Tuesday, December 28, 2004

The Politics of Aid: "The Hand That Gives, Rules"

A magnitude 9.0 earthquake off the west coast of northern Sumatra (on the interface of the India and Burma plates) set off a terrifying tsunami, killing tens of thousands. A majority of the dead are from poor fishing villages, and more than a third of them are children (Seth Mydans, "A Third of the Dead Are Said to Be Children," New York Times, December 28, 2004).

Photograph by Gautam Singh/Associated Press: "A mother at a hospital in Nagappattinam in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu sat on Monday with the dead, among them her own children. Nearly 3,000 people died in the state" (Mydans, December 28, 2004).

Without clean drinking water, "epidemics of cholera and other waterborne diseases could take as many lives as the initial waves" (Mydans, December 28, 2004).

"Nearly half the reported deaths" are in Sri Lanka (Mydans, December 28, 2004). According to Dr. Tad Murty, an oceanographer affiliated with the University of Manitoba, their lives could have been saved if there had been an alert system:
"There's no reason for a single individual [except those who are the closest to the epicenter] to get killed in a tsunami," Dr. Murty said. "The waves are totally predictable. We have travel-time charts covering all of the Indian Ocean. From where this earthquake happened to hit, the travel time for waves to hit the tip of India was four hours. That's enough time for a warning." (Andrew C. Revkin, "With No Alert System, Indian Ocean Nations Were Vulnerable," New York Times, December 27, 2004)
Watch an animation of the tsunami below, "a vivid demonstration of how long it takes for a tsunami to travel -- and why early warning systems can be so valuable" (Jamais Cascio, "Tsunami Animation and Information," WorldChanging, December 27, 2004):
2004 Sumatra Earthquake
Source: Kenji Satake, the Active Fault Research Center, the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, Japan
The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu, which received the first notice of the earthquake at "2:59 p.m. on Saturday Honolulu time," managed to send a warning to only places like Diego Garcia (with a United States Navy base), because "the Pacific warning center's contact list includes the Navy" (Michele Kayal and Mattew L. Wald, "At Warning Center, Alert for the Quake, None for a Tsunami," New York Times, December 28, 2004).

Amidst outpourings of griefs and sympathies worldwide, the Financial Times, the paper of record for the British ruling class, cooly analyzes the political implications of disaster relief in war-torn Sri Lanka and the Aceh province of Indonesia:
Government efforts to provide aid to the tsunami-devastated areas of Sri Lanka and Indonesia’s Aceh province could carry significant political implications for these regions, which have seen some of Asia’s fiercest insurgencies, analysts say.

Any political impact in Thailand, which has been racked by a Muslim insurgency in the south, will be tempered by the fact that the disaster area is on the south-west coast, far from the Malay-speaking areas in the south-east.

A key issue, analysts say, will be how the Indonesian and Sri Lankan governments organise the distribution of aid.

“Disaster relief could provide a window of opportunity for the warring parties to put their differences aside and cooperate. This could improve the chances for political solutions,” says Ooi Kee Beng, a visiting research fellow at Singapore’s Institute of South-East Asian Studies (ISEAS).

One hopeful sign is that Indonesia has lifted a ban on allowing international aid agencies into Aceh, where there has been a long-running separatist rebellion against the central government. The government on Tuesday estimated that 25,000 people may have died in Aceh.

“The question is whether any political goodwill will last once this crisis blows over. I’m sceptical since many of the problems are deep-seated,” says Chin Kin Wah, a professor at ISEAS.

The civil war between the Colombo government and the Tamil Tigers, for example, has lasted for more than 20 years, while the origins of the Aceh revolt stretch back several centuries to when Dutch colonialists ruled Indonesia.

“How humanitarian aid is distributed could actually make problems worse since the central governments might be tempted to favour certain groups at the expense of others. There is also the issue of whether aid relief might be distorted by corruption,” says Mr Chin.

Mr Ooi says aid agencies should be the ones coordinating the aid. “Governments could play politics by trying to centralise aid distribution in their hands, which is why it is important that international aid agencies be given a prominent role,” he says.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Coordinating relief efforts will be politically sensitive since much of the destruction occured in the island’s north-east controlled by the Tamil Tigers, an area where an estimated 8,000 people may have died and another 500,000 are homeless.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Aid missions to the area could be threatened by unexploded landmines planted during the civil war which have now been dislodged by the tidal waves. (John Burton and Ray Marcelo, "Tsunami Offers Chances for Political Reconciliation," December 28 2004)
Such political implications are not unique to Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Michael Maren acerbically noted that humanitarian aid organizations often end up "catering a war": "[F]ood can only flow with the consent of the men with the guns. Each side directs the flow of foreign aid to solidify popular support in its geographic stronghold, and each side cuts off the supply to cities and towns friendly to the enemy. This has helped create the stalemate. The humanitarians are in effect catering a war" ("Using Food as a Weapon," New York Times, December 2, 1999).

Aid is used as a weapon even when there is no natural disaster:
[A]id distribution is just another big, private business that relies on government contracts. Private voluntary organizations (PVOs) such as CRS [Catholic Relief Services , for which Michael Maren worked] are paid by the U.S. government to give away surplus food produced by subsidized U.S. farmers. The more food CRS gave away, the more money they received from the government to administer the handouts. Since the securing of grant money is the primary goal, PVOs rarely meet a development project they don't like.

Of all the aid programs, those involving food delivery are especially prized by PVOs because they generate income, are easy to administer, and are warmly received by the public. Yet most food aid has little to do with need and everything to do with getting rid of surplus food. Kenya was not a country facing starvation when I worked there. Many of the projects I started were in the rich agricultural land of the central and western parts of the country. In fact, around the world, only about 10 percent of food aid is targeted at emergency situations. PVOs publicize situations such as the one in Somalia in order to raise money from the public, but most of their work is done in areas where there is plenty to eat, because there are simply not enough starving people to absorb all of our surplus food. Also, it's easier to distribute large quantities of food in more developed areas.

Harmless as this might at first sound, sending food to areas where there is already food creates serious problems. It decreases demand for locally produced commodities, subsidizes the production of cash crops, and fosters dependence among those who receive the aid. Since PVOs can only operate with the approval of the host government, they typically end up supporting the government leaders' political goals, rewarding the government's friends, punishing its enemies, and providing fodder for a vast system of political patronage. (Michael Maren, "The Food-Aid Racket," Harper's Magazine, August, 1993)
That's the political dynamic incisively dramatized in Guelwaar (1992) by Ousmane Sembene, one of the greatest filmmakers in the world.

Another great Black filmmaker Raoul Peck has Patrice Lumumba quote a Bantu proverb in his film Lumumba (2000): "The hand that gives, rules."

The proverb still rings true.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Murphy's Law: If anything can go wrong, it will. Murphy's Ninth Corollary: Mother nature is a bitch. Benedict's Principle (formerly Murphy's Ninth Corollary): Nature always sides with the hidden flaw. O'Toole's Commentary on Murphy's Law: Murphy was an optimist.