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Asian tsunami highlights ongoing challenge for donor countries

15 January 2005

The Asian tsunami has required international cooperation in coordinating a large scale and complex emergency relief program, the likes of which have not been seen before. However, the extent of the devastation has greatly dampened the relief efforts. Few natural disasters in recent history have claimed as many lives, and none have done so simultaneously in so many countries. The 150,000 estimated deaths will increase substantially with the ‘second wave’ of the disaster, now becoming apparent as governments and humanitarian agencies struggle to deliver aid and essential supplies such as clean water, medicine and shelter for the many millions of surviving victims.

Over the course of the last week, governments have managed to catch up with public opinion and emergency requirements by making generous aid pledges. To date $2 billion have been pledged by the international community. According to the UN, this is more than the combined assistance given to all their other humanitarian appeals in 2004.

A long term commitment to sharing the world’s resources is needed

Many agencies including Oxfam have emphasised the importance of this aid to continue on a long term basis as entire villages and towns will have to be rebuilt over the coming years. Historically, funding by donor countries for such appeals falls very short of the assistance requested. Thus it is this ‘second stage’ of funding and management of the disaster by the international community that will prove essential to the success of the appeal. The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has warned that it could take 10 years for the countries to recover from the devastation. Long after the media spotlight has moved away from the disaster, the work will continue rebuilding communities, economies and lives. 

In order to ensure continued support to affected countries, it is necessary to step up commitments by donor countries for development needs. Now more than ever the affected countries need their debts forgiven and fairer access to international markets, alongside every available resource that the developed world can spare. This would greatly strengthen a country's ability to regenerate itself and direct its own resources where they are urgently required.

Although natural disasters are common (some would argue that with global warming they may become even more frequent), disasters of this scale are not common. None the less, this is the second one this century (in 2003 the earthquake in Iran, officially killed 26,271 people) and there have been 3 major disasters last century (in 1976 an earthquake in Tangshan, China, killed 242,000; 500,000 died in 1970 in a cyclone in Bangladesh; and 140,000 in an earthquake in Tokyo in 1923).

As such it is imperative that the international community have resources and structures in place to deal adequately with such calamities as they arise. This of course requires a "disaster fund" financed by developed countries, the creation of which should be implemented alongside a range of long-term measures for financing development such as those initially proposed by Willy Brandt and the Independent Commission for International Development Issues in 1980 (The Brandt Report).

Public opinion and international solidarity at this time has clearly shown that there is a willingness by individuals and their governments to share the world's resources in emergency situations that are widely reported by the media. Meanwhile, it is imperative that we do not lose sight of the fact that many millions die prematurely every year from causes that are preventable. The international community and media have a duty to highlight and act upon this ongoing tragedy with as much urgency and drive as the current Tsunami disaster. Only public awareness can provide the necessary catalyst for the long term economic and political restructuring that is necessary to save these many millions of lives being lost each year.