Raising the Giving Stakes | Current Affairs | DW | 08.01.2005
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Current Affairs

Raising the Giving Stakes

The tsunami that killed over 150,000 in southeast Asia was a terrible tragedy, but aid organizations are worried it might have swept other global disasters out of the public eye.

Celebrity fundraiser: Christina Rau (left), wife of the former president

Celebrity fundraiser: Christina Rau (left), wife of the former president

Almost two weeks after the tsunami disaster struck, the unprecedented wave of public compassion across Germany shows no sign of abating.

In 1991, Cologne's legendary street carnival was cancelled for the first time since WWII due to the Gulf War. With the tsunami fresh in everyone's minds, it may not take place this year either.

Unwilling to cancel the festivities, the Cologne Carnival Committee has suggested staging benefit events during carnival season to raise money for victims. Member Sigrid Krebs rejects accusations that public partying is possibly inappropriate in the wake of the southeast-Asian floods.

"I don't feel it's a contradiction," she said. "Our charity initiative is based on the principle that if you can party, you can donate. If everyone donates just one euro, then we'll raise quite a lot."

The unstoppable flow of philanthropy

If they really do start reaching for their wallets, the Cologne revelers will be joining the ever-expanding ranks of Germany's philanthropists.

Over €60 million ($78 million) have already been raised, with television stations competing against one another to raise as much money as possible with celebrity-studded charity galas.

Benefez Sendung ZDF Wir wollen helfen - Ein Herz für Kinder

So far, a cooperation between public broadcaster ZDF and the mass-circulation Bild Zeitung (pictured) has raised the highest figure -- a staggering €40 million, making it the most successful charity appeal on German television of all time.

The down-side

But as the public congratulates itself on its generosity and world leaders outbid each other with aid pledges that may or may not come good, aid organizations have warned that the media response to the tsunami might end up overshadowing other crises.

While most German charities framed their aid requests so that they were not legally tied to providing specific assistance in one country, "Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) " has urged donors to stop sending money for Asian tsunami victims, saying it has collected enough funds to manage its relief effort there.

It now tells anyone making a donation that its tsunami program is already financed and that they can make a donation for a different crisis.

Flüchtlinge im Sudan warten auf Essensausgabe

"We've asked people to send us non-specific donations because then we can plan more flexibly and invest the funds where they're most needed, which currently includes Darfur, Congo and West Africa," said chairperson of its German branch Ulrike von Pilar, referring to ongoing crises which have left millions dead and regions ravaged -- but which have attracted far less media attention.


It's a position that's facing angry criticism. Other aid organizations feel it could put the brakes on the extraordinary wave of private charity.

But in fact, MSF provides emergency aid rather than long-term relief. Its aid workers visit crisis regions for a limited period only. Other organizations focused on long-term development assistance stay on to help in reconstructions efforts -- and these welcome the sudden increase in public and private donations.

Forgotten disasters

Every year, the German Central Institute for Social Issues (DZI) awards aid organizations seals of approval. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, CEO Burkhard Wilke stressed the need for the public to donate to crisis regions all over the world.

"I've talked to a number of donors who are deeply concerned that Africa and Latin America have been put on the backburner, so they want to make sure their money goes there," he said.

"That makes sense, and doesn't mean no one should donate to southeast Asia. In cases like that, there's never enough money," he pointed out. "The worst thing one could do is to compare urgency at the expense of other causes."

UN emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland (photo) has also called on the world not to forget those in need in other parts of the world. UN General Secretary Kofi Annan agrees. "In seven days we got more money in response to the tsunami crisis than we did for all the humanitarian appeals we issued in 2004," he told a US network.

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