How tsunami may buoy other giving

As relief pledges near $4 billion, officials hope to leverage altruism for crises elsewhere.

As a massive relief effort takes shape in Asia, some aid officials are already planning a next step: leveraging current world concern for tsunami-ravaged regions into greater interest in other humanitarian crises.

The Asian tsunami was a natural disaster of historic proportions. But as terrible as it was, the grinding conflict in eastern Congo has killed far more people. Similarly, fighting in the western Sudanese region of Darfur has displaced millions over the past two years. Disease and poor sanitation continue to devastate families in other parts of the globe's poorest regions.

There's some evidence that the interest generated by sudden tragedies does raise aid donations for other purposes as well, at least for a while. That's one trend that international organizations will probably do their best to encourage.

"An essential component of our mission ... is to point out that disasters happen everywhere, and we have to care about all of them," says Salvano Briceno, head of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

For now the need to help the battered countries ringing the Indian Ocean is first priority for most relief organizations. At a donors' conference in Jakarta Thursday, officials said they were in a race against time to help parched and hungry refugees.

A draft of the conference concluding statement called for the establishment of a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean, and for the United Nations to coordinate the overall aid effort. Pledges of government aid were nearing $4 billion. "The disaster was so quick, so brutal, and so far reaching that we are still struggling to comprehend it," UN Secretary General Kofi Annan told attendees.

At time of writing, Australia had made the largest government aid pledge, $810 million in US dollars. Germany was next, at $660 million, followed by Japan and the United States. Individual and corporate donations collected by major US charities reached $245 million on Wednesday, according to figures compiled by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and were edging up toward the US government's pledge of $350 million.

If history is any guide, not all government pledges of aid will be fulfilled. By some measurements, nations promised upwards of $1 billion to help rebuild Bam, Iran, after it was devastated in a December, 2003, earthquake. But only about $17 million of that money has actually arrived, according to the Iranian government.

And as terrible as the situation on Indian Ocean coastlines, some displaced persons in other areas of the world may be wondering how they, too, can command such sympathetic attention.

It is the crisis in the eastern Congo that is currently the world's deadliest, after all. Since 1998, about 3.8 million people have been killed there by conflict, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The vast majority of these casualties were civilians caught up in the area's swirling conflicts, says an IRC study.

"In a matter of six years, the world lost a population equivalent to the entire country of Ireland or the city of Los Angeles. How many innocent Congolese have to perish before the world starts paying attention?" wrote Dr. Richard Brennan of the IRC, coauthor of the study, which was published shortly before the Asian tsunami.

Ethnic conflict in the western Sudanese region of Darfur has killed tens of thousands since 2003. US aid for this area has totaled slightly over $370 million, according to government statistics.

There are many reasons the Asian tsunami has commanded the world's attention in a manner which the Congo has not. It was sudden. It was dramatic. It happened during the holidays, a time when many in the West may be contemplating more than their own lives.

And scenes of devastation were immediately beamed into the living rooms of the developed world. Other tragedies may be numerically worse. "But if you can't see it, you can't relate to it," says Michael Bisesi, director of the Center for Nonprofit and Social Enterprise Management in Seattle.

The situation in the Indian Ocean will obviously be a focus of individual philanthropy in the US and the rest of the world for some time to come. But aid officials hope they can translate this interest into a broader concern for problems at large.

Right now US charities are seeing a huge spike in donations. Though studies are far from conclusive, some suggest that when such a spike ends, donations will fall back to a steady level that is higher than before the rise occurred. For instance, research by the Indiana Center for Philanthropy on the effects on charity of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks suggest that while there may be a momentary dip in giving to other causes after such a major disaster, in the end philanthropy tends to rebound.

The process of donation is both an emotional and a rational response, says G. Douglass Alexander, a fundraising consultant at Alexander, Hass, Martin & Partners in Atlanta. In the United States, charity is not a zero-sum game, in which one cause gains at the expense of another.

"Giving is not just about having extra money. In most cases ... it's just that no one asked them for it. And, in this case, the tsunami relief is the ultimate 'ask.' "

Yet experts on philanthropy are hesitant to predict that the tsunami disaster will translate into a huge surge in new giving. "Personally, I think that's too bad .... On the other hand, maybe with [Internet giving] and other things, we may bump up," says Alan Abramson, director of the nonprofit sector and philanthropy program at the Aspen Institute in Washington.

Wire service material was used in this report.

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