Keeping Pace With Nature's Fury
Fri, 09/12/2008
Editorial Intern

Almost four years after the 2004 tsunami in South Asia, one of the deadliest natural disasters in history, relief and rebuilding efforts in the affected areas are far from over.
But in the years since, disasters and crises in other areas of the world have also demanded attention and humanitarian aid, including the cyclone in Burma and the earthquake in Sichuan, China, both of which hit in May of this year, and more recently the war in South Ossetia, Georgia. Add to that the damage on U.S. soil from a succession of tropical storms and hurricanes.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) have been actively working in areas affected by the tsunami, as well as in Myanmar (Burma), and the JDC has efforts in Georgia and China as well.
When a disaster—natural or manmade—strikes, immediate relief is always necessary, but it is only made possible by quick and immediate fundraising.
JDC’s first step after a disaster is to open a “mailbox campaign” and inform people that they’re accepting donations for the specific emergency, said Will Recant, assistant executive vice president at JDC.
Initial relief work is always undertaken with a concern for the amount of fundraising that will follow. “You can never tell how large or small the response will be,” said Recant. “We generally try to do an immediate distribution of aid...and [later] we employ a longer-term development strategy towards intermediate longer-term relief.”
AJWS also begins its fundraising as soon as possible, sending out e-mails and posting information on their Web site about their efforts in the affected areas. AJWS maintains a constant “Rapid Relief Fund, which allows us to respond immediately to a crisis,” said Maya Crawford, Associate Director of Programming at AJWS.
Initial relief at a disaster site is made possible at first with funds from Rapid Relief, before donations start arriving. The fund also helps to provide relief for those stories and disasters that don’t necessarily make front-page news, and don’t garner a great deal of attention financially.
Fundraising for tsunami relief after the 2004 disaster was extremely successful for both JDC and AJWS, likely due to the media’s extensive coverage of the disaster, which claimed the lives of over 250,000 people.
JDC managed to collect over $19 million to use in the four most affected countries: India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Once the majority of emergency assistance to internally displaced persons was completed, their goal turned towards re-establishing livelihoods, rebuilding schools and community centers, and training teachers and support workers, said Recant.
JDC has been working in the area by partnering with local and national organizations, like World ORT; Magen David Adom; Chabad; Caritas/Catholic Relief; MASHAV, the international development arm of the Israeli Foreign Ministry; the renowned local Thai organization, Population and Community Development Association, and countless other associations.
After initial food distribution and emergency relocation was completed, JDC granted funds to these organizations for specific projects and developments for rehabilitation in the Indian Ocean area. All $19 million received to date has been allocated to projects that are completed or in progress.
“By and large JDC will have finished their programs by 2009,” said Recant.
“If someone wanted to donate funds to tsunami relief we would accept it and we would direct it to one of the partnership programs going on...we’ve developed so many partnerships with competent transparent trustworthy local organizations that are still fulfilling needs,” he said.
AJWS has also done extensive aid work in the tsunami-affected areas, raising $11 million to implement their rebuilding and rehabilitation programming. AJWS has provided numerous grants to grassroots organizations such as the Rural Organization for Social Education in India, the Community Encouragement Foundation in Sri Lanka, and the Youth Employment Summit Network in Pakistan, who have been aiding in rebuilding livelihoods, training and advocating for women, and providing greater access to educational tools for youth and adults.
Both organizations are also attempting humanitarian relief in Burma, after the deadly Cyclone Nargis hit the area just four months ago. Relief efforts have often been difficult due to restrictions and scrutiny by the oppressive military junta, and workers must keep a low profile to be effective.
The AJWS has been working extensively in the area since the cyclone hit, but recovery is still a while off.
“In a country like Burma, it is not a surprise that there hasn’t been as much progress in responding to people’s needs as there should be,” said an AJWS spokesperson, lamenting the difficulties relief workers have faced.
To date, AJWS has raised over $300,000 for cyclone relief, and while that number pales in comparison to tsunami relief records, a phenomenon that is “mostly attributed to it receiving so much less attention in the press ... our grantees have made incredible use of that funding and are doing incredibly meaningful work in a challenging atmosphere,” said Maya Crawford, Associate Director of Development.
Here too, AJWS is partnering with local and grassroots organizations to fund programs dedicated to helping small communities in Burma.
“Our partners are doing a combination of some food relief and where possible trying to do some rebuilding ... working with teachers and health care workers who are already in the area,” said the spokesperson.
“It will take an estimate of about another six months of food relief and it’ll be years to rebuild,” she said, “but we’re not going anywhere, these were our partners before and they will remain our partners after.”
The JDC has also been working on the ground in Burma, partnering with local organizations and sending JDC staff members and workers in to provide relief.
“We were one of the first aid agencies to be able to get in to the devastated region and a JDC staff person himself distributed relief,” said Recant.
So far JDC has distributed 10 tons of water chlorination pills throughout the region and is working with organizations like Pact and Civic Society Initiative to dispense food, medicine and emergency supplies. They have also worked closely with the tiny, eight-member Jewish community in Yangon, Burma, providing them with a generator and assisting in synagogue renovations.
JDC is also doing extensive work in China—specifically the Sichuan province - after the deadly earthquake there more than four months ago. As of July, relief efforts from the heaviest hit areas have been withdrawn, and national attention has turned toward reconstruction.
“In China most of what we’re doing is in partnership with the Israeli NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) [Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development], doing training and working on disaster management preparedness,” said Recant.
In yet another humanitarian crisis, last month, Russia and Georgia engaged in military conflict, resulting in the deaths and injuries of many Georgian civilians, as well as major infrastructure damage and displaced peoples.
JDC has maintained staff members and programming in Georgia for years prior to the conflict, so they were able to mobilize quickly. Their major mission in Georgia currently is assisting the numerous Jewish communities who have “tremendous need right now,” said Recant.
“JDC is fully engaged in and operating in the rescue and relief of Jews caught up in the war zone, and in addition to that we have just allocated some funds that will go to the Georgian Red Cross for some humanitarian work that’ll be done,” he said.
Both AJWS and JDC are world renowned names in disaster relief and humanitarian aid, often serving as advisors for associations working in other parts of the world.
“They’re just two very separate organizations with different mandates,” said Recant, of their relationship.
“Since we are well coordinated and there is no overlap, we work very well together. The general feeling from both is that there is a lot of room to do good work out there, even with both of us at maximum capacity, it is not a fraction of what’s needed.”