Long-term attention, aid needed for tsunami-stricken nations

L.A. Cicero Tsunami Emmerson

Donald K. Emmerson, right, the director of the Southeast Asia Forum at SIIS, said the tsunami devastation elicited such great worldwide support because it was a natural disaster with "no guilty party."

Indonesia needs a three- to five-year commitment from the international community to help it recover from the devastating Dec. 26 tsunami, according to Lizanne McBride of the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

While the world has responded with unprecedented levels of support, McBride told about 120 people attending a Jan. 24 discussion at the Stanford Institute for International Studies (SIIS) that the real test will happen when "the cameras leave" and the disaster no longer makes global headlines. "The opportunity is here now," she said, "but experience has shown that the attention just can't be sustained."

As director of the post-conflict development initiative at the IRC, McBride is concerned with maintaining critical support for the victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami as well as other people suffering from natural disasters and conflicts around the globe. "Past experience shows that money disbursed does not always equal amounts pledged—nor do all pledges represent new money," she said. "Some may have come from other crises that need equal attention. It's really important for us in the aid community to keep that pressure on" so assistance is spread equitably.

McBride, a visiting fellow at the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, joined former Stanford President Donald Kennedy, the Bing Professor of Environmental Sciences, Emeritus; Eric Weiss, an assistant professor of surgery; and Donald Emmerson, director of the Southeast Asia Forum at SIIS, to discuss the immediate and long-term implications of the tsunami that has killed an estimated 212,611 people in 11 countries. Stephen Krasner, deputy director of SIIS, moderated the panel.

So far, the catastrophe has elicited enormous empathy worldwide because it is a natural disaster, Emmerson said: "There is no guilty party here." In contrast, he noted, the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region is manmade. "Although the memory of [the genocide in] Rwanda and the failure to respond impels a response to Darfur, that's a historical precedent that's not as immediate as images of the tsunami," he said.

Emmerson, an expert on Indonesia, said he is very cautiously optimistic that the disaster could have positive political implications concerning the ongoing Islamic insurrection in Aceh, the worst-hit province of Indonesia that also has been under a state of emergency since 2003. He noted that a Finnish organization, Crisis Management Initiative, has offered to "establish a dialogue" this week between the separatists and the Jakarta government. "This is a remarkable development and very encouraging," he said. But he cautioned that the Free Aceh Movement does not represent everyone in the province and that elevating it to a status it does not deserve could complicate the crisis in the long term.

In addition to humanitarian motives, Emmerson said domestic and foreign actors have a calculated self-interest in their response to the crisis. For example, he said, the Indonesian government has sent additional troops into Aceh to perform disaster relief, and it is coordinating resources flowing into the region—two developments that give it leverage in the conflict. China also has strategic goals, he said. "It's timing much of its assistance to later, when [most] of the relief workers have gone home and the relief effort has dropped off the front pages of western papers," he said. "Then it can say that China is a permanent friend, not a temporary one."

Weiss, an expert in disaster medicine and chair of Stanford's Bioterrorism and Emergency Preparedness Task Force, said that assistance geared to helping victims become self-sufficient in the long term is more important than "band-aid" help from well-meaning but untrained health workers. He talked about two groups responding effectively to the tsunami: the International Medical Corps, a private, nonsectarian, nonprofit dedicated to rehabilitating devastated health care systems, and Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), an independent humanitarian medical aid agency. "A disaster like this draws many health care providers out of their nests, and they have a strong urge to help," Weiss said. "But a lot of people don't have the training, experience and expertise, and end up being more of a liability than an asset."

According to Weiss, the most important relief work needed in Aceh now is mass immunizations. "It may not be the stuff that hospital TV dramas are made of, but immunizations are vital to health care in a devastated region like this," he said. For example, he said, more than 60 cases of tetanus, a preventable disease, have been reported in Aceh. Other major health problems requiring treatment include infected wounds, aspiration pneumonia and diarrhea, he said.

As emergency relief efforts roll out, McBride said relief agencies must plan for medium- and long-term recovery efforts that do not undermine a local population's dignity and self-reliance. When faced with survivor needs as well as pressure to spend funds and show results, McBride said aid groups may be inclined to lead reconstruction efforts—a tendency that must be fought at all costs. "It's a hard balancing act, but it's an important one," she said. "When we miss that we don't do good development work."