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Last Updated: Friday, 31 December, 2004, 19:05 GMT
Public opinion pushes governments
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

The unprecedented crisis over the Asian tragedy has left governments struggling to catch up with public opinion.

Distribution of aid in Medan, Sumatra
Delivery of aid remains a problem in many areas

However one of the world's most experienced humanitarian experts, former French Health Minister Bernard Kouchner, says competition between governments is good for the victims.

Mr Kouchner, who founded the charity Medecins sans Frontieres, told the French newspaper Liberation: "Governments are responding to a real upsurge of public opinion."

This process, he said, was "very healthy."

Such frankness strikes a chord with anyone who has seen relief operations. In the end, it does not matter where aid comes from or why. What matters is what arrives.

Good advice is also vital. One aspect of this tragedy has been the fear of infection from dead bodies.

People power

Yet a paper published recently by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine pointed out that survivors have little to fear from dead bodies, properly handled, and much more to fear from each other.

It is the living who spread infections. Digging latrines is as vital as digging graves.

Governments are responding to a real upsurge of public opinion
Bernard Kouchner

There is often a slow start, and in this case it took some time for the true extent of the calamity to emerge, especially in Indonesia. The Christmas break in many countries did not help either.

But "people power", spurred on by television pictures, can put pressure on governments to increase their effort. It has happened in this case.

Indeed, Mr Kouchner observed that the "globalisation of tourism plays a role in this.

"If the Western public had not seen their compatriots stricken by the tsunamis, its response would probably not have been the same."

That point could be debated, but it is certainly true that public pressure has helped.

'Through the roof'

The UK government, for one, initially offered 15 million ($29m) but upped this to 50 million ($96m) within a couple of days. It was only just keeping ahead of private donations to aid agencies.

Indian air force helicopter in Galle Sri Lanka
A huge international relief effort is under way
The United States proposed $35 million immediately but this was criticised by, among others, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, who said he "went through the roof when I heard them bragging about $35m. We spend $35m before breakfast in Iraq."

Soon afterwards, it was announced that the Secretary of State Colin Powell would visit the region. And now the White House has upped its offer ten-fold, increasing to $350m the amount to be made available for relief and reconstruction efforts.

Mr Powell will not want to leave office after the presidential inauguration on 20 January without making an impact on this crisis.

Going with him is Jeb Bush, whose experience of hurricanes as governor of Florida should prove useful, as will his clout with his brother the president.

Old issues

In fact, initial government offers are rarely their last word. They tend to increase as the need increases and will do this time.

Nevertheless, there have been some unfortunate arguments as well.

President Bush's announcement that four core countries - the US, Japan, Australia and India - would lead the relief effort caused some confusion.

We spend $35m before breakfast in Iraq
Senator Patrick Leahy

Not only did India, pre-occupied with providing help to its own victims, not seem to know much about this, the initiative also left out the UN.

The UN might not have its own army, navy and air force to deliver or drop supplies, but it is tasked by its member states to co-ordinate disaster relief and has full time officials working to that end. It does have a role.

Some hurried fence-mending had to take place, with Mr Powell heading off to speak to the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

But it left some, like former UK international aid minister Clare Short fuming about "yet another [American] attempt to undermine the UN."

Even at such a time, therefore, old issues have resurfaced. Mr Powell himself made a reference to his hope that "people will see that the United States is willing to reach out to the Muslim world in this time of need", perhaps seeing in this crisis an opportunity as well as a challenge.

Second stage

Governments and agencies will be tested and judged not only by how they respond to the first stage of the emergency. And those governments include the ones where the disaster took place.

The second, longer-term stage also needs addressing. It is sometimes neglected as the television crews move on and other crises move in.

The German government has suggested that Indonesia and Somalia should be offered debt relief and this will be discussed by the Paris club of creditor countries soon.

Indonesia itself has called a conference to discuss how donors can help.

Governments sometimes have excuses or reasons for being slow in the first stage. There is no reason to be slow in the second.




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Harrowing scenes of the aftermath of the tsunami



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