Don't ignore victims of other disasters

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 January, 2005, 12:00am

How much is enough?

Everyone feels some sort of emotion about the tsunami disaster. But for those of us lucky enough to have a bolt-hole by the Andaman Sea, the extent of our luck amounts almost to a sense of guilt. But maybe guilt should focus not on our good fortune but on the contrast between our responses to the tsunami and to other natural disasters.

We were doubly lucky. We have a small apartment 100 metres from Kata beach in Phuket. We were not there on the morning of December 26, and the waves stopped a few inches from the ground floor. Kata itself was relatively lucky thanks to its headlands and a quickly shelving beach, which gave less scope for the wave height to build. Beachfront hotels were damaged but not destroyed.

What Phuket needs now is not charity, but business. To paraphrase an outpouring from one shop owner: we appreciate your offers of help but what we need most is to rebuild our livelihood. For her, the tourists who stayed after the disaster, who still sunbathed on the beach, were as much heroes as those arriving to do good work. Is this tasteless?

What has been tasteless to me has been the determination of politicians and, indeed, of rich nations generally to engage in relief one-upmanship. They have been falling over themselves to be seen at donor conferences and the like, as though promises of large quantities of money will bestow their nations with halos, or that the commendably massive relief efforts by the US military will compensate for the Iraq invasion or will restore America's standing in the Muslim world. The league tables of 'charity per head' are nauseating.

The British proposal for a debt moratorium for tsunami-afflicted nations was typical of the grandstanding. In the first place, the losses have been primarily human rather than economic. And why single out these countries? What about debt relief long sought but only occasionally extended under strict conditions to other poor countries hit by natural disasters? Much of Africa has suffered drought in recent years and the Philippines is still affected by the huge loss of farmland caused by the Mount Pinatubo eruption. I could go on.

If this tsunami opens up the whole debt-relief issue, that is good. But it would be a triumph of cynicism and hypocrisy if these countries, already promised a huge amount of direct aid, are singled out for special treatment to suit the foreign policies of a few rich nations.

Human losses from the tsunami have been horrendous, but not unique. They are on the scale of the 1991 Bangladesh storm surge, which got scant media coverage and modest aid, and far less than China's 1976 Tangshan earthquake or the 1970 Bangladesh storms.

Yes, of course affected countries are grateful for help. But Asian observers can be forgiven for asking whether western help would have been on a fraction of the scale seen if the tsunami had devastated Aceh and Tamil Nadu but not the tourist areas of Thailand and Sri Lanka.

Asians also wonder why the media has given so much coverage to western efforts and very little to regional efforts, such as the speedy arrival in Aceh of helicopters and first-aid teams from Singapore. As one writer in this paper noted, naturally, the media often relates not the biggest stories of the tsunami but those to which their own readers or viewers can relate, that is, involving their film stars or politicians.

Before we all congratulate ourselves on our generosity in the face of this disaster, let us ask how much we contributed to the typhoon-generated landslides that killed 2,000 in the Philippines in November, or the even more destructive floods in Bangladesh in the middle of last year. The International Committee of the Red Cross appeals for those lag behind their targets. I, for one, did nothing. So I have to ask: did I contribute to tsunami funds because of the scale of the calamity, or its proximity to my own interests?

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator