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What about disasters TV crews miss?

The Red Cross raised $7 million for Turkey's quake victims. A Congo appeal: 0

It is hard to see the homeless survivors of the Turkish earthquake as fortunate. But in the grimly relative world of disaster relief, that's what they are.

Last week's quake, tumbling thousands of buildings and leaving an estimated 200,000 people camped out in muddy tent cities, drew instant and massive worldwide media coverage of the human dramas that unfolded. The TV and newspaper pictures spurred an outpouring of generosity from individual and government donors.

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"Sudden natural disasters tend to attract sympathy and compassion - people want to help," says Margarita Wahlstrm, head of disaster relief for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. The initial $7 million Red Cross appeal for its earthquake fund was fully subscribed within four days.

The 200,000 refugees who fled 1997 fighting in Congo's capital, Brazzaville, on the other hand, can only dream of that kind of attention. A United Nations appeal to help them return home has not raised a single dollar after nine months.

"When the media go all out on one crisis, they drain a lot of donor money to the televisual events," says Denis Pingaud, director of development for the Paris-based charity Doctors Without Borders. "That means there is less money for other places."

And the fund base appears to be shrinking. International aid as a whole fell from $55.4 billion in 1996 to $48.3 billion in 1997, as rich countries devoted a smaller proportion of their wealth than ever to helping poor nations, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Emergency humanitarian assistance is sliding as well - dropping 40 percent from $3.5 billion in 1996 to $2.1 billion in 1997.

That drop is especially alarming, relief workers say, in light of the fact that natural disasters appear to be striking with unprecedented force.

Last year was the worst on record for the sheer number of natural disasters, according to Munich Re, a German reinsurance firm, with more than 700 "large-loss" natural catastrophes causing more than $90 billion in worldwide economic losses.

Major natural disasters have tripled in the 1990s compared with the 1960s, the firm estimates, although scientists say this pace could slow in the future.

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Greater need in 1999

One thing is clear, this year has been especially full of emergencies: The International Red Cross began the year aiming to raise $181 million, but has now raised that target to $300 million.

Not all the emergencies are entirely natural, of course. The recurring climate feature known as El Nio has been responsible for part of the recent upswing, and events like the Turkish earthquake are also cyclical, but their effects are more devastating than they once were, experts say.

"An insidious combination of human-driven climate change, environmental degradation, and population pressure to occupy once-marginal land is throwing millions more into the path of potential disaster" from floods, mudslides, and the like, warned this year's "World Disasters Report" from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Other emergencies are wholly man-made, such as the refugee crises sparked by military conflicts in Kosovo and many parts of Africa.

Media interest is key

How people elsewhere respond to these emergencies depends on many factors, say workers at relief agencies. But the media play a key role, they agree.

"Nowadays TV crews get to the major crises before we do," says Mr. Pingaud, of Doctors Without Borders. "Television can almost make or break a humanitarian crisis, by deciding how to play it."

That is reflected in the success and failure of different Red Cross appeals.

Appeals on behalf of the Kosovo refugees, victims of hurricane Mitch, and Sudanese children suffering from disease have all raised more money than was requested.

But appeals for people displaced by the war in Angola, for Congolese refugees in Zambia, and Ethiopian drought victims have failed to attract even 25 percent of the funds needed.

Africa is especially hard hit by what some people call "compassion fatigue."

"Humanitarian programs have had to be cut back and even lifesaving assistance in many instances is not being provided where it is urgently required," because UN appeals on behalf of 12 million Africans at risk have raised only 44 percent of the target amounts, UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said earlier this month.

Identifying with victims

Often, disaster relief fund-raisers say, donors' responses depend on how closely they identify with the victims of catastrophe. Thus Americans gave especially generously to relieve the effects of

hurricane Mitch because Central America is nearby, and hundreds of thousands of Central Americans live in the United States.

Likewise, European citizens are proving extremely generous in the wake of the Turkish earthquake: millions of them have vacationed in Turkey, and more than 4 million Turks live in other parts of Europe.

Overall, private donations to emergency appeals are holding up, relief agencies report, despite the drop in governmental support.

Though no exact figures are available, fund-raisers in Britain, France, and the US all say their publics are ready to dip into their pockets when disaster strikes.

The problem, says Ms. Wahlstrm of the Red Cross, "is not with the immediate emergencies - we can get money to deal with them. The real reduction we all feel is in donations for longer-term stuff, rebuilding, rehabilitation, and so on."

In Turkey, as with any natural disaster, she adds, "the next phase, after the first immediate needs have been met, is the complicated bit."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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