Burma: Another Case of Aid Groups Crying Wolf?

The New York Times reports that the most dire predictions about the effects of Cyclone Nargis on the Burmese people have not occurred:

. . . doctors and aid workers returning from remote areas of the [Irrawaddy] delta are offering a less pessimistic picture of the human cost of the delay in reaching survivors.

They say they have seen no signs of starvation or widespread outbreaks of disease. While it is estimated that the cyclone may have killed 130,000 people, the number of lives lost specifically because of the junta’s slow response to the disaster appears to have been smaller than expected.

Writing in the L.A. Times last month, David Rieff criticized aid groups for their tendency to exaggerate the human tolls of wars, natural disasters and other humanitarian crises:

In reality, no one yet knows what the death toll from the cyclone is, let alone how resilient the survivors will be. One thing is known, however, and that is that in crisis after crisis, from the refugee emergency in eastern Zaire after the Rwandan genocide, through the Kosovo crisis, to the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the 2004 South Asian tsunami, many of the leading aid agencies, Oxfam prominent among them, have predicted far more casualties than there would later turn out to have been.

In part, this is because relief work is, in a sense, a business, and humanitarian charities are competing with every other sort of philanthropic cause for the charitable dollar and euro, and thus have to exaggerate to be noticed. It is also because coping with disasters for a living simply makes the worst-case scenario always seem the most credible one, and, honorably enough, relief workers feel they must always be prepared for the worst.

But whatever the motivations, it is really no longer possible to take the relief community’s apocalyptic claims seriously. It has wrongly cried wolf too many times.

Burma may be shaping up to be one more instance of this crying wolf. Aid groups would be well advised to heed the moral of that tale.

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