Coordinating relief

October 11, 2005

Another terrible disaster has struck Asia, the powerful earthquake that Saturday devastated parts of Pakistan and India. Again, there were immediate promises of aid from around the world - and immediate questions about how to efficiently provide the badly needed relief. These arose as a new report from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies sharply criticized the United Nations' management of the record outpouring of aid after the last Asian disaster, the tsunami of last December.

Yesterday, the earthquake's death toll topped 30,000 as the first trucks bearing aid finally reached the hardest-hit city, Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir. President Bush - criticized for tardy responses after the tsunami and Hurricane Katrina - has promised at least $50 million, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan said planes with American supplies were forming a "virtual air bridge" into Pakistan, and Pakistan has asked the United Nations to coordinate the relief.

Let's hope that the United Nations learned from the Indian Ocean tsunami, after which a lack of coordination among competing international aid agencies hampered relief efforts, according to the Red Cross-Red Crescent report. "The influx of goods, money and NGOs [nongovernmental agencies] led agencies to compete for space and conceal rather than share information," leading to wasteful misallocation of resources, the report said. Too many surgeons competed for too few patients at one site in Indonesia, for example, while midwives and nurses were in such short supply that mothers gave birth without medical assistance.

Disasters, of course, are chaotic. Too much relief to manage effectively is, certainly, better than too little relief. But best of all is relief intelligently focused. The tsunami was a story of NGOs awash in money but not supervision. Saturday's horrible earthquake gives the United Nations an opportunity to show that it can manage these agencies, local relief groups and military aid efforts to help the most survivors - and that makes information-sharing and coordination the name of the game.

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