In this article from The Spark, I argued that the west is attempting to gain strategic advantage from the Asian tsunami tragedy. Socialists need to argue for a move away from the charity culture that merely restores and alleviates degrees of poverty, towards real change that totally reorders society in the third world.
The vast scale of the Asian tsunami tragedy has provoked the sympathy of ordinary people around the world, compelling governments to respond, even if insufficiently and belatedly. Stories abound of the poor and underprivileged giving what they can hardly afford to the relief effort. One recent story told the account of a homeless man who emptied his pockets in a bank, saying ‘I just want to do my bit’.
In contrast to the relatively little amounts of aid given by western governments like New Zealand, we can take heart in looking at the true spirit of humanity. At the moment, millions of ordinary people around the world are overwhelmed with grief and sympathy for their fellow human beings. Donations pour in, as do offers of help. All this flies in the face of those who mock socialists when we talk about a new world of human solidarity.
The New Zealand public has given about $10 million so far, more than has been given to any previous disaster. This generosity has the potential to save thousands of lives in the months ahead.
But there are problems with a charity and aid group approach. The role played by groups like Christian Aid and Save the Children Fund – although probably well intentioned – is merely to reinforce the current system in the countries that it operates in. The fact of the matter is that they distribute money and other forms of aid in a way that can only reinforce existent power structures and hence the inequality and corruption that keeps millions in poverty and dependence. These non-governmental organisations can only ever aim to make a small difference in returning Asian cities and villages to their pre-tsunami states of poverty and underdevelopment. For example in Aceh before the tsunami there was only one hospital. Almost 40 per cent of its people had no access to health services, and more than half had no access to clean water. Reconstruction is likely to barely replace the single hospital instead of providing the infrastructure for a decent healthcare system. Reconstruction – if it can be done – merely means restoring poverty. In dealing with the troubles of third world poverty and oppression we need to raise the world’s expectations of how lives could be changed if a real political and economic revolution was to be made.
The charity model is simply inadequate to deal with tragedies like the tsunami. It might sound impressive that the world has pledged $5 billion to the relief efforts, but according to Britain’s Overseas Development Institute, at least $25 billion is needed to restore basic infrastructure and provide shelter to the previous levels. It also has to be remembered that after the 2004 earthquake hit the ancient Iranian city of Bam more than $1 billion in aid was promised by Western governments, but only $17.5 million ever arrived. And so far, only a very small percentage of the money pledged by governments to the tsunami relief has eventuated.
There are also a few paradoxes that spring up from this latest charity spurge. First, it seems odd that people are giving billions to this cause but avoid giving to other equally deserving ones. As Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) has pointed out, ‘Nobody is making this sort of fuss about all the people killed in Iraq, and yet it's a human catastrophe of comparable dimensions. According to the only scientific estimate attempted, Iraqi deaths since the war began number more than 100,000. The tsunami death toll is in the region of 150,000. Yet in the case of Iraq, the media seems reluctant to impress on the public the scale of the carnage.’ Likewise, every year one million people, mostly children, die of malaria, an easily preventable death. It seems that the potential for empathy between ordinary citizens is the subject of manipulation and opportunism by business decision makers with their own agendas in mind.
John Pilger has pointed out that the US and British government aid is dwarfed by the billions both spend on slaughter – they ‘are giving less to help the tsunami victims than the cost of a Stealth bomber or a week's bloody occupation of Iraq.’ After all, although these two countries have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, the US has spent US$148 billion on the Iraq war and the UK has spent US$11.5 billion.
New Zealand, we must remember, has also been part of the ‘War on Terror’, sending troops to both Afghanistan and Iraq. In contrast to these big operations, the Government initially only pledged $10 million in aid to the victims of the tsunami. Under pressure, the Government has now increased this to a potential $100million over five years. It has supplied three military aircraft, a 36 strong Defence Force medical team, five Defence Force staff to help with coordination work at the Taskforce Headquarters in Medan, 14 people in the forensic team as well as a further 10 personnel in the emergency response team.
Yet this response is relatively stingy. New Zealand spending on foreign aid is still well below its agreed UN target of 0.7 per cent of GDP. Furthermore, much of this tsunami aid looks likely to have significant conditions attached to it. First, it is likely that it will specify that the goods purchased by the aid will have to be from New Zealand, meaning that the aid is returned to the New Zealand economy. Second, the aid looks likely to be conditional on certain policies being carried out in Indonesia, and the Government will only extend its aid package from three to five years if it believes it is warranted. Third, much of the aid takes the form of military intervention, with serious consequences for the sovereignty of the nations receiving it.
How imperialism seeks to gain from the tsunami
As Auckland University’s Paul Buchanan has argued, ‘the tsunami gives the US a chance to revamp its image from that of unwanted occupier and global bully to that of international lifeguard, using its military might to come to the rescue where others cannot or will not.’ And of course the United States’ smaller allies such as Australia and New Zealand are also hoping to use the tsunami to improve their international moral standing. For the Bush regime, the tsunami tragedy is an opportunity to show a compassionate US face while it continues its atrocities in Iraq and around the globe with its ‘war against terror’. The heavy impact of the tsunami on the predominantly Muslim population of Banda Aceh provides the Americans with an opportunity to take the moral high ground in co-ordinating aid to the region while struggling with a loss of moral authority amongst Muslims internationally.
It seems that having ignored the deaths of thousands each year in Asia from typhoons, floods and other natural disasters, donor governments are using the tsunami disaster to expand their political, economic and military influence in the region. Their concerns have never have been humanitarian. Colin Powell has spoken quite revealingly of the US’s tsunami aid, stating, ‘This is an investment not only in the welfare of these people, which in and of itself is a good thing to do; it’s an investment in our own national security.’
Astute establishment commentators have pointed out that for countries actively involved in the relief effort, participation portends well for future relations between them. This is essentially why Indonesia is receiving such significant aid from New Zealand and Australia. As Australian Prime Minister John Howard has said, ‘In addressing the urgent humanitarian needs of those afflicted by the tragedy, it will also serve to bring our countries and peoples closer together’. Clearly western politicians are keen to obtain some leverage with Indonesia. According to Michael Richardson, a research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, ‘policymakers in the US and its close ally were also quick to see the potential for improving their sometimes tense relations with the world's fourth most populous nation by using their armed forces as a spearhead to rescue people, deliver relief and help start clear the wreckage’.
The US military has sent 14,000 service personnel and 19 naval ships, with 40 cargo and patrol planes and more than 50 helicopters to ‘help’ affected countries. Much of this is directed to Indonesia. The Australian Government will contribute A$1 billion over five years. According to Richardson, ‘Indonesia is seen as a linchpin of stability in Southeast Asia and an important guardian of international shipping straits that not only carry vital trade and energy supplies but also enable the US to send warships from its Pacific fleet by the shortest routes to the Indian Ocean and the volatile but oil-rich Gulf.’ Indonesia is also seen as a key player in efforts to counter terrorism because it has the potential to be a beacon of moderate Islam and capitalism. Likewise, the US is using its aid to show it is a friend, not an enemy, of Islam.
The west’s tsunami relief efforts are intrinsically a military operation involving the massive influx of western troops to the third world. In some instances the affected countries have had to put aside their concerns about foreign military presence on their shores and the possibility of espionage.
It seems that the most important consequence for global politics of the tsunami may be a political realignment based on who has used the opportunity to gain international stature and strategic involvement in Asia. As Richardson has stated, ‘Natural disaster has supplanted human catastrophe as the new foundational moment for the international community. It represents the first opportunity to deviate from the war on terror paradigm that has dominated international relations since 2001, and has universal moral value on which to capitalize.’ It clearly gives both those inside and outside of the ‘coalition of the willing’ an opportunity to demonstrate their powers of intervention and superiority.
Clearly, aid from the economically powerful nations has always been devised to promote donors’ interests, and this latest chapter in ‘giving’ illustrates this once more. Socialists and others interested in real change therefore need to start devising alternatives to both western imperialist intervention and the inadequate charity culture and band aids of NGOs.
The Spark 18 January 2005