Tony Blair is only one of many who has expressed amazement at the scale of the response by individuals to the Tsumani disaster.
Just why this particular disaster has, as they say, caught the imagination of the public is a complicated matter. It was photogenic, for one thing. More to the point, it was and is still being actually photographed. Lots of flattened towns and recycled amateur videos of the waves themselves crashing in on everything. That helped and still helps a lot. Like Dale Amon, I think that the media have made a huge difference. Indeed, I would say that this is the kind of situation when we see these people at their considerable best. And I like also to think that the Blogosphere in particular and the ‘new media’ in general were also helpful in communicating the story, as I have already written here. It must have further helped that many of those blogging or new-media-ing were able to do so in English, the lingua franca of the Aid-giving world.
The presence of tourists who are (or were) Just Like Us surely added to the sense of involvement many of us felt, and although people understandably derided headlines like this, the fact that celebrities had their holidays all disrupted brought it all that bit nearer home to us, surely. Call me shallow and Dianaficated – and knowing our commentariat I am sure several will – but this catastrophe only really impinged upon my feelings, as opposed to my numbed and astonished brain, when I learned that Lord Attenborough had lost his fourteen year old grand-daughter. Lord Attenborough is famous for his stellar film career, and also for his habit of crying on British TV for the most trifling of reasons. There will be fewer jokes about his crying now. His loss surely affected other feelings besides mine.
So, explaining this tidal wave, if you will pardon the metaphor, of freely donated money, as well as political money in response to the public mood, involves many different variables. But I would like to add a few more thoughts to the mix.
This catastrophe is, it seems to me, an exception to a rule which is now widely accepted among the donation-giving (as opposed to donation soliciting) classes. This rule is: that most of what passes for Foreign Aid these days is pointless, or worse. Personally I believe this, and I now believe that a lot of other people believe it too, and have believed it for some time. Take the Sudan. Suppose you throw money into that mess. Who gets their hands on it? Starving people? Maybe. But a lot of it surely goes instead to the people who are inflicting rather than suffering from the starvation. The starvation-inflicters control the country like prison guards, and they demand tribute from Aid Agencies as a price for the Aid Agencies bringing their Aid to a few of the starvation-sufferers.
This Tsunami disaster, however, seems to me, and (I surmise) to many others, to be different.
First, many of the countries afflicted by this disaster are semi-reasonably governed. The local politicians may be torn between on the one hand swanning around posing for bogus photo-ops and on the other hand doing absolutely nothing in a state of blind funk, but at least they are not sufficiently well organised to actually prevent other more helpful people (locals or foreign) from actually helping, such as religious organisations, or such as the United States Navy. South India may, compared to Milton Keynes or Minneapolis or Munich, be a somewhat haphazard sort of place. But for all its defects and disappointments, India is an open society, with journalists prowling around complaining about things and yet staying out of jail, and with people who are allowed to shout at foreign film crews about what a shower of shits their government is without being taken off to the basement of the local police station and never heard from again. India has trash television of the capitalistic sort – i.e. the fun and actually quite informative sort – not just government bullshit television. India has portable phones.
If the US Marines showed up in what remained of an Indian coastal town and the Indian army was (a) there, and (b) it opened fire on the Marines, some fat bastard in a palace two hundred miles away who is doing bugger all else to help would nevertheless have to worry about how such a circumstance might affect the next lot of elections he plans to win. So, the Marines get to do their thing. And they get to be snooped on by TV reporters, and we all (aid donors and aid receivers) get to argue afterwards about whether the Marines etc. did as well as they might have.
Right now, for instance, I am watching a hastily put together BBC documentary about how the friends and relatives of missing people are wandering around, in Phuket I think it is, waving photos (and let’s hear it for cheap cameras) of their missing loved ones, and other photos of kids they have rescued but not identified yet. Okay, they are not getting much official help, although unofficially they are helping one another all they can. But my point is, neither are they being officially impeded. Self help and mutual aid are at least being allowed.
All of which is guesswork on my part, albeit guesswork heavily seasoned by reading this blog a lot, during the days after disaster struck.
And I should guess that similar things can be said, with approximate truth, about many of the other places hit by this catastrophe. These are, in many if not all cases, places where if you really can help and you really want to help, you have at least been allowed to do so.
And second, disaster relief is actually quite easy, compared to the average mess which is the usual basis for attempted Aid frenzies.
I know, I know. Aid workers, even as I blog, are tearing their hair out at the complexity and scale of the mess they are struggling to clean up, and who the hell am I to say that what they are doing is easy? Yet, they do, it seems to me, have one huge advantage compared to the circumstances that pertain in other disasters. They have a definition of cleaning up. They have an objective. Basically, very approximately, very roughly, as best they can, as imperfectly as they must, they are trying to restore the state of affairs that existed before the Tsunami struck. And, they can be confident that if they do manage an approximation of this Herculean labour, the local people whom they are seeking to help will then know just what to do. They will get back to getting on with their lives. Their lives worked okay before. They can work okay again. Meanwhile, they need a helping hand. A big one. But only for a while.
Other ‘disasters’, of the sort that are said to have ‘root causes’ (i.e. complicated and controversial and intractable causes), but upon which we are nevertheless nagged to shower Aid, have no such simple and shared objective to get everyone who is trying to help to actually help.
Notice how his disaster has not been deranged by debate about its ‘root causes’, i.e. by contending politicians and political stirrers. Okay, a bit deranged. But nothing that serious. We all know what caused the disaster. An earthquake. That was the root cause of the thing, and that cannot be altered, only cleaned up after. Washington, London, Paris, the UN etc., can argue the politics of it all they like, but meanwhile, here is a road, covered in mud, and the thing is to get the mud off it so that lorries can get through with food and fresh water. Are these people injured? Look after them. Is this hospital short of bandages? Give it bandages, and whatever else it can use. Thirsty are you? Have a drink of water. This was your house was it? Here, let me help you rebuild it.
‘Natural disasters’ have another colossal advantage over man made ones, aside from the fact that they are relatively mild in their impact (Do the maths. Stalin? Mao? Tsumani? No contest.) Natural disasters happen, and then they stop. An earthquake quakes, and then it stops.
The misgovernment of a country, due to tyranny or civil war or some evil combination thereof, can last for decades.
To summarise, this disaster is (a) exceptional in being one that good people have been allowed, by circumstances and by local politicians, to deal with; and (b) it is exceptional in that it is actually reasonably correctable. Money will, in short, not do that much harm, and could do a hell of a lot of good.
Note that I am not just saying that this is how I think it is. Maybe I am totally wrong. Maybe the politicians are screwing up everything, and maybe the idea that there is a status quo ante which can in any imaginable way be returned to is utter nonsense. For instance, and to enter just one caveat, Sri Lanka, one of the worst hit places, is divided by civil war, and there, the BBC has been reporting a classic Too Difficult scenario unfolding, at any rate in those parts of Sri Lanka that are being fought over between the government and the Tamil Tigers. But on the other hand, at least the BBC was able to crawl around such places with their cameras and film people arguing, in this case about a large box of biscuits. That is definitely something.
For what I am also saying is that even if I am totally wrong, I surmise that I am absolutely not the only one who is thinking along these lines. Millions of people throughout the world, I suggest, are having similar thoughts to the ones I have been having. Thus, in this disaster, they have given generously, while in previous disasters they fixed blankly implacable looks on their faces and walked right past those plastic tins with slots in them as if they didn’t exist. Too complicated. Too difficult. My coins will buy too little good and maybe do serious harm. Sorry, but no. (As Kim du Toit, extreme Aid To Africa sceptic commenter here would put it: fuck it.) But, this time it is, maybe, different.
Both the scale of the generosity, and the extreme amazement felt by the Usual Aid Collectors, make sense to me.
The Usual Aid Collectors, who have spent their entire adult lives rattling their tins under indifferent noses and stalling governments, have got it fixed in their minds that most people are cruel and selfish bastards. Understandably, they do not like to think of themselves as presiding over a mostly doomed and pointless and often downright harmful way of life, which those cruel and selfish bastards are actually too sensible to waste their money on. So, when this disaster struck, the Usual Aid Collectors expected the same flint-faced indifference, and help only from the usual ‘caring’ (i.e. deluded) people. Yet suddenly, the very same people who only days earlier were busy buying stupid Christmas presents for themselves instead of baling out some hapless clutch of Africans, yet again, suddenly surged into their banks and buildings societies, waving twenty pound notes. Buckets were handed around businesses on the day of the New Year resumption, and millions were pledged in hours. Today, the figure for British donations passed £100,000,000.
As if to prove my point about how completely out of sinc with normal and sensible people the Aid Collecting classes are, right on cue, here is a Dimbleby (I still have the BBC clucking away in front of me as I blog) saying that we all feel “impotent” in the face of this disaster. Now a woman whom I do not recognise is saying that we are “proving that we care”. She, you see, thought that we did not care, not most of us. But I say: we always did care. It was just that before, usually, there was, there is, nothing we could do. This time, on the other hand, we do not feel so impotent. This time, we can see on our televisions that help is not only wanted by thousands upon thousands of very unlucky people; there is a very decent chance that if such help is given in abundance, it will actually get through and do quite a lot of good. And not that much harm.
It will do some harm. The very scale of the giving means that in a few months time, as David Carr has gloomily prophesied (to me in conversation even though I cannot find him doing this here in blog form), numerous scandals and crimes will emerge from this particular and particularly huge Aid frenzy. True. But to a remarkable degree, I think that this Aid frenzy might actually achieve something.
And hello, what is this? Gordon Brown and Tony Blair are both saying (in a manner suggesting rivalry rather than cooperation) that we need a similar Aid frenzy to rescue … Africa. “We must then make sure that we also respond to the man-made, equally terrible disaster that is happening daily, in Africa.” That is Blair as best I could catch it. Now he is talking about a “new Marshall Plan”.
But he is failing to get the difference between rebuilding, which is hard but possible, and building, which is diabolically difficult, and frankly not something you can do by just chucking bank notes over strangers.
“Will this new Marshall Plan work?” the BBC man is asking. Europe, the BBC man is pointing out (thus proving that sometimes the BBC gets things exactly right), was merely being rebuilt. No it will not, and everyone except people like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (and I admit that that is a lot of people) are failing to realise this.
Here is an Independent article which opens with the same deluded message:
The unprecedented and worldwide public response to the tsunami disaster may help make 2005 a breakthrough year in tackling world poverty, senior figures in aid agencies believe.
Wrong. Flat wrong. (I got a mass of such drivel simply by googling for news about tsunami public response.) These people – these “senior figures in aid agencies” – are precisely the wrong ones to understand what is going on here. They think that helping strangers is always quite easy, that is to say, always possible. The reason people are not always more helpful, they said a month ago and will shortly be saying again, is that people are mostly selfish swine. I say: helping strangers is very hard. Often it is totally impossible. But, sometimes, as now, it makes sense.