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.

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."

Iran itself has proved much more welcoming to international aid workers this time than it was in 1990, when another earthquake killed some 30,000 people.

"The government of Iran has done its best in this case to aid the relief effort," says Mueller. "It has been extremely cooperative, and waived all visa requirements.

"Politics are definitely a factor," he argues. "Recent events, like Iran's acceptance of nuclear inspections, have contributed ... to a general pattern showing that the situation in Iran has changed to a positive course of action."

Arab Gulf countries, clearly sensitive about Iran's potential role in a new Iraq, also showed generosity to their old rival Monday night, offering $400 million to the reconstruction of Bam.

The general public's response to a disaster, measured in contributions to emergency appeals that charities launch, often has less to do with politics and more to do with "something very particular that catches popular attention," says Herson.

The story of the Mozambican woman who gave birth in a treetop, high above the waters that had flooded her village in 2000, sparked a wave of generosity in Britain, for example.

But national governments, whose donations make up the bulk of aid to relieve the victims of natural disasters and other humanitarian crises, make much more political calculations, to judge by United Nations figures.

The most dramatic illustration this year came from Iraq, where international donors quickly came up with 91 percent of the $2.2 billion that the UN called for in an emergency appeal.

In Angola, by contrast, where millions of people are scrabbling for life in the wake of a devastating civil war, the UN appeal raised only half of the $313 million it sought. "At any one time, there is a skewing of aid towards the emergency in the political spotlight - this year Iraq - and all the rest receive significantly less," argues a recent report by Oxfam titled "Beyond the Headlines."

Some receive hardly anything, relegated to the status of 'forgotten emergencies' where the victims suffer from both hunger and donor fatigue: An appeal for funds to tackle the humanitarian crisis in Mozambique this year raised just $1.6 million - 12 percent of what the UN said was needed - while Zambia did even worse, receiving only 10 percent of the money the UN had asked for.

International donors were much more generous with Uganda, however, offering nearly 85 percent of the $126 million appeal. "Uganda is a success story," Herson says. "It is exemplary in the way it is dealing with HIV/AIDS, it has got its health and education systems together into a functioning administration, and it is being rewarded for its political successes."

And if humanitarian aid is not meant to reflect politics in that manner, it clearly does, argues the Oxfam report, citing the example of Afghanistan.

Before Sept. 11, 2001, six million Afghans "were in desperate straits due to conflict, poverty, and crippling drought," the report recalls, but the world did little to help them. "Then, suddenly, all major donors focused on the country because of its geopolitical implications," and stumped up over $1 billion in 2002, almost half the amount of money the UN had requested for 25 humanitarian crises worldwide.

Even in their plight, the citizens of Bam can count on the fact that they live near one of the world's flashpoints, in a strategically important country with which the world wants to engage.

And that, in Oxfam's words, "the humanitarian imperative to deliver aid where it is needed" most is not always the only criterion.

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