Donations for relief of Somalis pour in as U.S. role grows, photos stir charity OPERATION RESTORE HOPE

December 10, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

Intense American focus on Somalia, with compelling picture of people starving to death, has prompted an outpouring of contributions for relief work, according to agencies operating in the ravaged East African country.

"Compassion fatigue is over. Human suffering has gotten through, and America is doing a daring and audacious thing, risking the lives of its own people for altruistic purposes," said John Mohrbacher, a spokesman for CARE in New York.

More than $500,000 has poured into CARE since the American intervention was announced, Mr. Mohrbacher said. "But we need $5 million -- cash -- over the next several months to do what we need to do. CARE has spent $14 million in Somalia since the beginning of the year," he said.

In the mid-1980s, grim pictures of famine and mass starvation in Ethiopia brought on huge private American contributions, but until the focus on Somalia really developed, relief agencies were receiving a much lesser response.

Seemingly endless ordeals in country after country provoked what charity officials called "compassion fatigue" -- because of fears that food gifts would end up in some warlord's warehouse, anxiety about the American economy, or a sense, after years of hope and help, that nothing could stem the death toll.

Karen Donovan, a spokeswoman for InterAction, a coalition of 140 relief organizations, said that its members collected $110 million for Ethiopian relief in a six-month period at the height of that crisis in 1985. The same agencies raised only $11 million for Somalian relief through November, but donations are now rising quickly, she said.

Response to news

Relief agencies reported substantial increases in the size and number of contributions since October when American press and television began to focus on the stricken country and the skeletal figures of starving people began to appear on television screens at dinner time.

The American mission to relieve hunger and suffering in the ravaged East African country is comparable to the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II, Mr. Mohrbacher said. "We have shocked the world. They might ask why all this effort in the farthest corner of the Third World? That's the kind of nation we are; there is a special American response to hungry people," he said.

Jack Morgan, a spokesman for Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore, said, "Once people see the graphic evidence of what's happening, they find it's not such a big deal to make a contribution."

Susan Pyle, of the International Red Cross, said, "What we see here is that every time people in this country see people hurting, they are very generous and caring." The "tremendous response" for victims of Hurricane Andrew in Florida and other states is being matched by the response to the disaster in Somalia, she said.

Increase in donations

John A. Swenson, deputy executive director of Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore who has just returned from Somalia, said that the expanded American role has led to "a large increase in the volume of unsolicited donations," at least $500,000 in recent months.

Armed gangs who stole food are more responsible for the emergency than famine, he said, adding that the full extent of the disaster is unknown because no relief agencies have ventured into many areas because of the volatile security situation.

American military intervention should permit help to reach those areas from which horror stories of thousands starving to death have come, but which no one has been able to verify, he said.

Lee Mullane, of Save the Children, said that frustration grew as the situation in Somalia appeared hopeless, but that now Operation Restore Hope "gives hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel." That is reflected in increased contributions, she said.

Donations to Save the Children remained steady from August until October when newspaper and television coverage of Somalia increased, Ms. Mullane said. "It started to climb in October; we have raised $400,000 since August, most of it in October. Also, this is the giving season, and that helps," she said.

Wendy Ryan, of the Baptist World Alliance, and Julie Kamerman, of the Columbia, Md., office of the Church World Service, said that the decline in contributions reversed in October when the tidal wave of publicity about Somalia began building.

"Now we are seeing them up tremendously," Ms. Ryan said.

Multiple gifts

Ms. Kamerman said that the U.S. recession had made people cautious about giving away disposable income, "but now that Somalia has suddenly come to the forefront," they are donating more.

She said that $115,000 in contributions earmarked for Somalia has been sent this year, and that part of the $2.4 million designated for southern Africa aid will be used there, too.

Jack Bode, spokesman for the International Rescue Committee, said, "It's hard to separate Yugoslavia and Somalia."

He said contributions for Somalian relief "picked up in July, August and September, dipped with reports that the food was not getting through, then picked up again" as American involvement increased.

A spokeswoman said that the U.S. Committee for UNICEF, the United Nations children's agency, has raised $1 million this year for Somalian relief, between $250,000 and $300,000 of it recently.

Multiple gifts are also increasing, with some people sending at least one check a month because of the concurrent tragedies in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia, the spokeswoman said. UNICEF's direct-mail campaign has raised $17 million this year, with millions of new appeal letters being prepared.

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