NIAS ISLAND, Indonesia — The flotsam of disaster was everywhere: trash, bricks, splintered wood, household effects, clothes, debris. Buildings by the ocean were mostly leveled. Across the road several structures survived, barely: Only their side walls, perpendicular to the water, still stood. Plastic sheets replaced missing walls.

Known for its idyllic surfing, Indonesia’s Nias Island suffered from the Dec. 26 tsunami even before the more devastating earthquake of March 28. The island’s losses — hundreds of dead, thousands of homeless — were small compared to the casualties on much larger Sumatra Island next door. But the human suffering was the same.

Although governments began publicly competing to promise the most official aid to the tsunami zone, international assistance largely bypassed Nias. The hotels in Sumatra’s Medan, a short hop away from devastated Banda Aceh, were full of aid workers from a dozen nations and scores of agencies, public and private. Traffic into Nias’ capital of Gunung Sitoli was much less.

But small private organizations stepped in to meet what were still very real, public needs. Shortly after the tsunami, Jim Jacobson, president of Christian Freedom International, a lean humanitarian group based in America, made the lengthy trip to Nias, an overwhelmingly Christian island in an equally overwhelmingly Muslim country.

CFI (www.christianfreedom.org) had to surmount the administrative challenge of transporting donated goods to a distant, rugged island, and then on to west coast disaster areas separated from east coast air and port facilities by a crude road. Nearly impassable to anything other than a four-wheel drive vehicle, the 80-km drive took four hours.

The earthquake damaged Binaka airport and destroyed homes, businesses and other buildings all over the island, making the challenge even greater. In response, CFI drew on surplus goods collected earlier while stepping up collection of medicine, tools, blankets, clothing and other items — even children’s toys.

Private aid shows up in many forms. Some money runs through large charitable groups. The Red Cross, Catholic Relief Services, Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam America, Save the Children, World Relief and CARE all raised tens of millions of dollars in the aftermath of the tsunami. Many such organizations support ongoing development projects around the world.

Big foundations and companies also contribute. The Gates Foundation supports extensive AIDS treatment programs throughout Africa and recently announced a $750 million grant to increase access of poor children to vaccines.

The pharmaceutical giant Merck works with the Gates Foundation, providing pharmaceuticals for AIDS treatment in Botswana. Pfizer, an even bigger drugmaker, donated $25 million worth of medicine and $10 million in cash to aid tsunami victims in Southeast Asia.

Proctor & Gamble has developed the PuR Water Purifier, which makes contaminated water drinkable. Each powder-filled packet cleans 2.5 gallons (9.5 liters) of water.

The purifier is useful most anywhere in the developing world, but especially in disaster areas. P&G has worked with nongovernmental organizations and faith-based groups, such as Samaritan’s Purse, to distribute its product at cost. In the aftermath of the tsunami, the company donated millions of packets and made millions more inexpensively available, providing enough purifiers to clean more than 150 million liters of drinking water.

But size is not everything. The most nimble and creative are the small organizations like CFI. Devoted to saving individual lives rather than entire societies, CFI collected materials for Nias before large organizations were even thinking about the island.

CFI runs orphanages and schools for ethnic Karen refugees from Myanmar now living in Thai refugee camps. The group also builds simple clinics, termed “freedom hospitals,” and trains medics to work inside Myanmar, where the Myanmar military routinely destroys villages and terrorizes residents.

In the aftermath of extensive Muslim-Christian violence in Indonesia’s Moluccan islands, CFI provided aid to refugees in camps on nearby islands. And the organization is currently raising funds to create a training center for handicapped (many blind) Christian converts in the largely Islamic nation of Bangladesh. They suffer what amounts to a dual disability, enduring both public and private hostility.

The world is simultaneously awash in tragedy and opportunity. The poor will always be with us, but those who possess much have moral responsibilities to those who possess little. While presidents and prime ministers debate the efficacy of new government aid initiatives, a multitude of private assistance programs make it possible to give both generously and effectively.

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