar) is on Mr. Boull'e's list, two weeks after a fire there left 25,000 people homeless and in need of relief supplies.
But the biggest crisis of all - what relief officials call a ``slow-moving disaster'' - has barely begun to make headlines: looming mass starvation in Africa that could be worse than the famine of 1984-85. Some 27 million people across the continent are affected. Deaths from starvation have already been reported in Sudan, where the World Food Program estimates some 7.7 million people are at risk. In Ethiopia, that number could reach 6 million.
``It gives one a sense of how vulnerable much of the world is,'' says Rudy von Bernuth, chief operating officer of CARE. ``And it shows that there are many parts of the world where it doesn't take much to push the situation over the edge.''
International development and relief organizations, where tight resources are a constant, report a mixed bag of donation patterns from the American public. Catholic Relief Services reports a 5 percent drop. CARE says giving is up 6 percent. At the American Red Cross, says press spokeswoman Ann Stingle, ``people are donating, but probably at a slower rate than we'd normally expect.'' She cites the recession as one restraint on donations.
Karen Childers, head of direct mail for Save the Children, speaks of ``an incredible response'': $550,000 in the past couple of weeks in response to a special appeal for the Kurds and $70,000 for Bangladesh that came in ``spontaneously.''
But even an increase in donations pales in the face of demand. Bangladesh alone has declared that it needs $1.4 billion for relief and rebuilding.
To help ease immediate problems, such as contaminated drinking water, President Bush Sunday ordered thousands of US marines and Army Special Forces to join the international effort in the cyclone-torn country.
Normally, Save the Children would have done a special mailing for Bangladesh, but the organization decided not to, right on the heels of the special plea for the Kurds and a general fund-raising mailing. Save the Children has also not done a special mailing for Africa, even though it has been aware of the situation for more than two months.
``We probably couldn't raise a lot of money for Africa right now,'' says Ms. Childers. ``The media environment has not been right.'' Which is to say that dramatic images of Kurdish refugee camps and Bangladesh cyclone victims have dominated television screens and front pages.
Mr. von Bernuth says that public donations are important not because they make a serious dent in the total funds needed, but because they create momentum for governmental donation.
Public contributions ``are the flag at the head of the charge, which we hope will motivate governmental and congressional allocations that are more sizable,'' says von Bernuth. ``Of course, the US government is caught on the horns of a dilemma. On one side there's the budget deficit. On the other there are humanitarian crises in which the world looks to the United States to lead the way.''
Politics is also seen as factor when the US makes decisions about emergency aid. Some relief officials grumble that promoting market reforms in Eastern Europe is more important to US foreign policy than aid to Africa. Many more US resources have gone toward aiding the Kurds, whose plight is a direct offshoot from the war with Iraq, than toward the Bangladeshis, even though in the latter situation many more lives are at risk.
US officials deny that the US has held back on aid to Sudan because it backed Iraq in the war. Current aid levels, the officials say, were set before the severity of the situation was apparent.
Finances, however, are only half the equation, says von Bernuth. The other, he says, is human resources. CARE's long-term and extensive involvement in development projects in Bangladesh meant the organization was ideally situated to put relief operations in gear even before the cyclone hit.
Some 1,400 nationals and 20 expatriates work for CARE in Bangladesh, and the organization has an established contingency plan for emergencies.
``When they heard the cyclone was on its way, they deployed personnel to regions that would be hit and brought emergency rations,'' says von Bernuth. ``Twenty-four hours after the storm, they were putting in food supplies and had 24 medical teams at work.... And we will be back in the development business in Bangladesh very, very quickly.''