Thursday, May 15, 2008

Aid Groups Pleased With Response to Myanmar and China Crises, by Caroline Preston - The Chronicle of Philanthropy - 14th May 2008

Donations to help victims of the Myanmar cyclone continued to mount on Wednesday, even as charities faced enormous hurdles in bringing aid to the country. More than $8-million has been pledged so far to some of the biggest aid organizations in the United States.

At the same time, groups have begun providing aid to victims of this week’s earthquake in China.

A major obstacle in Myanmar, charity fund raisers said, has been the government’s refusal to allow large-scale foreign assistance, which has left many donors hesitant to give.

“There are donors who are interested in supporting relief efforts but are concerned about how difficult it is to work in Myanmar,” said Carolyn O’Brien, senior vice president of development with AmeriCares, which was awaiting clearance for a plane now in Amsterdam. “Some donors are holding back.”

Some aid officials expressed concern that China’s earthquake could divert donor attention away from Myanmar. Ed Bligh, vice president of communications with the International Rescue Committee, said the dearth of photographs from the Myanmar disaster had hurt fund raising for the crisis.

“With the earthquake in China, there have been really compelling photographs that moved donors,” he said. “There have been some photographs from Myanmar, but had there been unfettered access for the news media, for video and camera crews, I think that would have had an impact on donations.”

But Ms. O’Brien, of AmeriCares, said that fund raising for the two disasters might be complementary.

“From my point of view, having multiple disasters just raises general awareness of how important it is to help victims,” she said. Her charity raised $10,000 online for the earthquake, mostly from new donors, in a 12-hour period.

Donation Tallies

Among the groups raising money for cyclone victims:

* Save the Children has won more than $3-million in pledges and gifts, including $1-million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also gave $1-million each to CARE and World Vision. Not on Our Watch, a charity established by actors George Clooney and Don Cheadle, among others, to end mass atrocities around the world, has pledged up to $500,000.

* World Vision has received more than $2.75-million, including the grant from the Gates foundation.

* Donors have contributed or pledged $1.375-million to the International Rescue Committee.

* Mercy Corps has received nearly $1-million, including $150,000 from Chevron.

* Donations to AmeriCares total $300,000.

* The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has raised nearly $115,000. Most donors have contributed gifts between $500 and $1,000 to the relief response.

Still Waiting

Frustration among charity officials continued to grow this week, as many staff members sat in Bangkok awaiting visas to enter the cyclone-devastated country. On Wednesday, The New York Times was reporting that some aid supplies had been stolen by the government.

There were a few hopeful signs, however. The United Nations announced on Tuesday that an additional 34 visas had been granted to its staff members, even as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed “immense frustration” over the slow pace of relief efforts.

Charity officials were grappling with how to respond to the crisis. Some groups with employees in Myanmar were purchasing mosquito nets and other materials within the country. The United Nations was helping to airlift charities’ relief materials from places such as Dubai.

Charities were also identifying local partners to help them supply aid. Groups were working with monks, the Red Crescent Society, and other local groups.

But aid officials said the response is still falling woefully short of meeting the needs of victims. They warned that the country faces a second wave of deaths unless more can be done.

“It remains challenging,” said Melissa Winkler, a spokeswoman with the International Rescue Committee. “Even though we’re certainly seeing more supplies coming in, it doesn’t come close to what’s needed.”

Myanmar Employees

Meanwhile, charities with employees on the ground in Myanmar were emphasizing to donors that they’ve had some success in reaching victims.

“We’ve been very clear from the beginning with our donors that World Vision is an organization that’s been on the ground working from day one and that we will be distributing our own supplies,” said Rachel Wolff, communications director for disaster response with World Vision.

Her charity, which had 600 employees in Myanmar before the storm, has reached an estimated 100,000 victims.

Ms. Wolff said that she was encouraged that the news media were still focusing attention on Myanmar 12 days after the cyclone struck.

“The media continues to cover the crisis in Myanmar even as China has gotten a lot of coverage,” she said. “Both of these crises are highly visible to the American public, and that will assist in our fund raising.”

Despite the many obstacles to providing aid, charities said that donations were still continuing to come in at a reasonable pace.

“We haven’t seen a real slowdown beyond the usual ‘week two’ effect,” said Joy Portella, a spokeswoman with Mercy Corps, in an e-mail.

Echoed Mr. Bligh, of the International Rescue Committee: “We haven’t seen a slowdown yet.”

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