On television, the camps housing the Kosovars appear to be depressing encampments - the same as those that greeted refugees from Rwanada, Bosnia, or northern Iraq.
But aid groups say that behind the barbed wire are changes that should make a bad situation better. For example:
*Ten years ago, relief organizations sent military rations to feed refugees. Today, they have specially designed "humanitarian daily rations" that don't require cooking, are healthier, taste better, and meet religious requirements. The already-prepared foods have proved especially useful in Kosovo, where a shortage of firewood makes cooking impossible.
*When relief supplies were brought into Bosnia only four years ago, it was easy to get lost on unmarked country roads. Today, every truck carrying relief supplies has a system linked to a satellite that provides accurate position information. Drivers check in with cell phones every hour.
*In Sudan, several crises ago, medical supplies arrived that were almost useless in the desert. Today's kits, which are now individually sealed in protective packages, can be adapted to better meet the needs of different emergencies around the world.
As a result of disaster relief efforts over the past decade, relief officials have improved the way they respond to crises such as the Serb expulsion of the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo. The agencies now have emergency supplies set up in advance. They have lists of workers, who can be called in with little advance notice, to deal with thousands of frightened and confused people. And they have persuaded countries, such as the US, to earmark aid money in advance.
For the refugees, many of whom have lost everything, these preparations mean, very simply, less suffering.
And the situation should continue to improve, as relief agencies continue to learn from adversity.
Learning from past
"After every crisis, we do an after-action report," says Roy Williams, executive director of the US Agency for International Development. "Most of the time what comes out is very familiar, but every once in a while there is something new."
The main surprise for relief agencies in the Balkans is the sheer number of people they have to care for. As of last week, at least 620,000 people had fled Kosovo. "What we've learned is that when the crisis is out of proportion, the relief organization can't cope alone," says Panos Moumtzis, a senior spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
Relief organizations have now called on NATO to help. As a result, NATO planes are ferrying in food, water, and shelter.
Longtime observers of relief efforts credit the agencies and the military with making the best of a bad situation. "People are relatively healthy and well-fed - it's not the worst of all refugee crises," says Peter Choharis, a Washington-based lawyer who served with UNICEF in Sudan.
But critics believe it's a mistake to use the military to erect tents and supply services. "The military should provide defense, not do the humanitarian work," says Gene Dewey, the former UN deputy high commissioner for refugees.
Mr. Dewey says if the effects of military actions were anticipated, humanitarian organizations would be prepared to do the bulk of the work. After the US bombed Iraq, Saddam Hussein cracked down on his Kurdish minority. Relief agencies were unprepared, and it required military airlifts of food and medicine to help the Kurds. In the current situation, he believes NATO's bombing of Serbia accelerated the persecution of the Albanian Kosovars.
Dewey says one of the lessons learned from past crises is the need for preparation. For example, when tens of thousands of people are on the move, they need water. During the forced march in Rwanda in 1994, thousands of people died from lack of clean water.
Asking refugees what they need
The US Kosovo relief effort is also being criticized for considering shipping refugees to Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba. That idea has been temporarily shelved. "We have definitely not learned how to ask refugees what's in their best interest, and Guantanamo is an example," says Mary Diaz, executive director of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children in New York.
Ms. Diaz believes the relief effort needs to involve refugee women in the decision-making process, since they and their children make up a large percentage of refugees. And with increasing stories of rape coming out of Kosovo, she says, it's important the UNHCR provide reproductive care services.
Over the longer term, it's not clear what will happen to the Kosovars. Right now it's a political problem in Europe to call the Kosovars "refugees," says Chip Corcoran, executive director of Refugee Services of North Texas. Until that happens, they will be technically considered stateless people, forced to live in camps.
Should they gain refugee status - allowing them to be resettled in the US - Mr. Corcoran says the country's churches are ready. "We have the capacity to absorb 20,000 Kosovars in a day," he says.
Television coverage is resulting in a lot of unsolicited calls from Americans eager to donate, he says. "People want to help."
That's true for many organizations. But one of the lessons is what kind of donations do the most good. "The transportation costs can be higher than buying the goods in the area," says Mr. Moumtzis. "We encourage people to give cash more than anything else in this crisis."