- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 29, 2005

Among the thousands of letters from donors to CARE for tsunami relief, a handful stand out: those from elderly Europeans who remember with gratitude the aid they received from Americans following World War II and now feel moved to help others left destitute.

I thought about that reminder of our historic roots — CARE was set up to send “CARE packages” of food to Europe — as I visited Sri Lanka’s hard-hit east coast earlier this month.

Comparing the aftermath of the tsunami to the wreckage of postwar Europe is apt on several levels. First, the areas ravaged by the deadly waves are at least as devastated as bombed-out Coventry, Munich or Rotterdam. Second, the current international response could well be informed by the multiyear Marshall Plan that put Europe on the road to recovery. And, finally, the comparison may promote understanding that immediate relief, to ultimately succeed, must always make the transition to a long-term commitment.

Of course, the world has changed dramatically since 1945, when CARE was formed because no other American nonprofit was prepared to respond to the threat of famine in Europe.

Scores of humanitarian organizations and governments arrived or sent help to survivors within days of the tsunami. And while the Marshall Plan for rebuilding what had been an industrialized Europe is an imperfect analogy for the needs of poor South Asian coastal communities, the past 60 years of humanitarian work can illuminate our path.

We have learned, for example, that imported food aid, while vital to immediate needs, can distort local economies and trigger inflation if continued too long; so can the influx of high-paid expatriate staff.

Today aid groups acquire supplies whenever possible on local markets and hire indigenous staff where we work, both during emergencies and for long-term development. As CARE and our sister agencies have evolved from American into international organizations, humanitarian work has matured from a one-way flow of resources from rich to poor into cooperation with communities to improve lives.

The bulk of CARE’s work — 60 percent of our spending — focuses on long-term development, with the rest on emergency response and rehabilitation. It is no accident CARE is a major player in the relief effort in countries hit by the tsunami: We have worked in each of them for decades, beginning in India in 1950 and Sri Lanka in 1956.

Our experience with reconstruction after Hurricane Mitch, which hit Central America in 1998, suggests recovery for Asia will take from five to 10 years. The international community initially came together to provide food, water and shelter for Mitch survivors. But the essential tasks for economic recovery and building community resilience remain incomplete.

The importance of long-term community development is apparent when considering the human factors exacerbating “natural” disasters. Hurricane Mitch killed more than 10,000 people in Central America, most living in extreme poverty, in flimsy housing on precarious sites. By contrast, Hurricane Andrew, of similar magnitude, took 23 U.S. lives. Lax building codes, environmental degradation and ineffective communications also contribute to disproportionate deaths.

Improving infrastructure and building communities’ skills on matters such as emergency response could save as many lives during disaster as high-tech solutions like satellite-based tsunami early-warning systems.

The global community’s financial commitment following the tsunami is extraordinary, well beyond the norm for natural disasters. Yet, it is no secret that many national pledges to U.N. disaster appeals go unfulfilled. Moreover, governments often count contributions already earmarked for long-term development in a region, or shift resources from one disaster to another. We must not cut vital aid for people in dire need in countries like Sudan or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Let’s hope the tremendous outpouring of concern for victims of the tsunami can be channeled into a deeper commitment to addressing the poverty, disease, armed conflict and misgovernment that lead to untold suffering.

The Marshall Plan led to development of today’s stable, prosperous Western Europe, a payoff worth infinitely more than the cost. An investment of a similar magnitude could help build a just, sustainable future for more than a billion people worldwide now living in extreme poverty.

The promise that grew out of the rubble of Berlin could be repeated many times over along the battered shores of South Asia, and beyond.

Peter D. Bell is president and chief executive officer of CARE USA. CARE works to end poverty in the poorest communities of more than 70 countries. For more information: www.careusa.org or toll-free phone number (800-521-CARE).

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