Times UK - May 22, 2008
Rosemary Bennett and Jane Macartney in Chengdu
For the millions still suffering in misery after Cyclone Nargis and the Chinese earthquake, how their plight is presented on the world’s TV screens may be of little interest. For them food, shelter and medicines are the overriding priority.
But it appears that media coverage may be of great consequence. While millions of dollars have been flooding into China – much of it from the corporate world – appeals for aid to Burma have been less successful.
Mark Astarita, head of fundraising at the British Red Cross, said the reporting of China’s disaster was “immensely powerful”, but it also made the situation in Burma look even more impossible. “At the end of the day, charitable giving doesn’t necessarily follow need. Disaster fundraising follows the news agenda,” he said.
Multinationals have all made generous donations to the earthquake appeal. HSBC, Glaxo and Unilever have each given $1.5 million (£740,000) to China’s special emergency fund. BP, Diageo, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and Pfizer have also made significant contributions.
Executives privately admit that their reasons for giving to China are not all humanitarian. They are also driven by the need to bolster business relationships in the country.
Although some companies have also have also donated to Burma – Merrill Lynch has given $1 million to both China and Burma – the cyclone appeal is struggling to engage the corporate world and the general public.
Britain’s national fundraising appeal for Nargis has raised just £8 million since it began almost two weeks ago.
In contrast, the Red Cross Society of China has raised more than $400 million and the Government’s emergency fund more than $500 million.
Experts say the disaster is greater in Burma where 134,000 people are dead or missing and 2.4 million are homeless, with many sheltering from terrible weather under trees and plastic sheets. In China 74,000 are dead or missing and although five million are homeless there is a greater government infrastructure to help them.
But reports of aid being blocked have undermined the Burma appeal. Fundraisers are also frustrated that there is little TV footage to illustrate the plight of the people, or show the success that some charities are having. The Red Cross has had 20 planeloads of aid successfully distributed and Save the Children half a dozen. Its workers have now reached the westernmost tips of the Irrawaddy delta.
In China, journalists have been given unfettered access to the disaster zone so every news bulletin around the world has shown dramatic footage of survivors being pulled from the wreckage by heroic rescue workers, and the homeless being offered shelter and food by aid workers.
Mr Astarita said: “When there is clearly acute and visible need, and pictures show that victims are being helped, just as we see in China every night on the news, people give money.”
But it is also China’s rapidly expanding economy that has made it a magnet for donations. Dozens of multinationals have a base there, huge numbers of staff and millions of customers. The earthquake has given them an opportunity to show their commitment to the country.
In addition the relief effort coincided with protests against foreign companies after the Olympic torch demonstrations worldwide. Their donations have helped them to reconnect with their customers, some of whom were threatening a boycott of foreign goods.
A spokeswoman for GSK said its donation was more generous than the money given to Burma, or the Bangledesh cyclone last autumn. GSK gave about £50,000 each to Burma and to the Bangledesh cyclone appeal last September. “We have a lot of business in vaccines and consumer health care goods in China. Our donation reflects the scale of the disaster and our commitment to the Chinese people,” she said.
“We have given a smaller amount to Burma, not because our commitment to the people is different, but because we did not want to overwhelm the aid agencies who are having such a difficult job there.”
A spokesman for HSBC declined to comment on why it had made such a generous donation to China, but pointed out its strong and historic ties with the country. The company has so far given about $62,800 to Burma. It gave about $145,000 to Bangledesh.
However, an executive at another multinational, which has given more than $1 million to the Chinese relief effort, was more candid.
“China is big business and it is important to be seen by the Government to be doing the right thing, and that is the same for every company,” he said.
“In particular with China it was important to offer help before the Government had to ask for it. It is a cultural thing. It is not a country that wants to have to ask for help.”
The Disaster Emergencies Committee is putting a brave face on its Burma appeal saying it was encouraged by “ongoing interest”.
Brendan Gormley, its chief executive, admitted it was difficult to get across the message that aid was getting through in Burma and the major charities were reaching victims.
“It has been hard because of the lack of pictures to tell the human story and to cover the aid effort. That is overwhelmed by the political story. All we can do is keep saying we are there and we could be spending far more,” he told The Times.
Reactions to the disasters
— Earthquake on May 12
— 74,000 dead or missing, 5 million homeless
— Foreign media given unfettered access
— Chinese Government has raised $500 million, Chinese Red Cross $400 million
— UN donated $8 million
— 250,000 temporary housing units under construction, 280,000 tents shipped and 5,000 epidemic prevention workers sent to 125 villages
— Hundreds of foreign aid workers
— US supplied spy satellite images for Chinese Government to examine dams, reservoirs, roads and bridges
— Investigation under way into whether public buildings were poorly constructed
— Cyclone struck on May 2
— 134,000 dead or missing, 2.4 million destitute
— Foreign media banned
— Disasters Emergency Committee has raised £8 million, UK pledged $10m, UN $10m, Japan $10m, US $3m, France $3m, Australia $2.8m
— Burma says it has spent $2 million on relief work
— World Food Programme fed 212,000 of the 750,000 people most in need after regime relented and allowed in nine UN helicopter flights
— Red Cross has distributed 20 planeloads of aid and Save the Children six. Save the Children has reached more than 160,000 people
— Offer of aid from US warship in area turned down