The Indian Ocean tsunami changed forever the way the world looks at disaster relief. Four months to the day after nearly 200,000 lives were washed away, public and private groups are forging alliances, both to help tsunami victims rebuild their lives, and to ensure a better response when the next disaster hits.
A group of 200 U.S. business executives known as the Business Roundtable, met Monday at U.N. headquarters to formalize partnerships formed after the tsunami. Group president Hank McKinnell of the drug company Pfizer said the business community is hoping to build on the success of the tsunami relief effort.
"Something very positive happened on Dec. 26. The massive and sudden devastation led us all to rewrite the old rule book on how we work together, those in need led us to demolish the walls that separate us, and to put a premium on speed," he said. "As a result, we were able to get more aid more quickly to more people than ever before in history. Now comes the question: do we have the will, the resolve and the energy to sustain this progress and to build on it."
Keynote speaker at the Roundtable event was former President Bill Clinton, who has accepted the job of U.N. special envoy for tsunami recovery. He said he is encouraged by estimates that private sources have given $2 billion for the relief effort, a large portion of it over the Internet.
But Mr. Clinton said the hard part of the relief effort lies ahead, after the television cameras leave the tsunami-hit region and the world's attention shifts elsewhere. He noted that some countries make big aid pledges initially, but then fail to deliver. He predicted difficult times in the coming months unless donor countries make good on all their aid pledges.
"It's the middle period where we are now that is most difficult, where I predict you will see the largest number of newspaper stories you wish you didn't have to read, after reading how wonderful it was in the aftermath of the tragedy, when everyone was working together. It's understandable but not acceptable," he said.
U.N. emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland urged the business group to extend its help to some of the world's other emergencies. Mr. Egeland, who in the early days of the tsunami relief campaign called the donor community "stingy," said in other regions of the world, particularly in Africa, thousands die daily because there is not enough to meet basic needs.
"In the 25 emergencies around world that we as humanitarian partners are now dealing with, it's only the tsunami area where we have adequate resources to meet the needs. In all other areas, we are desperately behind," Mr. Egeland.
Pfizer chief McKinnell, however, said tsunami-like responses for other humanitarian crises could only be expected when, as with the tsunami, potential donors have a clear picture of what must be done and how to do it.
"Absent a road map to success, I don't think you're going to get the private sector engaged the way we did with the tsunami. Could we do that in the Congo, that sounds like a more intractable problem," said Mr. McKinnell.
U.N. officials say more than $6.5 billion in relief aid was pledged in the wake of the tsunami. Almost one third of the total has either been received or guaranteed, making it the largest humanitarian response ever.
But relief coordinator Egeland says donations for other humanitarian disasters often reach only five to ten percent of their goal. He said in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, 1,000 people a day are dying from largely preventable diseases, He describes the figure as "a tsunami death toll every few months, for years on end."