Student Action on the
By Alan Shapiro
To the Teacher:
is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action
or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that
have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. People
don't become inured to what they are shown--if that's the right
way to describe what happens--because of the quantity of images
dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feelings."
Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
The huge outpouring of money and other forms of support for the victims of the tsunami disaster in South Asia is a testament to human compassion. Doubtless, many students in your own classes feel moved by the loss of life and sufferings of those who survived. How can they avoid the "passivity that dulls feelings"? The purpose of these materials is to help students translate feelings into action.
Three sources of information that can be helpful as the class considers what it might do are:
American Council for Voluntary International Action (www.interaction.org), describes itself as "the largest alliance of U.S.-based international development and humanitarian non-governmental organizations. With more than 160 members operating in every developing country, we work to overcome poverty, exclusion and suffering by advancing social justice and dignity for all." The Council's website includes current news about the disaster, an archive of information, and suggestions about donating appropriate material, volunteering, and supporting needed legislation. The Council stresses that the best form of help is money. A gift of money allows professional relief agencies to buy exactly what's needed (unlike donations of clothes and the like), and prevents the donor from giving something that is not appropriate for the recipient's culture, diet or environment. Money doesn't take up warehouse space or require expensive transport. Money supports the economy of the disaster area
American Institute of Philanthropy (www.charitywatch.org/hottopics/hottopics.html) is a watchdog and information service. It includes a graded list of charities "currently offering relief services to the victims of the earthquake and tsunami that has devastated parts of Southeast Asia." It provides telephone numbers and links to more information.
www.charitygovernance.blogs.com. Tax lawyer Jack Siegal has analyzed a list of relief groups to determine if donors can earmark their funds His findings are available on this website.
United for Peace and Justice, an antiwar organization, has useful suggestions and links for those who want to support social justice for tsunami victims (www.unitedforpeace.org/article.php?id=2683).
Helping the tsunami victims
A common response to a disaster suffered by others is a desire to do something. The easiest thing to do is to contribute to an organization that is helping the victims. Governments as well as many thousands of Americans and people from other countries have already sent aid to the survivors of one of history's greatest disastersóthe December 26, 2004 tsunami. The giant wave struck the coasts of 12 countries, killing 150,000 or more people and devastating coastal regions of South Asia, especially in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India.
Immediate aidóin the form of water, food, clothing, blankets, shelter, equipment, medical supplies, and doctorsóhas poured into the region. Such aid is critical. But what often receives much less attention in disaster situations is vital long-term aid. For many, the suffering will continue long after TV, radio, and newspaper coverage diminishes, then disappears.
The Center for American Progress (www.americanprogress.org) writes that "organizations that have the greatest long-term impact tend to follow four principles."
1. They invest in local organizations and people in order to reduce long-term dependence.
2. They keep overhead costs high enough to attract quality personnel and acquire quality goods while spending the bulk of funds on actual relief.
3. They engage in relief efforts, but also long-term reconstruction and development activities.
4. They don't discriminate among populations or proselytize among victims.
The Center also urges us to keep our eyes on such other issues as:
- Staying Power. Pay attention to the division of funding between immediate relief efforts and reconstruction. Are donor government pledges, like our own of $350 million, as well as support from the American military, actually delivered? Will poor countries also get relief from their debts?
- Budget Squeeze. Pay attention to whether our government takes money from existing foreign relief programs for tsunami relief.
- Who's on First? Does relief aid get to the people who need it most? Is the aid constructive? Is it managed according to international humanitarian standards?
- Remembering the Forgotten Places. In one week the United Nations received more money for earthquake and tsunami relief than it did for all humanitarian relief combined last year. We need to note whether money for vital help is increased or decreased to such regions and countries as Northern Uganda, Eastern Congo, Sudan, the Ivory Coast, Bolivia, and Haiti.
- The Blame Game. Those involved in the disaster response, including national governments as well as non-governmental organizations, may begin to complain about one another's slow responses or slow delivery of aid. The global community should avoid recriminations and keep a collective eye on serving the victims.
For discussion and possible continuing inquiry
Are students clear about the extent and nature of the disaster? A map of the region can help to clarify this. The tsunami was set off by a 9.0 undersea earthquake caused by a 600-mile collision on the Cascadia fault between two tectonic plates under the Indian Ocean off the coast of Indonesia. The tsunami struck the coasts of 12 countries with no warning and with devastating force.
Consider the four principles stated by the Center for American Progress. Why is each one important?
Students may not be aware that though nations make funding commitments when disaster strikes, they don't always keep them. Earthquake victims in Bam, Iran, have nowhere to live but tents because only a little more than half the money promised a year ago has not arrived. In another situation, aid pledged for African development seems to have been forgotten. (New York Times editorial, 1/4/05) The U.S. is one of the guilty parties in each of these cases. Students might be interested in finding out more about each situation and then in expressing their views to the responsible government officials.
Students could continue their tsunami inquiry by:
- Monitoring whether donors deliver on their pledges to the tsunami victims and whether money keeps arriving for reconstruction.
- Investigating whether the tsunami aid the U.S. provides is in addition to money that has already been targeted for foreign assistance programs, or supplants it.
- Finding out what the needs are in specific places and whyóand then investigating whether the aid is meeting those needs.
- Evaluating how well the international community works together to deal with the overwhelming needs of the tsunami victims.
- Considering what the students of this class, individually and collectively, can do to translate the compassion they feel into action, Can they create a project that focuses on the long-term needs for help?
Some Possibilities for Action
1. Solicit contributions from family members, friends, and neighbors to contribute to a disaster relief organization that the class chooses for its donation.
2. Raise money through such fundraising activities as yard and garage sales, car washing, door-to-door solicitation, and special events: raffles, potluck suppers, dances, variety shows.
3. Investigate the possibility of adopting a village, a family, even an individual in the disaster area for support. Consider involving other classes, the rest of the school, and other schools in this or other possible projects.
4. Volunteer to work for a relief agency.
5. Organize a letter-writing campaign to ensure that pledged money from our government actually gets sent and does not come from money committed to other humanitarian efforts.
6. Make a long-term commitment to continue efforts.
Whatever the class decides, they should create an action committee to develop specific goals and a work plan. Volunteers then need to commit themselves to taking specific steps. The teacher should act solely as an advisor, allowing students themselves to manage and carry out the work. In any extended project, the action committee, with the help of the rest of the class, should regularly assess progress toward goals and correct the project's course as needed.
Have a class evaluation at the end of the project. How successful do students believe their efforts have been? What problems did they face? How did they deal with them? What lessons have they learned? What might they do differently next time?
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