Gifts flooding relief agencies

Charity for Kosovars arrives at record pace

May 27, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

From helpful to unusable, U.S. donations for refugees expelled from Kosovo are flooding relief agencies at a record pace, nine weeks after NATO bombs began to rain on Yugoslavia.

Coming so quickly after Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America in October, the response to the Balkan crisis has heartened agencies worried about donor fatigue.

At the same time, relief workers laboring in other parts of the world -- and on social issues here -- are shaking their heads at the selectivity of the media's focus and donors' attention.

While total Kosovo donations to date have not surpassed those in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, they have eclipsed the contributions to ease suffering in Rwanda, where tribal slaughter killed more than 800,000 people in 1994.

For example:

The American Red Cross reports it has raised $27 million in the United States to aid the refugees -- about three times what it garnered for Rwanda.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, working outside Kosovo on behalf of 40 Jewish agencies, has raised $3.5 million -- $2 million more than it received for Rwanda, Hurricane Mitch or the well-publicized famine in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s.

CARE International has raised $3 million in the United States, $1 million more than for Rwanda over three years and much more than the $414,000 it took in for the relief of the conflict and famine in Sudan during the past two years.

Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services has raised $14 million in the United States for Kosovo so far, compared with $21 million for Rwanda during the past two years. But, at the rate donations are coming in, the total might go much higher.

Money pours in

"The money really did pour in for Rwanda," said Tom Price, a spokesman for the agency. "I think this will surpass it."

Much of the money is coming from small donors, moved by images on television and in newspapers.

"Everybody wants to hug a refugee," said Stephen Hricik, a senior program associate at InterAction, a national network of 160 relief agencies. "It's what they see on television. Here at work, I see a lot of situations. I wish there was more attention brought to Angola right now, or to North Korea."

Long-term watchers of philanthropic patterns point to the pervasiveness of media coverage, expanding opportunities to give via the Internet, and Kosovo's echoes of World War II as reasons for the heightened response.

General increase in giving

Giving by Americans also is generally on the rise, according to a national report released this week that estimated an increase of 11 percent in donations to charity.

Exsul van Helden, a Baltimore photographer and filmmaker, has been among those moved to give. Affected by images of the refugees, van Helden donated a $250 photograph to a recent artists' benefit in Fells Point to raise money for the women and children of Kosovo.

He said he felt less connected to the problems in Africa. "It's too far away," van Helden said. "I think the fact that we can identify with [Kosovo] opens your heart more."

One factor in that identification, refugee workers say, is that many Americans had family members involved in the horrors of World War II in Europe. Another factor is this country's active role in the bombing that critics say precipitated massive "ethnic cleansing."

Jewish groups' efforts

Jewish charities have been active in the effort to gather funds, stressing the similarities between the "ethnic cleansing" of Kosovo and the atrocities committed against Jews during the Holocaust, a crisis in which Americans intervened too late.

"I am absolutely amazed and also have such gratitude that Jews have got the right vibe about this," said Michael Schneider, executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. "You cannot be there without being reminded of the displaced persons camps after the Holocaust. It's another grave next to our grave."

Right or wrong, Americans might respond to crises overseas more swiftly than to the social problems evident in their neighborhoods.

That's because Americans perceive there are programs in place to help people here, said Robert L. Payton, a professor of philanthropic studies at Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy.

"I think a lot of those people say to themselves, effectively, `I gave at the office through my taxes,' " Payton said. "Or, `I gave for these things through the church or my annual contribution to the United Way.' "

Awareness of far-off causes

Jennifer Dunlap, senior vice president for corporate services for the American Red Cross, says the far-flung generosity is not unique to Kosovo, but part of a trend among donors toward increased awareness of far-away causes.

"Hurricane Mitch and Kosovo are the two that have really demonstrated the willingness of the American public to help," Dunlap said. "I think people are feeling part of a globalized world as they have never before. It changes the way we give."

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