Money is the best way of helping. They need us to give even more

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The Independent Online

Few of us felt we could welcome the New Year without pausing for a moment or two to remember the victims of the tsunami. And what is the point of thoughtful silence, or even prayer, unless it is accompanied by action?

Few of us felt we could welcome the New Year without pausing for a moment or two to remember the victims of the tsunami. And what is the point of thoughtful silence, or even prayer, unless it is accompanied by action?

So the collecting buckets filled quickly at the Hogmanay celebrations in Scotland, just as the credit card hotlines had melted and the websites crashed before them. The amount given by the British public passed £50m as the old year gave way to the new, and another £10m in donations had been added by the time many people were getting up to nurse sore heads yesterday lunchtime. That's enough, surely? A staggering, inspiring response: job done?

The answer is no. Not at all. The money that has been raised so far is already enabling British charities and their local partners to provide food for the starving, clothes for the naked, shelter for the cold and drinking water for those with no choice but to try to survive among the debris of their former lives. But emergency aid alone will not be enough.

It is always true that every appeal suffers when our need to give has been satiated and our attention distracted, but if that happens again, the suffering of the victims of the tsunami - which is already staggering - will multiply.

Many of the people who lived in the devastated parts of South-east Asia were already poor. Now, with their homes shattered and their sources of income - fishing nets and boats, farmland, tourist bars and hotels where there were some - ruined, they have nothing. No hope of rebuilding, unless the world goes on caring.

The Independent on Sunday wants to help keep the momentum going by launching its own appeal today, a week after the earthquake that sent tsunamis crashing into the shores of South-east Asia. The money you give will go directly to help those who need it most, thanks to the Disasters Emergency Committee, a coalition of charities which is coordinating most of the British aid.

The dozen member organisations include Save the Children, which is already providing for 27,000 people in the worst-hit parts of Sri Lanka; Christian Aid, which is distributing 50,000 food kits that will feed 250,000 men, women and children in southern India; and Oxfam, whose charter flight carrying 27 tons of equipment left for Sri Lanka and Indonesia yesterday. On board were the water tanks, pumps and taps needed to build emergency drinking-water systems for homeless families. Flood water and decomposing corpses have contaminated the drinking water, resulting in an extremely high risk of disease.

More aid flights will follow, but the journey from airports in England to Sri Lanka and Indonesia and then on by plane, helicopter, boat or truck to the most remote parts of the region is long, difficult and slow. The money you give will be spent on the supplies themselves, as the British Government has agreed to pay for transportation. Planes - and prices for hiring them - are currently at a premium.

The 12 charities who make up the DEC - those not mentioned so far are Action Aid, the British Red Cross, Cafod, Care International UK, Age Concern, Help the Aged, Merlin, Tearfund and World Vision - began planning how to spend money as soon as they learnt of the crisis on Boxing Day morning. Rather than wait for funds to be cleared by the banks, the charities were given figures - which were repeatedly updated - of how much was coming in for them. They then borrowed these sums with immediate access from their own banks and underwriters.

Even experienced aid campaigners such as Brendan Gormley, chief executive of the DEC, were staggered by the British public's response to the appeal. "The last few days have been deeply moving," he told the IoS. "The rate at which funds are coming in has not dropped off, and in some ways it has accelerated: the platform for our website could not cope with demand but in the 24 hours after it was souped up by BT we took £10m."

Some well-intentioned people have been moved to offer clothes, or blankets or children's toys, and have tried to organise their own shipments to South-east Asia. But as the international aid effort continued to grow yesterday - not least with dramatically increased contributions from the United States and Japan - the British Government and aid agencies stressed that money was the most appropriate gift because it afforded the greatest flexibility to enable them to respond to changing needs on the ground.

"As far as we are concerned, the only concrete and useful help is funds," said Paola Ferrara of the Italian branch of Médecins Sans Frontières.

Hundreds of people have offered to go to quake-stricken areas to distribute food or medicines, or even to take in injured or orphaned children. But Unicef's spokeswoman Donata Lodi said in Rome: "We do not need untrained people to go to the area or to shelter children outside their home countries, although this widespread response is a very positive sign that people care."

It might seem cold simply to give money in the wake of a catastrophe of the scale of the Boxing Day earthquake, but aid professionals know that an emotional response to disasters can often be the wrong one. Low-value, high-volume articles such as clothing and blankets are available from merchants even in the poorest countries; flying them in and handing them out for free simply bankrupts local traders and adds to the problem. For this reason, space on aid flights is best kept for goods like drugs that cannot be bought locally.

"Money is by far the most effective tool available for emergency relief," said the DEC's Mr Gormley. "We want to say very strongly to people, 'Please, if you have items to donate, then take them down to the local charity shop where they can be sold and the money sent to us.' That money means that damaged local economies in the affected areas can be revived, and it enables us to be precise in matching the supplies we are giving out to the needs that need to be met."

Disaster relief involves forcing huge amounts of money and effort into the narrowest of bottlenecks, and then ensuring that the right supplies trickle through. In this situation, as the United Nations emergency aid chief Jan Egeland noted last week, unsolicited donations are a curse. Assessment of needs in the affected region is vital, even at the cost of being able to begin doling out aid the moment relief workers arrive. Giving way to emotion can mean being unable to help far larger numbers of victims a few days down the line. "We are facing a marathon," said Mr Gormley, "not a sprint."