Raining Money

Editorial

New York Times

January 4, 2005

The greatest outpouring of disaster relief on record has been promised for the victims of the worst natural disaster of our time, a stupendous display of good will and empathy for the huge suffering and loss in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, Somalia and the other devastated countries. Now, how does the world get it to those who need it?

President Bush, who embarrassed Americans with his initial offer of a piddling $15 million, should be commended for increasing the government's pledge to $350 million. Japan quickly followed suit, raising its promised amount to $500 million from $30 million. And Norway, just yesterday, announced that it is adding $160 million to its initial pledge, for a total of about $180 million, a whopping amount from a country with a gross domestic product figure that's half the size of New Jersey's.

The foremost challenge now is to ensure that the money pledged in the glow of the media spotlight gets to the people who need it. That is the job of the United Nations, which has a chance to redeem itself after the oil-for-food scandal. It must make sure that the money is not diverted into the hands of corrupt government officials or used as a political weapon by armies waging counterinsurgency campaigns in some of the most stricken areas.

Right now in Indonesia, cartons of food, water and medical supplies are stacking up in airports, not getting to the villages that were hit the hardest. Part of the problem is the Indonesian military. Complaints have already arisen about soldiers siphoning off supplies for their relatives and friends. But Indonesian government officials bear some blame. Take, for example, the remarkably callous dismissal of reports of hungry families in leveled towns made by Alwi Shihab, the country's senior disaster response coordinator: "I can guarantee you there is no starvation, except for me, because I didn't have lunch today." This is hardly the face the Indonesian government should want to present to a traumatized population.

Furthermore, the money must be sent, not just pledged. The Bush administration is notorious for promising wonderful pots of money when the cameras are rolling - the Monterey summit meeting on poverty nearly three years ago comes to mind - and then failing to follow through once the attention fades. Victims of the earthquake in Bam, Iran, a year ago are still living in tents because aid, including American aid, has fallen short. In 2002 in Monterey, Mr. Bush announced a Millennium Challenge Account to give African nations development assistance of up to $5 billion a year. We're still waiting for the account to actually hand out so much as a dollar.

Of more lasting importance than getting money to the tsunami victims is working to ensure that when the next disaster hits, fewer are killed. That can happen only if America and other rich countries spend more on development aid, not just disaster relief. Emergency aid is a Band-Aid; development aid is a vaccine. Rich countries like America and the European nations have the firm foundations necessary to help fight nature's wrath, including early warning systems and sound housing structures. Last fall, severe storms hit Haiti and Florida. Haiti lost around 2,000 lives; Florida lost about 100.

The horrific casualties inflicted by the tsunamis are the face of poverty today. So many lives could have been spared with basic things like an emergency response system or local shelters built on high ground.

The aid to the tsunami victims must not come out of the same pot used for development aid. It's clear that in the yearly lottery of disaster aid, the tsunami survivors will get the most. But that doesn't mean that the eight million people who die every year from preventable diseases like malaria should end up losers - again.