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Tuesday, April 16, 2024
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Prof returns from Sri Lanka, proposes aid freeze

"If anybody asks you to give money to the tsunami victims now - don't," said AU Washington Semester professor Amos Gelb. "[Aid organizations] have more money than they know what to do with."

Gelb should know - he followed the Christian Children's Fund through the devastated coast of Sri Lanka as the group's representative tried to decide how to empty his pockets of $1.5 million - a mere fraction of the more than $4 billion donated from foreign governments and millions more donated by private citizens, CNN reported Jan. 19.

"My aim is not to denigrate people's desire to help; my aim, in having been there, is to say don't waste it," Gelb said. "I'm all for people doing something when it matters, but don't waste it just because you think you have to do something right now."

Instead, Gelb, who spent Jan. 1-7 in Sri Lanka producing a tsunami special for CNN, suggests donating in six months.

"[Aid organizations are] trying to spend all the money right now to make a big splash and show the big difference they're making," Gelb said. "The economy isn't really shattered - the train line, the infrastructure is damaged, but that's not the kind of stuff these aid organizations can do ... they have this focus on children and [demolition and reconstruction] is something they don't really know how to do."

CNN called Gelb, their former employee of 13 years, at 5 p.m. Dec. 30 to cover the tsunami because he specializes in in-depth reports tragedy and has worked in foreign countries. Gelb took an $8,000 flight and landed in Sri Lanka to meet Daniel Wordsworth, a 6-foot-2-inch, 38-year-old Australian working for the Christian Children's Fund.

"[Wordsworth] has $1.5 million - donated in one week by Americans - to spend. He gets off the plane and he doesn't know what the hell he's going to see, and he's got to work out how to spend the money and how to spend the money quickly," Gelb told SOC professor Alicia Shepard's Art of Interviewing class about his experience. "Most of the help isn't coming ... from America. It's coming from the Sri Lankans helping the Sri Lankans ... if you want to do anything really helpful at the moment, I would send over a crane and a demolition crew so they can clean up and start rebuilding."

Filming in a way that communicated the destruction wasn't just difficult, but impossible, Gelb said.

"When you're standing in an area and you are looking at these cement walls, which are splintered, and then you see behind them train tracks - the tracks that have been picked up, twisted and thrown. Metal, steel, metal rods, these train tracks - bent by the force of this thing ... The pictures don't capture the power of this thing, to take brick walls like that, and splinter them like plywood," Gelb said.

On the other hand, film can't show the nuances of the story - the fact that the damage only extends for about 500 meters of coastline, Gelb said.

"The devastation out there is immense, the picture you see there is immense, but it doesn't capture that sense that it goes 500 yards, you turn the corner and it's OK," he said."Sri Lanka isn't devastated. The area, a strip, is devastated. Communities are devastated, but the country is doing just fine."

However, Gelb noted that where the tsunami hit, the devastation was "total." He estimates more than 400,000 people, not a quarter-million, died.

"If an entire family, extended family, has been wiped out, has been washed away, who's going to report them missing?" Gelb said.

He chose to focus CNN's report on one boy, Benit, who lost his father in the tsunami. Benit's situation was similar to that of many others in the country.

"He wasn't untouched by it, but he wasn't completely erased. He hadn't lost everything and everybody. He was sort of somewhere in between, which is where most of the people who are affected by this are," Gelb said.

As the days progressed, Gelb realized the problems foreign aid workers were having.

"[The Christian Children's Fund workers] were getting really nervous because they saw that we saw that they didn't have the faintest idea what they were doing. And I took [Wordsworth] aside and I said, 'Look, I'm not going to do an investigative piece on you because I don't have the time. But ... I'm not blind and neither are you and we both see the same thing,'" Gelb said. "Now there's a legitimate reason ... how do you make a kid like Benit whole? This guy's life sucked beforehand. Impoverished fishing village, probably not going to go to school, probably didn't have much of a future, and what has the tsunami done? The tsunami has taken away his father. It is horrendous. It is a great tragedy. I've got three kids of my own; I hated filming this," he said.

The media "should" cover what aid organizations are doing, but Gelb doesn't think anyone will.

"You want to see something bad about Mother Teresa? There are [journalists] who'd like to do it, but who's going to publish it?" Gelb asked. "I just think the story has come and gone. I don't think there's an appetite for that anymore."

However, Gelb said he doesn't mean to demean the aid workers' good intentions, commitment or honesty.

"[Wordsworth] spent 10 years working with troubled kids and his wife said to him, 'You're spending too much time with these kids. It's either me or the kids.' He chose the kids," Gelb said, referring to an off-camera, off the record conversation with Wordsworth. "That's when you know what kind of person this really is, which serves as a backdrop because I now know, having spoken to them in all their sincerity, that when I see stuff he's as troubled by this as I am."

Unfortunately, Gelb said he doubts people will remember the tsunami in six months when their donations would be used more efficiently.

"[It] sort of goes to say something about the depth of this compassion that we feel ... it is this American, incredibly selfless and generous altruistic trait, but it's sort of undirected." Gelb said. "Everybody's going to forget it, it's not even on TV anymore."

Still, having discussions on the tsunami, like yesterday's School of International Service forum, is still important now.

"It's important to understand the human suffering and understand the biblical proportions ... the academic pursuit of it is very valid, it's fascinating studying these things," Gelb said. "But there's a difference between understanding them and helping them, there's not a lot that you or I can do to help right now"


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