How did Christian organizations respond to two of the world’s most severe disasters?

Relief organizations were glad to see 1985 come to an end. Two of history’s most devastating disasters came less than two months apart—earthquakes in Mexico City in September and a volcanic eruption in Colombia in November. More than 30,000 people died in those two disasters.

This one-two punch on the heels of mass famine in Africa tested the resiliency of the disaster-relief community. Private organizations, denominational agencies, and national governments responded. But in many cases the collective response lacked coordination. The perennial problems of large-scale relief efforts surfaced, including duplication of services and the accompanying waste of material and human resources.

Within a week of the Mexico City earthquakes, for example, Mexico’s capital was inundated with supplies that could not be used. “We saw plane after plane unloading what was, literally, junk,” said Larry Glass, director of national health programs for MAP International, a Christian global health agency.

Likewise, following the eruption of the Nevada del Ruiz volcano in Colombia, individuals and organizations sent so many clothes the government made a formal request that no more be sent. “Organizations feel an obligation to respond because their donors expect them to respond,” Glass said, “even if it’s not needed.”

This is not to say that all of Colombia’s needs have been met. An overabundance of short-term emergency supplies is often followed by a scarcity of resources needed for long-term rehabilitation. The rebuilding does not begin in earnest until well after the disaster has ceased grabbing headlines and donor interest has waned.

From a public relations standpoint, however, it is important to take action while a disaster is in the news. Thus, says Stanley Mitton, director of international disaster response for Church World Service, “there is the temptation to get something on the plane and to [publicize] … it in a news release.”

Sometimes getting something on a plane quickly is exactly what is needed. MAP, for example, rushed $800,000 worth of antibiotics into Colombia. (The drugs were not available in the country.) But in most cases donors and organizations help best by providing financial support.

Explains World Concern spokesman Craig Shuck: “Not only is it less expensive to purchase supplies in the country where the disaster has occurred, but it helps stimulate that country’s economy.” Mitton notes, however, that some donors are not content simply to give money. “People like to visualize something tangible flying into the disaster-stricken area.”

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The mere climate of a disaster-stricken area works against reasoned judgment and contributes to inefficiency. “In those first few days, people are in a panic,” says World Vision’s Brian Bird. “They may not know what they need. So they say, ‘Give us anything.” But Bird says the biggest reason services are duplicated is lack of coordination among relief organizations—due largely to poor communication.

Unique Challenges

Effective communication is important because each disaster brings its own set of problems. Needs range from clean water to heavy machinery. In some countries, governments monitor relief operations more heavily than in others. Without reliable contacts in a stricken area, a relief effort can be doomed. When they do not have a staff person at the site of the disaster, it is standard procedure for organizations that can afford it to fly somebody in to assess needs and determine how to meet them.

Some maintain that this in itself is wasteful, that organizations should use information already available. But reports coming out of a country are often contradictory. Church World Service got word on November 19, six days after the Colombia earthquake, that foreign medical personnel, tents, blankets, and food were not needed. On November 25, however, World Vision sent a shipment of blankets, tents, and cooking supplies.

Bird explained that World Vision had seven projects in and around Armero, including a child-care project where 156 people were killed. He said that other organizations may have had enough supplies for their relief projects, but that World Vision’s shipments were a direct response to requests from people it knew, including its own staff.

The New York Times reported on November 24 that some volunteer workers said the Colombian government had mishandled the rescue operation. They told of shortages of manpower, medicines, stretchers, and other basic supplies the government allegedly had said it did not need. In the midst of conflicting information, relief organizations operate on reports from their own sources.

Coordinated Efforts

Organizations operate independently to preserve their distinct philosophies of ministry. For example, World Relief, the relief arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, gives evangelism a high priority, and thus works within evangelical church structures wherever possible. “A lot of people in Colombia have come to know the Lord through our efforts,” says Jim Johnson, a World Relief official who oversees donor development. “You just won’t get that with secular organizations.”

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In contrast, the goals of Church World Service are not as directly tied to evangelism. “We make it clear that we are the church,” says Mitton, “and we show witness by helping, but we don’t try to convert.”

More and more, however, the disaster-relief community is seeing the merits of a coordinated effort. Evangelical relief experts regard the formation of InterAction in 1984 as a major step forward. InterAction is an umbrella group for private relief organizations, including major evangelical organizations. During a disaster, it serves as a clearinghouse for information not only on what is needed, but also on what is already being done.

In addition, the formation of the Association of Evangelical Relief and Development Organizations (AERDO) has enhanced communication and cooperation among evangelical groups. Not long after the disaster in Colombia, Food for the Hungry told World Vision it had $80,000 worth of antibiotics, but no way to get the medicine to Colombia. The antibiotics ended up on a World Vision shipment.

Food for the Hungry president Tetsunao Yamamori says such exchanges have become standard operating procedure among evangelical agencies. “AERDO has given relief leaders a platform to meet and talk about common problems,” he said. “This has contributed to smoother working relationships.”

Communication has also helped eliminate competition among relief agencies. Says World Relief’s Johnson, “People think we’re constantly competing against each other for funds. That’s blarney. There’s just too much suffering and death in the world for us to be playing those kinds of games.”

Johnson acknowledges there is room for improvement in the coordinating of relief efforts both within and outside the evangelical community. But, he says, “in most of the disasters I’ve seen, the problem has not been overlap. The problem has been we’ve needed ten times more.”


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