A Tsunami of Aid

8 Jan, 2005 | World AffairsTdp

I doubt anyone has not heard, or is not aware, of the tsunami that hit Asia over Christmas. Many of the sites I frequent came out in support of the victims in a big way and immediately began either: appealing for money, donating money or providing ways to donate money. There were plenty of sites trying to shame their governments into giving more too. There almost seemed to be some form of competition going on, with many people almost demanding some countries (the US especially) give more. I didn’t understand this, well, I did understand it, but I didn’t think it was right. What each country gives is up to them, they don’t have to give anything, there’s no statute that says we must give. I find it a little galling that it is immediately expected we will all give aid, rather than it being an addition. Yes, we can afford to give vast sums, but can we? Last time I looked, we hadn’t ruled out poverty, suffering, even illiteracy in the UK. There are still plenty of people living on the streets in nearly every city. How many headlines were there in 2004 about people not being given life saving treatment because the NHS had run out of money or couldn’t afford it? The NHS is constantly complaining that they don't have enough funds and that people are needlessly suffering because of it. How do you tell someone, a fellow countryman, that his or her life is less valuable than another in India, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia?

Yet, when disaster strikes, we are expected to dig deep. When Florida was hit by several hurricanes back-to-back last year, causing billions of dollars of damage, did the US stick it’s hand out to the global community? No. I haven’t gone through the list of countries that have offered support (much less equating it to population size as some people have), but there seems a lack of support from the Middle East, in fact, dare I say it, Muslim states in general. Neither did I hear of Al Qeada donating to the cause (though they could have done it anonymously), despite reputedly having several billion at their disposal. I don’t remember Osama Bin Laden releasing a tape offering his support and prayers to the victims of the disaster. Indonesia is nearly 90% Muslim (and is suspected to be the base of operations for the Muslim fundamentalists who have led attacks in Asia), and practically every other nation that was hit has a significant Muslim population, so where was the solidarity for fellow Muslims?

I was watching Ricky Gervais’ new DVD, Politics, over Christmas, and while he seemed to rely on taking the p*ss out of the disabled and various other under-privileged groups (all in the interest of comedy I’m sure he’d argue, but not something a man with his talent need stoop to), he mentioned Africa. This is fresh in the minds of many at the moment because it’s the 20-year anniversary of Band Aid (or is it Live Aid? I’m not sure which is correct). Ricky spends some time mentioning Africa, how in the 1960s the countries that were part of the British Empire took control of their own destinies and left British rule. He goes on to suggest that in 1980s we got a call, a request for help because the new African nations couldn’t look after themselves. I’m not entirely sure what happened. Let’s face it, Africa isn’t the easiest continent to live on, for the most part it’s unforgiving. We, and by ‘we’ I’m mean the UK, I don’t know about other nations, had been sending aid to Africa well before the 80s, but in the 80s, sparked by Band Aid, we really upped the stakes. The concern at the moment is aid that was destined for Africa will now be diverted to help in Asia.

After 20 years and billions of pounds nothing seems to have changed though. There is still widespread famine, poverty, disease and suffering. What happened to the idea expressed on all those commercials, you know, the ones that state: give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach him how to fish and give him a net and he’ll be able to feed himself and his family everyday? If that’s the approach we’ve been taking, and I like to think it is, then there must be vast areas where people are able to fend for themselves, but we don’t hear about those, or they don’t exist. I suspect the latter. There are numerous reasons why it hasn’t happened I’m sure. For starters, large parts of Africa don’t lend themselves to agriculture. Developed nations buying low cost resources, refining them and selling them back as expensive manufactured goods is another reason. This must be easily solved, surely? Build factories in those countries, get them to produce goods to sell to each other if not the rest of the world. India and China have started on the road to becoming modern countries by building things using the resource they have a lot of: cheap labour. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but it has worked, and, with guidance, could easily work in many of the African states. One of the most notorious reasons for aid not making a difference is corrupt governments taking the aid but never passing it on, never using it to provide the facilities that could bring an end to suffering. This last one must be the easiest to address, and I know many aid agencies are now going straight to the problem rather than just passing on money and trusting the government knows where best to use it. This practice needs to be extended though, to cover all aid given over whether a country has proven trustworthy or not. Instead, some (I’m not sure how much) of the millions we donate each year is used to buy arms, to oppress people, to massacre whole ethnic groups. It’s time we stopped throwing money at Africa’s problems and dealt with them. Money alone won’t solve the problems, help and guidance are what will make a difference. In the same way the NHS has said that it’s not more money it needs, just better management, the same is true of Africa, it needs someone to take the problems head on, without feeling, without emotion, but with determination.

This sort of leads me to another point regarding the aftermath of the tsunami. There are tons of aid, hundreds of planes, thousands of men and machines heading to and moving around the area, but no one is in charge, no one is co-ordinating the efforts. We don’t know if people are duplicating effort, if there are a hundred malaria kits in Burma that aren’t being used but are desperately needed in Indonesia. There needs to be some sort of organisation that takes charge in this situation, a division for each continent that is made up of experts who have done this before, there must be plenty of people who have to deal with practically any crisis that occurs. Remember that the largest problem after the event is logistics. It would need to be a global group, split up by continent, with a permanent staff, but with a vast number of reserves/volunteers they could call on and some serious hardware ready to run (i.e. a mobile operations base they can set up anywhere, satellite comms, the works). The UN would be a natural choice, but maybe not the best. Then, when a crisis hits, they move into position and get to oversee everything, they get command of local troops, with a designated, pre-agreed number from each member country. Take the current crisis for example. The Japanese, for example, are well-used to dealing with large-scale disasters and tsunamis, they’re experienced at dealing with all the problems that arise, they’re relatively local and live in a similar climate, so stick a core team in that can start pointing out potential weak spots, things to focus on, help prioritise, direct immediate actions and set long term goals. Extend this to cover every content and you should be able to speed up the recovery and, more importantly, save lives by getting aid to people as fast as possible.

On thing this disaster has shown us is that Mother Nature, or, ultimately, whichever deity you worship, doesn’t care about race, religion, national borders or sexual orientation. It hit everyone, and showed just how insignificant humans are in global events, and how petty our squabbles are. Many people, from many different nations and religions came together to help people they had never met, whether it be financially or through hard work, it’s a shame it took devastation to do it, but maybe we can learn from it and put those differences aside altogether.