The Asia Tsunami: Two Years Apres Le Deluge

December 26, 2004 saw the world's strongest recorded earthquake (9.3) produce its most destructive tsunami and most generous (-ever) relief effort. Two of these three are true (hint: it's hard to hide an earthquake and tsunami but easy with cash or promises thereof).

So much cash was given or pledged (at one point the count was $12 billion) by so many governments, aid groups and individuals to help the tsunami afflicted in 11 countries, that the spigot stayed largely open when hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the US Gulf Coast 8 months later and produced still billions of dollars more.

A new report on the tsunami by a coalition of US relief groups, Interaction (see for the full text), indicates that of 72 US relief groups responding to the tsunami, over $1.78 billion was raised and just $1.028 billion, or 58%, spent in the two years following the disaster. Some brand name US groups like the American Red Cross, CARE, Save The Children, The Salvation Army and Americares show less than 50% of funds raised having been spent.

A new United Nations report shows the International Red Cross and its constituent members as having raised $2.2 billion and spending just $1.3 billion in the two years following the disaster. Of these UN figures, the American Red Cross raised $575 million and spent just $205 million of available funds, much of it in a few large grants to UN agencies or on country-wide disease prevention projects in Indonesia and elsewhere.

Unbelievably, even these figures eclipse the performance of a number of major governmental donors and the World Bank, which established a trust fund for many governments wary of sending funds directly through such dubious regimes as those running Indonesia and Sri Lanka. China and France stand out as pledging $300 million and $75 million respectively and then sending almost nothing to the region. Everyone seemed game to help or to be seen to be helping but was plagued by second thoughts.

There are any number of excuses floated by governments and aid groups alike as to just why so much aid still hasn't reached hundreds of thousands of people in dire straits. The governments of the two most affected countries--Indonesia and Sri Lanka--have a generally well-deserved reputation for corruption, inefficiency and outright discrimination against many people and groups living in the areas impacted by the tsunami and earthquake. In the case of Sri Lanka, a long awaited peace process was well underway when the waves hit. Rather than use this opportunity to fairly distribute aid to the affected population--many of whom being among the minority Tamil population or living in Tamil separatist-controlled areas--the majority Sinhalese-controlled government dropped the ball and focused mainly on restoring tourist areas in the country's wealthier non-Tamil areas. Losing hope, militant Tamil groups and government military units began skirmishing with a full-scale resumption of civil war now likely.

Other excuses for inaction include unreasonable local building regulations, tardy granting of operating licenses to international groups wanting to work locally, taxation of imported aid materials and a perhaps excessive focus by relief agencies and governments on very long term recovery projects.

Aid giving has dramatically changed with the Internet, the 24 hour news cycle and the sheer amount of funds and goodwill available to meet human needs. What has obviously not kept pace is turning that good will and treasure into something of immediate use to victims of natural disasters.