Aid Efforts Stymied by China, Myanmar Tragedies Two catastrophes have struck this month — the cyclone in Myanmar and the earthquake in China. As the death tolls in these two countries mount, so does the need for aid. But Myanmar has been reluctant to let relief workers into the country, and China says it will accept foreign aid on its own timetable. But how do people give if they want to help the victims?
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Aid Efforts Stymied by China, Myanmar Tragedies

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Aid Efforts Stymied by China, Myanmar Tragedies

Aid Efforts Stymied by China, Myanmar Tragedies

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Pictures like the one that Will Baxter described can serve a purpose beyond telling the story of a disaster. They can help with efforts to raise money for relief. Several charity groups say restrictions on journalists may hamper their fundraising in this case.

NPR's Alix Spiegel has more on what motivates people to give.

ALIX SPIEGEL: Every morning before 9 o'clock a situation report arrives in Ned Olney's inbox. Olney is the vice president of humanitarian response at Save the Children. And the situation report is a four-page document compiled by his field officers, the humanitarian workers on the ground in areas of crisis. This past Wednesday, Olney sat in a conference room reading from the morning's Myanmar situation report spread on the table before him.

Mr. NED OLNEY (Save the Children): Third boat departed last night for Pin Kayang(ph) area at approximately an 18-hour journey. The second boat returned to Petain(ph) last night.

SPIEGEL: Sitting discreetly on the table beside the situation report was another piece of paper, a paper that in important ways actually determined the content of the material he was reading. It was the list of donations collected for the Myanmar crisis. Olney pointed to the fourth line, which showed how much was raised over the Internet.

Mr. OLNEY: $626,000, ten days over the Web.

SPIEGEL: Now, four years ago, when the Asian tsunami hit, 10 days of Internet donations had produced a very different number - $7 million. So why do people open their wallets wide to one terrible tragedy but not another? A paper published by Philip Brown, a professor of economics at Colby College, might help answer this question.

Brown was inspired to look at the issue because of personal experience. In the mid '90s, he worked as a relief worker in Rwanda.

Professor PHILIP BROWN (Colby College): And the funding was absolutely astounding for the first couple of months after the genocide began. But by July or so we really started having to scramble, writing grants for even small basic projects.

SPIEGEL: Then one day they drove 30 miles to visit the area's only television. And there on the screen they found an explanation.

Prof. BROWN: That white Bronco driving down the California highway that was dominating the news stories.

SPIEGEL: O.J. Simpson had crowded out the Rwandan genocide, Brown concluded, and so there was no money for all the death and ruin that surrounded him. Now to do his research, Brown moved carefully at the relationship between Internet donations and news coverage in the aftermath of the tsunami, a catastrophe that got a huge amount of press.

Prof. BROWN: We found as an additional minute of coverage or an additional news story raises donations that day by about 18 and a half percent.

SPIEGEL: So headlines equal money, a reality Brown says that's bad news for the people of Myanmar. Because of the government, news of their disaster has been limited. And Brown says it's not just about the amount of news either, it's about the kind of news. People are most motivated to give by exposure to personal tragedy.

During the tsunami, for example, there was the story of Baby 81 - the small infant found in a beach in Sri Lanka that according to the press nine different couples attempted to claim.

Prof. BROWN: And we're simply not getting very much of that out of Myanmar right now. We hear about what the generals are doing to distribute the relief, but there are no individual human stories coming out of Myanmar at this point.

SPIEGEL: That worries Sam Worthington, the president of InterAction, a group that coordinates the efforts of the coalition of relief organizations. Worthington says over the past few days, as heartbreaking images of China's earthquake have flooded the airwaves, interest in Myanmar has fallen.

Mr. SAM WORTHINGTON (President, InterAction): Well, we saw one of our major members receive actually more resources for China than for Myanmar.

SPIEGEL: More resources, even though the China earthquake struck only days ago. This is bad, Worthington says, because he thinks the scale of human tragedy in Myanmar will be much greater that in China. Already his organization estimates that a hundred thousand are dead, and unlike China, Myanmar has very, very few resources.

Alix Spiegel, NPR News, Washington.

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