Global politics of quake relief
Following disasters, strategic nations like Iran tend to garner help.
As survivors of last week's earthquake in Bam, Iran, bury their dead relatives and survey their broken homes, it is hard to say that they are fortunate.Skip to next paragraph
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But fortunate they are, compared with the victims of other humanitarian disasters who could only dream of the worldwide generosity that is currently flooding the shattered Iranian city where 28,000 people are feared dead.
As 1,700 foreign search-and-rescue experts swarmed over Bam, and international donors pledged nearly $6 million in further aid over the weekend, the Iranian authorities were actually turning away international volunteers, unable to coordinate their activities.
"The response has been incredible," says Ted Pearn, manager of the United Nations coordination office in Bam. "The number of rescuers and medical people and support staff has been absolutely phenomenal."
The world has reacted speedily and generously to help Bam's survivors for a number of reasons beyond the scale of the disaster, say humanitarian experts.
Where those reasons are absent, they add - most notably in African countries out of the political spotlight - suffering often goes unrelieved.
By their dramatic nature, earthquakes and catastrophic floods are the sort of human tragedies that always grab the world's attention and evoke the sympathy that inspires individuals and governments to reach for their checkbooks.
And when an earthquake renders 70,000 people homeless on the day after Christmas, when people in Western countries are feeling especially comfortable, "it tugs on their heartstrings," suggests Mr. Pearn.
"Sometimes international responses to disasters are really mysterious," adds Maurice Herson, a humanitarian aid expert with the British charity Oxfam. "When something happens when we in the West are feeling festive, the reaction has little to do with the emergency itself, and a lot to do with us."
The timing of the disaster - in the middle of a holiday period when little else was happening worldwide to knock the story out of the headlines - has also kept Bam in the public eye.
"The fact that it happened when not much else was going on contributed to the response being extremely generous," says Rudi Mueller, a member of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) dealing with the Bam crisis from Geneva.
Helping to focus world attention have been graphic television pictures from the epicenter of the earthquake, beamed internationally from the first hours after it struck.
"One thing that feeds public concern is knowledge," Mr. Herson points out. "In Iran, we've had pictures, people from our own media speaking our own language, showing us what they are seeing."
Herson compares that with the two earthquakes that shook a remote eastern region of Afghanistan in 1998 but which drew little international aid, in part because no journalists could reach the disaster area.
Even blanket TV coverage of those earthquakes, though, would probably not have stirred all that much sympathy, for a simple political reason: Afghanistan was ruled then by the Taliban, a pariah regime.
"There is a pattern," explains Mr. Mueller, a UN veteran of scores of natural disasters. "When an affected country has shown that it wants to open itself up and to comply with international expectations, donors are much more prepared to assist."
In 1988, he recalls, an earthquake in Armenia offered the world an opportunity to engage with the Soviet Union as President Mikhail Gorbachev opened his country through "perestroika."