Thursday, January 06, 2005

Can you look a gift-horse in the mouth?

Via FriskoDude.

Apparently, the editors of Thailand's The Nation can. In a somewhat scathing editorial published last December 31, the editors criticized the meagerness of American aid even as they (US) established themselves to be the lead country in the recovery effort.

Here is the editorial in full.

EDITORIAL: A generous global relief effort

Published on Dec 31, 2004

But the United States stands out for its hesitation and meagre first response

The devastating tsunami caused by Sunday’s undersea quake in the Indian Ocean, which killed tens of thousands in this part of the world, was followed by a swift and generous response by the international community, which has so far raised more than US$220 million (Bt8.58 billion) in cash and emergency supplies, in addition to a wide array of logistical support. More than 50 countries around the world have already contributed or pledged to provide cash, in-kind assistance and expertise to help Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and the Maldives, which bore the brunt of the violent seismic wave.

The outpouring of sympathy and offers of material help, described by the United Nations, which is coordinating the emergency response, as the biggest relief operation in its history, is perhaps proportional to the devastation that struck coastal towns and cities around the Indian Ocean rim so suddenly and without warning.

The level of the relief operation can be attributed to the comprehensive coverage of the horrifying consequences of the giant wave in terms of the staggering casualties, millions of shattered lives and ruinous property damage.

Few will fail to be moved by the shocking images of how the killer waves laid waste to whole coastal communities and their unsuspecting inhabitants and the seaside resorts packed with carefree holidaymakers. It reminded people of the precariousness of human existence against the forces of nature. In mere minutes, the tsunami wiped out what will take years to rebuild, while many of those who lost their family and loved ones will be scarred for life.

The UN is leading efforts to address problems arising from the immediate aftermath of the deadly waves, including the recovery of dead bodies from affected areas and providing survivors with shelter, food and basic necessities as well as ensuring sanitation and preventing the outbreak of disease.

Despite this, the United States has announced that it is taking a leading role in the recovery effort organised by itself, Australia, Japan and India to begin with, and in which other countries and regional groupings will be invited to participate later. Let’s hope that the US-led grouping will coordinate its work with the UN’s – and not against it.

President George W Bush’s announcement followed criticism by UN aid officials, who said the US was not providing enough aid to countries suffering from the tsunami. The US Agency for International Development added $20 million to an earlier pledge of $15 million to provide relief after Bush realised the magnitude of the disaster.

The charge of “stinginess” that has been levelled at the US will probably not be easy to shake off despite the fact that the US remains one of the single biggest aid donors in absolute terms. Though comparatively speaking, the US does come off a bit stingy and short-sighted when it comes to humanitarian aid.

US leaders, especially President George W Bush, apparently have no ability to think beyond their own national interests. Since it started the war in Iraq, the US has spent more than $1 billion on military operations. But when this region was hit by the epic disaster on Sunday, the US was not only slow to respond but also offered a negligible amount of assistance, leading to the derisive remarks by UN aid officials.

US State Secretary Colin Powell went out of his way to defend the Bush administration’s paltry response, reminding the world that the US is still among the world’s most generous aid givers. This is not the first time the US has said that.

But Powell was actually missing the point. Money is not the only thing that the affected countries are looking for. They are looking for sympathy, understanding and long-term commitment. If the US wants to lead the world, it has to lead the world in humanitarian operations as well – not just in aggressive militaristic or hegemonic economic terms.

It may be true that most of the foreign deaths in the tsunami-hit countries were Europeans who came to the sunny part of Asia for their vacation and Christmas holidays. The American reaction to the tragedy was apparently a reflection of that fact. It might have been different if the victims had been mainly American tourists.

But this exposes the rationale of the US in its altruism towards others. Washington is willing to pour money into any undertaking if it benefits US interests directly. If not, then it is a slow boat coming.

The situation also brought back to mind the US attitude towards other problems of the recent past.

When the Asian economies were brought to their knees in 1997, the US was once again reluctant to help. This kind of consistency will continue to hamper the US in the conduct of its foreign policy.

The Nation
And here is one response:

Your editorial was far too quick to judge

I read with dismay your editorial of December 31 ["A generous global relief effort"] wherein you criticise the US for being slow to respond with sympathy and aid because it was not in our interests to do so. The US government does of course care and is responding as best it can, and in fact it began assessing the situation immediately. The constantly changing casualty figures attest to the fact that everyone needed time to understand the full extent of the damage and how best to assist. The US government, corporations and private citizens together will surely end up being the largest aid donors by a long shot, so let's withhold judgement for now, shall we?

You might be advised to remember two bits of sage advice before lashing out again with unwarranted criticism: "haste makes waste" and "don't bite the hand that feeds you".

Why not direct your criticism towards the Meteorological Department, which, given a small window of time to sound the alarm, put its own interest in self-preservation above its duty to inform the public about the possibility of impending disaster?

Kurt Heck


You be the judge.