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The World's Worst: Five Years after the Asian Tsunami

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People, corporations and foundations gave over $7 billion in private aid to help 11 countries cope with the world's worst-ever tsunami, which followed a 9.3 quake (the second strongest on record) in Indonesia on December 26, 2004. The world's governments committed (but did necessaily allocate or spend) an additional $6 billion. Over 250,000 lives were lost in seconds, many millions more were made homeless, and additional millions more were "affected" in some way by the quake and following deluge.

Looking back after working on the tsunami disaster response with an international relief NGO, Operation USA, it's hard to take credit for the eventual turn-around of so many devastated places. In truth, any heroes created by the tsunami tended to run from hundreds of local people to a stray elephant on a Thailand beach who not only sensed the impending wave but ran towards tourists and others and literally led them up a hill to safety.

The charities' performances ran from reasonably effective in localized areas in several countries; to well-intentioned but missing the boat on things like rebuilding houses (several brand name international charities tried to rebuild houses with little or no experience... and it showed); to downright scandalous in their opportunism to raise money around the tsunami with no apparent commitment to spending what they took in on the backs of tsunami victims.

This last category, sadly, includes the American Red Cross which reported after two years that it had taken in $568 million from the American public -- 8 percent of the global total donated privately -- and spent just $168 million (their own figures, honestly proffered to peer agencies), most of which was in the form of two large grants to the World Food Program and the private United Nations Foundation.

Doctors Without Borders collected well over $125 million, worked for a few weeks on emergency medical aid and then announced it not only had enough money but that it would redirect a huge surplus to its own programs in Africa since it was not interested in staying to rebuild shattered communities.

Others, like The Kabballah Center, the Church of Scientology, random evangelical churches and congregations and other non-relief agencies, aggressively raised funds and either sent short term missionaries or supplies to some affected countries; but this was more as a fundraising imperative than out of any real commitment to aid and rehabilitation. [Note to those groups I just mentioned: don't bother me about having mentioned you, I could say much more and you know it!]

The tsunami served to highlight the effects of global warming on places like the Maldive Islands which are rapidly vanishing as waters rise globally; the inability of some governments to respond rapidly and with a minimum of political interference (Indonesia and Sri Lanka principally, as opposed to the Government of Thailand's excellent work on behalf of its people) and the lack of coordination among UN and private relief
agencies as fundraising and media outreach often took precedence over getting aid to those in need.

The more media savvy and "business-like" the relief agencies become, the less they resemble philanthropies whose mission is supposed to be charitable, sensitive to diverse cultures and effective in rendering aid to those in need.