Donations to Tsunami Relief Dwarf Other Disasters

Last year's South Asian tsunami inspired more donations to relief efforts than any other disaster in history. Why has the tsunami relief effort proved so successful, while others, including the response to September's earthquake in Pakistan, fail to elicit similar generosity?

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

The tsunami was an unprecedented natural disaster, but as NPR's Eric Weiner reports, there was also an unprecedented response from donors large and small.

ERIC WEINER reporting:

From one end of the globe to another, governments donated money to help tsunami victims. Even impoverished nations like Niger and North Korea, countries normally in need of aid themselves, stepped up to the plate with pledges. Karl Inderfurth is a former State Department official, now a professor at George Washington University.

Professor KARL INDERFURTH (George Washington University; Former State Department Official): The fact is that this was an unprecedented response in terms of worldwide giving. It was the most generous relief effort ever; $13.6 billion was raised internationally.

WEINER: What made the relief effort so remarkable, says Inderfurth, was the fact that nearly half of that money came not from governments but from individual donors, ordinary people who wanted to help. One out of three American households contributed to tsunami relief.

(Soundbite of Tsunami Aid promotional spot)

Unidentified Man #1: Their lives were torn apart by the tsunami disaster. Now you can make a difference. This Saturday, the networks of NBC and the biggest stars in the world come together.

WEINER: Fund-raising events like this concert in Los Angeles helped stir people's compassion.

(Soundbite of Tsunami Aid promotional spot)

Unidentified Man #1: Tsunami Aid: A Concert of Hope.

WEINER: So much money was raised, in fact, that a few aid groups found themselves in the unusual position of asking people to stop sending donations. They were simply overwhelmed. The UN's head of emergency relief summed up the response to the tsunami this way: `The world did the right thing.'

That is not always the case. In October of this year, another huge national disaster struck, an earthquake in Pakistan. Tens of thousands of people were killed, but the money donated to help earthquake victims was far less than after the tsunami. That prompted Pakistan's president, Pervaiz Musharraf, to accuse the international community of having a double standard.

President PERVAIZ MUSHARRAF (Pakistan): Unfortunately, this is a remote area, poor people affected. I would appeal to the world to see reality, that it is these people who deserve aid much more because they are poor and they are facing much harsher conditions than tsunami.

WEINER: So why such a different response to these two disasters? Aid workers say timing had a lot to do with it. The tsunami happened the day after Christmas, so people were already in a generous frame of mind. Another explanation, says Ray Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, is the fact that the tsunami struck so many countries.

Mr. RAY OFFENHEISER (President, Oxfam America): The whole event was global in nature. There were dozens of countries that were affected and that were responding, and that it really had the sense of being something of an apocalyptic event that had the effect, I think, of pulling people together all over the world in a sense that, you know, this has merited a common global response.

(Soundbite of CNN programming)

Unidentified Man #2: Five days at sea, clinging to an uprooted tree. Incredible stories of survival.

WEINER: News reports like this one from CNN also tugged at people's heartstrings. Many of these stories focused on the several thousand Western tourists who fell victim to the tsunami. Oxfam's Ray Offenheiser says that made a difference.

Mr. OFFENHEISER: You know, I think the fact that Westerners were killed and killed in great numbers, I think hit a chord with a lot of people. I mean, I think it's interesting, you know, that the tsunami was the largest natural disaster in the history of Sweden, for example, you know, that, you know, people could identify with being on vacation with their family, being on the beach.

WEINER: By contrast, few if any Westerners were killed in Pakistan. Also, the Pakistan earthquake came on the heels of Hurricane Katrina, prompting some analysts to attribute the lackluster aid response to donor fatigue, the notion that countries and individuals grow complacent when faced with a string of disasters. Jim Ferris, a professor of philanthropy at the University of Southern California, doesn't buy that argument. Donor fatigue, he says, is a myth.

Professor JIM FERRIS (University of Southern California): People, as long as they're able to and have the capacity to give and feel strongly about a cause, they'll do it. It's not like, `Oh, I can't do any more this year.'

WEINER: 2005, says Ferris, will be remembered not only as the year of the natural disaster, but also as the year that Americans reached deeper into their pockets than ever before. Eric Weiner, NPR News.

CHIDEYA: One reason the death toll in last year's tsunami was so high is because there was no early warning system in the Indian Ocean region. Tomorrow on the program, we'll have a report from Eric Weiner on the development of a new system and how effective it's been.

Stay with us on DAY TO DAY on NPR News.

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