Aid groups' next task: keeping world engaged

Government pledges for disaster relief are often delayed or forgotten, say organizations.

For the victims of last year's flooding in the Philippines and Bangladesh, the United Nations estimated that $6.4 million would be needed. But only 5 percent of pledged donations have been delivered. In Grenada, last fall's hurricane victims have seen only 14 percent of a promised $27.6 million.

Could the same happen with Asia's tsunami-relief effort?

Relief organizations say they are bracing for the moment the news media drifts to other stories. If the past is a predictor, promises of aid will be delayed, diminished, or forgotten.

The Dec. 26 tsunami has already proved to be a history-defying event, with donations topping previous records. To date, the UN has received $717 million of the promised $4 billion from donor nations, and aid groups plan to harness the unprecedented public interest and involvement to keep pressure on donor governments over the long haul.

Still, garnering initial pledges represents only half the battle, say relief organizations. Sustaining the world's attention and keeping momentum going through the rebuilding process, they say, may be the stiffest challenge to any major relief effort.

"This is a big issue for us," says Elizabeth Griffin, director of media relations for Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore. "When a natural disaster strikes, and there is immediate media attention, then people get mobilized to act. When the media leaves, people think the problem has been resolved, but that is when our job begins."

The sad fact, Ms. Griffin says, is that aid groups are often working on several relief efforts at a time, some that get media attention, some that don't, but all of which have a profound impact on some of the world's poorest regions.

Just before the tsunami struck, Catholic Relief Services warned of a food-aid crisisas the US Congress had cut back food relief for disasters - in a year of massive need, from the flooding in the Philippines and Bangladesh to the war in Congo to the near genocide of refugees in the camps of Sudan's Darfur region.

Private aid groups like Catholic Relief Services, CARE international, Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, and the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies are often among the first to respond to such tragedies. But private aid groups often cannot provide the comprehensive aid and reconstruction that a government or an institution like the World Bank can provide, experts say. The result is that some communities are rebuilt right away, while others can be seemingly ignored for months, or even years.

The massive outpouring of private donations - in the US, private giving for the tsunami disaster has passed $350 million, matching the US government's promised $350 million - can help to fill in those gaps, in part. But the greater role of private donations may be in keeping pressure on national governments to fulfill their pledges, say observers. Given the checkered past of government pledges, a little public scrutiny might be needed, they say.

"In the aid community, we talk about the 'CNN factor,' " says John Tulloch, a consultant to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in New Delhi. "Slow onset disasters, such as famines or drought, are seen as more common events and they don't have the same news value. The challenge for the aid community is to get news attention for these issues as well as something extraordinary, like a tsunami."

As the tsunami crisis enters its fourth week, there has been much criticism about the slow response of governments, from Indonesia to India to Sri Lanka. In India's hardest-hit area of Tamil Nadu, for instance, the district collector of Nagapattinam was removed from his post for moving too slowly in the relief phase.

Yet any government project - whether the construction of a highway or the reconstruction of a disaster zone - is by necessity a bureaucratic exercise, aid officials say. This work simply takes time.

"I think we are a longer-term organization and will be very determined to move very quickly in assessing the needs and agreeing with the government on how to help meet the needs and put the financing into place," says Michael Carter, the World Bank's country director for India. The entire process of funding such long-term reconstruction is itself long term - from assessing needs, redirecting existing loans to disaster reconstruction, appealing for new donations, procuring equipment and materials, and disbursing funds once a project has been approved - often taking up to a full year.

And yet, relief experts say, such long-term development is more comprehensive, building up whole states and provinces instead of just villages and communities.

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