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Spreading the Love

Breaking the cycle of short-term attention span for natural disasters

By Alexander R. Konrad

Tomorrow, the musicians Salman Ahmad and Shahram Azhar will perform in Leverett House to benefit the victims of one of nature’s major tragedies. Through that benefit concert, “Umeed-e-Sahar,” the Harvard community can use song to raise money for the countless victims of the earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan on March 11. The concert joins nationwide efforts that include the donation of songs by Justin Bieber, U2, Rihanna, and others. What sets tomorrow’s concert apart, however, is the fact that it mainly supports the victims of another disaster: the earlier flooding of Pakistan. This dual focus, because it considers not only the latest crisis but also one whose damages are still strongly felt, demonstrates a broader awareness too often lost in public support after headline-grabbing disasters.

In recent days Japan’s disaster recovery has received much comparison to previous efforts after disaster. This has prompted speculation about why Japan’s disaster has not created the same rush of support in the same way as Haiti, the Indian Ocean tsunami, or Hurricane Katrina. Yet agencies have been active in soliciting donations; such evaluations by total dollars do not do justice to what has been a strong outpouring of support. At Harvard, this week has seen concerted efforts of fundraising and events that conclude tomorrow with the Harvard-Radcliffe Asian American Association Benefit Concert. Our community, and many others across the country and globe, has demonstrated admirable unity and compassion in identifying with the Japanese people and seeking to help them.

Rather than question those efforts, it’s important to consider that many aid agencies have not been requested to help in Japan. World Medical Relief, an agency based in Detroit, has sat tight with its stockpile of medical instruments, unneeded, as local efforts in Michigan funnel aid to the Red Cross. With a strong branch of the Red Cross of its own, Japan does not have the need for such aid that was so critical in Haiti. Canadian aid agencies already reportedly plan to use unneeded funds for other purposes unexpected by their donors. And in other nations such as South Africa, it has been asked why major efforts to raise aid not necessarily asked for by Japan cannot be replicated for local projects with great need. These represent just several examples of the massive effort worldwide to assist Japan regardless of the country’s actual needs.

The fact that some assistance may prove superfluous, of course, should not minimize one’s willingness to send assistance to Japan. The country will have huge hurdles to face for years, if not decades, and help will be welcome. Reports of Japan’s agencies handling much of the initial efforts on their own, however, strike me as consistent with the efficiency and strength I witnessed when I traveled through the nation a decade ago. More recently, it has made me think every day about a column I wrote almost exactly a year ago about the relief efforts in Haiti. In that column, I warned that future disasters would make it easy to forget that ongoing efforts in Haiti will take a sustained effort, even as we show support for the world’s latest victims. Today, Haiti has made some progress—its presidential runoff election on March 20 appears to have occurred with minimal disturbance—but the country has a difficult road ahead.

As we give our thoughts and dollars to Japan, we cannot forget the places in the world where World Medical Relief’s instruments—like other supplies present in Japan—are still sorely needed. A humanitarian crisis has been developing in Ivory Coast since November; 300,000 people have fled their homes. Thousands of Somalians are languishing at the troubled country’s border with Kenya and Ethiopia; militia groups there have called directly for aid agencies’ help. Afghanistan, a post 9/11 concern for many Americans but increasingly a politically unpopular subject, remains a critical area for international aid. Closer to Japan, over 100,000 people face the threat of starvation after their rice crop failed in Laos. Libya, of course, will require a major concerted effort, if its government ever topples or allows in such aid.

Unfortunately, the list of places in desperate need of help far exceeds these examples, and will likely always do so. We can take some comfort in the fact that the international community has set up an array of aid agencies who will continue to assist these places to the best of their ability, regardless of public awareness.

With public awareness, however, comes the vast potential of unusual donations—everyday citizens buying donated pop songs or texting donations to the Red Cross. It is heartening to see this reaction in full sway with Japan. I hope, however, for more initatives like tomorrow’s Umeed-e-Sahar—with one eye open to the latest crisis, but another eye open to the many tragedies whose needs greatly exceed their attention in the headlines.

Alexander R. Konrad ’11, a former associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.

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