Try explaining "donor fatigue" to the earthquake survivors in Pakistan - up to 3 million of whom need food and shelter as winter blows into the Himalayas. Or, explain it to hard-line Muslim groups providing humanitarian assistance while the West responds with far less magnanimity than it did after Asia's tsunami.
Perhaps because the Oct. 8 quake came in the wake of other large-scale disasters, perhaps because nations' aid budgets are stretched, or because the 7.6 temblor hasn't received 24/7 media coverage - whatever the reasons, the relief effort in mountainous northern Pakistan is in a cash crisis, and requires urgent response.
"We needed the money yesterday," United Nations emergency relief chief Jan Egeland said this week when the UN increased its request for aid from $312 million to $550 million. Before the appeal, the international community had delivered less than 30 percent of the original goal.
Unless the response is lightning quick, the UN warns, more people could die from hunger, cold, and disease than did in the initial quake, which killed 54,000 to 78,000 people, depending on the estimate. More than 224,000 people perished in the Pacific Ocean tsunami, but swift international intervention prevented more deaths from the aftermath.
UN officials say aid workers have only five weeks left to get six months' worth of food supplies and shelter to millions of survivors before winter cuts off accessibility. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has called for a "Berlin airlift," but already this week helicopters were grounded due to bad weather in the mountains.
The world hastened to respond to the Asian tsunami, with the UN receiving 80 percent of its aid request in a mere 10 days. It was the holiday season, and Westerners were home watching gripping footage on TV. The media saturation, the rarity and geographic spread of the tragedy, and the fact that wealthy countries had tourists in the stricken areas, combined to produce an outpouring of generosity, both private and official.
This time, other news has pushed quake coverage from the headlines. And Americans are still processing hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. Oxfam International describes 2005 as a year of "some of the worst natural disasters ever," with severe draught and hunger in Africa also unable to generate the donations needed there.
A humanitarian crisis compounded by winter in Pakistan should serve as ample impetus for giving, but the politics of the situation adds to the urgency. Obvious and full US assistance after the tsunami improved America's standing in the Muslim country of Indonesia, for instance. Swift aid to Pakistan could change "the climate and the dynamic of how the United States is viewed," and that's important for combating terrorism, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said at a Monitor breakfast this week.
On Wednesday, the State Department responded to the UN's call by raising its earthquake commitment by just over $100 million. So far, it's actually spent nearly $25 million, and hopefully, it will quickly follow through on this new pledge.
Tragedy has a way of uniting the world in generous giving, when people are informed of the need and when they feel they can do something to alleviate it.