TCS Daily

A Tsunami to Our Priorities

By Fredrik Segerfeldt - December 29, 2004 12:00 AM

A few days after the Asian earthquake disaster, with perhaps as many as 100,000 casualties, the human losses and the struggle of the survivors are what occupy most of our minds. I myself have acquaintances who are still missing from the Thai beaches of Kao Lak. However, I cannot help but to ruminate on some political aspects of this huge tragedy. There are several thoughts that keep popping up in my mind.

The first one is the importance of economic growth. In Hawaii, there are reportedly technical systems that allow countries in the Pacific, like Japan and the US, to receive warnings well in advance of tsunamis reaching their shores. In combination with well-developed infrastructure, it is likely that the system would have saved many lives, had these countries been hit.

When asked why such a system does not exist in the Indian Ocean, public authorities in some of the countries concerned said that they are too poor to be able to afford it. True, some of the countries in the region are among the world's poorest. If one then thinks of the fact that poverty is a lack of economic resources, and that economic resources are created by economic growth, one cannot help to draw the conclusion that economic growth is not only of the utmost importance to alleviate poverty, but also to protect people from natural disasters. We have thus very concretely experienced another argument that economic growth deserves a more prioritized position in the development discussion. Richer societies would also most certainly be better prepared to treat, care for and look after the survivors.

Second, the excellent effort of Björn Lomborg, the Danish political scientist, to make evident the fact that resources to "save the world" are limited and that we therefore need to prioritize, comes to mind. For this, and for his earlier work questioning many of the assumed truths of the development and environmentalist establishments, he has received much criticism. Yet, in the wake of the Asian tsunami catastrophe, his Copenhagen Consensus approach to risk-benefit analysis, with a number of respected experts calculating in what fields we would get the most for our development buck, deserves much attention. If we could have saved tens of thousands of lives by setting up warning and rescuing infrastructure for this kind of disasters in the Indian Ocean, perhaps that is what we should have done.

A third aspect that cannot be ignored is how we value today's lives in relation to future ones. Should we impede economic growth in the developing world, by forcing upon them our environmental standards and the Kyoto protocol, thereby depriving them of the possibilities to reach a higher economic standard, and in extension, the possibility to protect themselves from natural disasters, in order to save future lives? Or should we focus on letting these countries attain an economic growth that would create resources that would make them better prepared for events of this terrible magnitude?

True, our world contains so much power that cannot be tamed, forces that keep us all in awe. Yet, the reports from South Asia raise many questions that will dominate the political agenda, once the acute mourning and the immediate suffering fade away. Perhaps -- and hopefully -- the tsunami will have an effect on our development priorities.

Fredrik Segerfeldt, author of "Water for sale - how business and the market can resolve the world's water crisis", (CATO Institute, Washington DC, 2005).


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