Posted on December 30, 2008
2008: Political Roadblocks, Economy Hamper Response to Disasters
PND - 2008: Year in Review - Political Roadblocks, Economy Hamper Response to Disasters
In an increasingly networked world, it was no surprise that thousands of words and millions of pixels would be expended on the natural disasters that struck Myanmar and China in May and the Texas Gulf Coast in September. But a number of factors — the xenophobia of the ruling junta in Myanmar, the anxious response of a Chinese government preparing for its Olympic moment, donor fatigue among Americans bedeviled by falling home prices, shrinking stock portfolios, and rising unemployment — combined to depress the charitable response to the year's major disasters.
In Myanmar, where Cyclone Nargis devastated the country's Irrawaddy Delta region in early May, the ruling military junta initially denied visas to foreign aid workers and blocked the flow of food, medicine, and other supplies for several weeks after the storm. Thanks in part to the localized nature of the damage, the hardiness of villagers in the region, and an outpouring of aid from Burmese in other parts of the country, relief workers reported in June that levels of starvation and disease were, mercifully, less than expected. Nevertheless, foreign NGO officials and aid workers were critical of the junta's response to the disaster, which may have claimed the lives of as many as 130,000 people. Indeed, throughout the summer and into the fall, the international aid community worried that money and goods donated in response to Nargis would exacerbate existing inequities within Myanmar.
Geopolitics also complicated aid efforts in the wake of the major earthquake that rocked China's Sichuan province, killing nearly 70,000 people, on May 12. While tens of thousands of well-organized soldiers and relief workers were sent to the region to clear impassable roads and assist individuals in remote villages, Chinese authorities were reluctant to allow international aid workers into the region, which is home to several military installations and China's nuclear weapons design program.
Victims of the quake benefited, however, from an outpouring of support from other Chinese. According to the Associated Press, just one week after the quake struck, donations to the relief effort totaled $1.3 billion — more than all the charities in China combined managed to raise in 2007 — with approximately 85 percent of the total coming from Chinese citizens.
Still, the disasters in both China and Myanmar failed to generate anything like the charitable response from Americans that followed the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And the response to Hurricane Ike, which battered the Galveston region in September, began to falter almost as soon as the storm and its aftermath disappeared from evening newscasts. Indeed, as of late November, two months after Ike made landfall — and investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed, signaling a new, more serious phase in the year-long financial crisis — the four charities created to help victims of the storm had raised a mere $19 million, compared to the $6.47 billion raised after Katrina and the more than $3 billion Americans donated to tsunami relief efforts.
The weakened state of Americans' psyches and wallets was not lost on Gail McGovern, who joined the American Red Cross as president and CEO in the spring and almost immediately was confronted by the need to raise $100 million to replenish its depleted disaster relief fund. But even though she quickly impressed many of the organization's fiercest critics and managed to secure a $100 million loan from Congress, McGovern remained cautious. "I would like to live in a world where we're not fundraising episodically with each storm," she told the Washington Post. "Our mission is so much bigger than these epic storms. Our mission is to be there for the American people every day."
Hurricane Ike Recovery Efforts Casualty of Slumping Economy (11/29/08)
Influx of Post-Cyclone Aid Creates Imbalance in Myanmar (10/22/08)
Congress Approves $100 Million for Red Cross (10/9/08)
Nonprofits Worried About 'Disaster Fatigue' Following Series of Natural Disasters (9/22/08)
Corporate Donations Begin to Roll in for Hurricane Ike Recovery Efforts (9/17/08)
Red Cross Asks Congress for Millions to Replenish Disaster Relief Fund (9/17/08)
New Red Cross CEO Faces 'Trial by Hurricane' (9/15/08)
Chinese Government Learning to Accept Money From Nonprofit Groups (7/30/08)
Delayed Response to Myanmar Cyclone Results in Fewer Deaths Than Anticipated (6/19/08)
Aid Workers Begin to Reach Hardest-Hit Regions of Myanmar (5/29/08)
Chinese Respond to Disaster With Outpouring of Support (5/20/08)
'Disaster Fatigue,' Other Factors Cited for Lackluster Charitable Response (5/21/08)
Myanmar Junta Continues to Keep UN, Relief Organizations in Dark (5/19/08)
Charities Begin Relief Efforts, Await Government Cooperation in Wake of Myanmar Cyclone (5/08/08)