Twenty-two people, including Burlington Mayor Peter Clavelle and members of his staff, crowded around a conference table on the first floor of City Hall last Friday to discuss how to help survivors of the recent Asian tsunami disaster. Clavelle convened the meeting to avoid confusion and duplication of local efforts.
Attending representatives from businesses, churches and activist circles described a variety of fundraising endeavors. Megan Epler Wood, a development and ecotourism consultant who has worked in Sri Lanka, planned to hold a house party on Sunday to benefit a group called "Rebuild Sri Lanka." "My priority is getting a check out right now," she told the group.
Gary Chassman and St. Michael's professor Tara Naharajan discussed a "village-to-village project," in which a "village" comprising Burlington and the surrounding towns would adopt a corresponding municipality in Sri Lanka. The city of Burlington already has five sister cities, though none are in the areas directly affected by the tsunami.
Chassman and Naharajan plan to work through a Sri Lankan organization called Sarvodaya to create a long-term relationship with a village that extends beyond emergency relief. "We have a long tradition of giving," Chassman reminded the group, "but we also have a long tradition of short attention spans."
Several other fundraising efforts came up during the course of the conversation. The Burlington High School Student Council has raised nearly $600 to date. Let's Pretend Catering is trying to schedule a brunch at the Echo Center. The Shelburne Athletic Club, the International Red Cross, JapanLink Translations and The Burlington Free Press are teaming up for a walk-a-thon on Saturday, February 12.
Tacked to the wall behind the conference table were several colorful maps of Burlington, all featuring the distinctive curve of the Lake Champlain shoreline. They beg comparison to the villages and towns halfway across the world that have been destroyed by water. To get a sense of the scope of the catastrophe, imagine a wave rising up and obliterating not only Burlington, but all of Chittenden County, too; Reuters News Service reports the death toll from the tsunami has surpassed 175,000 -- that's more than a quarter of Vermont's population.
But the size of the disaster alone doesn't entirely explain the outpouring of local support, nor does it account for the swift response of the U.S. government, which has pledged $350 million in aid.
In a January 16 Los Angeles Times commentary, Terry George suggests that the question is not "Why are we so moved by the tsunami?" but "Why aren't we more moved by man-made tragedies?" George is the director, co-writer and producer of the film Hotel Rwanda, which documents the 1994 genocide that killed 800,000 people in 100 days. He concedes that the tsunami relief is necessary, but asks why the same concern hasn't been shown for African countries ravaged by violence and AIDS. A United Nations report released Monday, which calls for increased U.S. development aid to poor countries, estimates that 150,000 African children die of malaria each month -- what it calls a "silent tsunami."
"These African crises are the result of tidal waves of hate," George writes. "Are they any less lethal because of that?"
As charitable Americans pitch in to help rebuild after this catastrophe, some, like George, are hoping a wave of support will make its way to equally deserving, but less sensational, corners of the world. "The tsunami aid effort has clearly proved that when the great powers have the will they can respond rapidly and decisively," George writes. "Have you ever heard those two words -- 'rapidly' and 'decisively' -- used to describe intervention in, or aid for, Africa? Why not?"