TCS Daily

The Politics of Relief

By Barun Mitra - January 6, 2005 12:00 AM

The tragedy in South and South East Asia has shaken the world. Barely ten days after the tsunami swept thousands of kilometers of coastlines, killing an estimate 150,000 people and displacing millions, world leaders gathered for a mini summit in Indonesia to take stock and promise more money and technology. The UN is to lead the effort. The international community is estimated to have pledged over USD 2 billion in relief and rehab. The overwhelming grief of the victims is being matched by an enormous outpouring of sympathy and support. Money and material are pouring in from all across.

But the response has been too slow, and politics are to blame for that. No one will know how many thousand victims perished either at sea, or of thirst, or for lack of medical attention trapped beneath debris of buildings, because relief did not reach these people in time. Politics is the number one reason for this slow response to rescue and relief operations when it was most needed.

Indonesia, the country most seriously affected by the tsunami, had an insurgency in the Aceh province. Aceh was a closed province where journalists and aid workers need special permission to go. The Indonesian government first wanted relief material for Aceh to land hundreds of kilometers away and then be taken by road on a twelve hour journey to the affected areas. News media reported that when the first foreign doctors reached Aceh, some Indonesian military personnel asked what they were doing there. It took three days for the government in Jakarta to allow international relief to reach the most affected areas.

In India, the government announced its decision not to seek international aid. As an aspiring power she sent relief missions to other affected countries. India said that it was adequately endowed, with money and manpower to deal with this crisis by itself. An official explained that India wanted the international relief to go to areas where relief was more urgently needed, and where local capacity to deal with the crisis was limited.

Perhaps it was the ideology of self-reliance that had a part in the failure to raise an alarm at the onset of the tragedy, even if it was Indian lives that were at stake. Perhaps it was national security concerns, since Nicobar had an air force station, and India is said to be monitoring the region from there. Or the nuclear power plant near Chennai that had to be shut down because of the tidal surges: could military aircrafts from US or Australia be allowed to fly over such sensitive areas?

Perhaps there were more practical reasons. At the last major earthquake disaster in Gujarat province, India, in 2001, around 30,000 people lost their lives. There were many reports of international relief and rescue teams stranded at airports, because of logistical and information bottlenecks. By politely refusing foreign assistance this time, the authorities may have been seeking to avoid the same the embarrassment.

The international community too had other priorities. It is not politically correct to blame Mother Nature for heaping this misery. So the search for some other scapegoats was on, and today, the world has a universal punching bag --- the United States. For a couple days, there were headlines that some UN official had called the US `stingy` for failing to open its purse strings enough. Over the week, the US government raised its pledge ten-fold to about USD 350 million.

As for the UN, its record of handing disasters, natural or man-made, is less than impressive. If the oil-for-food scandal in Iraq is any indication, a new UN agency to deal with this disaster will not inspire confidence. Few may remember that the UN had declared the 1990s to be the Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction.

China has over the past week reportedly raised its contribution from USD 3 million to around USD 65 million. China's slow response may have dented her aspiration to be regional political force. On the other hand the Islamic countries of the Arabian Gulf region have received some criticism for exhibiting restraint while the most affected country, Indonesia, is the world's largest Muslim nation.

Europe proposed debt relief for many of the affected countries. Such relief has often helped recipient governments to perpetrate failed policies, and perpetuate poverty; the poor paid the price for those failed economic policies and continue to remain vulnerable to natural disasters.

At the summit in Indonesia, the leaders should seek people-oriented, market-driven diverse operations, much beyond the hands of bureaucrats and professional aid agencies. For instance, direct cash transfer to the victims, either a lump sum through a bank account, or a weekly dispersal, allowing them to decide how and where they would like to begin reconstruction of their lives would be a good start.

The present crisis provides an opportunity to seize the political initiative and push through fundamental reforms. Poor people deserve better.

Barun Mitra is the director of Liberty Institute, an independent think tank in New Delhi.


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