It has been a cruel spring for international relief-and-development groups. As they scrambled to meet the unpredicted magnitude of needs facing the Kurdish refugees, earthquakes rocked Costa Rica, Soviet Georgia, and Peru. The quake in Peru complicated the already arduous task of workers attempting to stem a deadly cholera epidemic, which is now spreading into other South American nations. Then a killer cyclone slammed into Bangladesh, leaving as many as 200,000 dead.

As those catastrophes played out, the threat of another African famine loomed on the horizon, a disaster many experts say could be more devastating than the one in 1984–85, when more than 1 million Ethiopians starved to death.

“We’ve been absolutely inundated,” said Adventist Relief and Development Agency (ARDA) president Ralph Watts, summing up the experience of most groups. Relief veterans agree the past three months have been unprecedented in the number and severity of disasters coming so close together. The difficult situation has forced groups to juggle resources, prioritize efforts, and battle “compassion fatigue.”

Donor Burnout?

For many agencies, which are primarily sustained by private contributions, the biggest concern has been the fear that donors are growing weary of a near-constant stream of disaster solicitations. Last month, Save the Children reported a 20 percent drop in contributions. Interaction, a coalition of relief groups, also said that giving was down between April and May.

So far, however, most Christian groups say they have not seen the decline in giving that many of their secular counterparts have reported. “We have some very faithful donors, Christians who believe that God has asked them to feed the hungry, and [they] have dug very deep into their pockets,” said Food for the Hungry information specialist Karen Randau.

World Vision vice-president of development Craig Hammon said his group has actually seen an increase in donations over last year. “At least among our donor constituency, compassion doesn’t seem to have any bounds,” he said.

Yet, even if they have not faced a decline in donations, Christian agencies admit the barrage of emergencies has left them financially stretched. World Relief, for example, depleted its disaster reserve fund in early May. “We’ve had to use up everything that has been provided to us,” said international program director Bastian Vanderzalm. “Even though we’ve had a good response, the level of the need and the requests that we’ve had for assistance have made it impossible for us to do anything other than simply send out the funds as they have come in.”

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Decide By Faith

These budgetary considerations compound the difficulties groups face in determining what disasters they will become involved with and the depth of that involvement. Although most Christian groups prefer to emphasize long-term development projects, they are also committed to responding in some way to every emergency. A variety of factors play into those determinations: whether the group already has a program or church network in the area; the amount of need; the amount of resources that may be secured; the requests made by local churches; and the unique project their group may offer.

Because resources are needed immediately during an emergency, groups make initial commitments based on what they think they will be able to raise from their donors. “Every one of our decisions is made in faith, and then, after the fact, we begin as quickly as possible communicating with our constituents and donors about the need,” said Hammon. “As that response becomes clear, oftentimes we will increase it.”

Such was the case in Bangladesh. World Vision made an initial commitment of $100,000. Response from donors was good, so they increased that to $500,000, and then again to $2.5 million.

Yet, because of the magnitude and frequency of emergencies this spring, groups have been forced to make tough decisions. “What we try to do is take what limited funds we have available and direct them to the area in a way that will be an encouragement to the churches,” said Vanderzalm. “Then we simply have to say that given the interest of our own donors and the attention of the world in certain areas, unfortunately, there are simply not the resources available to provide the kind of response we’d like to provide.”

Short Attention Span

A major frustration for most groups is the fact that their disaster fund-raising agendas are largely driven by news-media coverage. Funds come in fastest when an emergency situation is prominently portrayed on television and in the newspapers, and they slow down as media coverage tapers off. “Until it’s on the cover of Time magazine and Newsweek and CNN does extensive coverage on it, no matter how much we may trumpet it in our newsletter, the people are not going to respond as enthusiastically,” said ARDA’S Watts.

And even when the media coverage is heavy, there is only a small window of opportunity, said Vanderzalm. “There is an emergency, and people pay attention to it for about 10 or 12 days, and then it drifts off the news pages and out of our television programs, and people tend to think the situation has been solved,” he said. “But many of these people are then engaged in a rebuilding process that will take several years.”

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Currently, relief groups say the news media are virtually ignoring the impending famine in Africa, making it difficult to raise funds. “So much attention has been diverted from this area that there simply is not enough food in the ‘pipeline’ to help the people who already are searching the ground for any morsel of food they can find,” Randau said. By the time the attention comes, added Vanderzalm, “it will almost be too late.”

Internal Fatigue

Despite the myriad problems posed this spring for Christian relief groups, most say their biggest challenge has been battling compassion fatigue—not from donors, but from within. “We are overextended,” admitted Vanderzalm. “We have had staff people working almost day and night in very difficult circumstances and having to set aside some of their other responsibilities in order to do it.”

Watts said personal spiritual renewal is the key to weary relief workers overcoming fatigue. “[We] need to constantly get our batteries recharged, and not forget our mission to minister,” he said. “We need to be constantly on guard lest we become somewhat indifferent, just looking at things from a cynical, professional approach. That would be tragic.”

By Kim A. Lawton.

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