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Where did all this Tsunami money come from?

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.

16 comments to Where did all this Tsunami money come from?

  • noone

    It’s also a unique and,dare I say,biblical disaster that has novelty value.After some 25 yrs of famine,drought,civil war and genocide,this grabs the attention of the compasion fatigued.

    And as you say,the pics are provoking introspection,as well.

  • Must say I’d put it down to the sheer scale of the thing plus the way that the response to this sort of thing seems to have been getting ever greater year by year plus (as you say) the proximity to Christmas.

    Perhaps we could add in Thailand which to at least two groups of people (wrinklies and gap year students) is very special.

    And lots of people have close ties with the Indian sub-continent.

    I don’t think (and I have no particular evidence to bear on this) that most people have any particularly strong opinions on the abilities of the governments of SE Asia to sort out/not interfere with the sorting out of the mess.

  • jreid

    1. The immediacy because of the web?

    2. It was the Christmas season?

  • zmollusc

    What was that? Mr Blair wants a new Marshall Plan? FANTASTIC IDEA! This time, can we spend it on things with a long term benefit instead of on policing the fricken globe and building council estates?

  • Edward Teague

    In the current world of professional politicking, original thought is at a premium, political action is unwelcome and unwanted. The limit of involvement demanded by the apparatchiks is that you send the money – involvement in policy preparation through Annual Conferences, meetings, marches, etc., is unwelcome and in Blair’s New Labour (Bringing National back into Socialism) Britain, forbidden.

    The NGO’s, a symbiotic growth on the body politic, form a helpful surrogate service for the strutting commissars, they pat the lame, the halt, the crippled, salve the crusted wound, take the heat, take the shit….. sending the money, heals the conscience, saves our souls and cheers up the donor – leaving the leaders in the limelight to take the credit, doling out the taxpayers money like socialites outbidding each other at a Charity Auction. I went in search of a stiff drink at the unbelievable spectacle of the Michael Howard claiming they will SPEND MORE than Labour on Foreign Aid

    Secure in the belief, that like the buses, another natural disaster will soon turn up, we can offload our guilt on the Third World with little thought and less effort, by the stroke of a pen, the swipe of a card, the toss of a coin.

    By sending my cheque to Oxfam, I can do something…. by doing nothing.

  • dal

    When this massively philanthropic public that Blair dreams of suddenly discovers that none of their money is solving Africa’s problems, that there seems to be a never-ending supply of people to feed when the roaming klepto gangs prevent them from moving beyond sustenance and into civilisation, perhaps they’ll call in the newly restructured armed forces (restructured so they can do this kind of thing most effectively) to deal with them.

    Then, you can’t install democracy because it doesn’t mix too well with a tribal politics culture in which participating parties are happy to resort to genocide in order to maximise their dominance.

    Perhaps under a night watchman state, the newly exported Education3 entrepreneurs (who cant find work at home, have debts to pay, but like the idea of compassionate enterprising) should run the country on the behalf of the locals until they can look after themselves. If it doesn’t work, in 200 years time their children can give up and go home, then their children can spend the next hundred years wallowing in ancestor-hate before their children try it again.

    Whoops! I think Blair has his “Marshall Plan” confused with his “White Man’s Burden”. Or maybe he deliberately fluffed it up for the multiculturalists.

  • toolkien

    This tsunami and the popular response to it offers an oppurtunity to analyze the concepts of giving freely and seizing by force. I think all (or most) of us who write or comment here do not care for the government to force one person to help another. But the question is why? Primarily it is the freedom of using ones own value system versus that of the perceived majority (or the minority that perceives itself as the majority). That must mean that there is doubt and division as to the use and benefit of these gathered resources. I think the same applies to such massive giving. I certainly would not use force to stop someone from giving in general, but I have to question the motivation. I have to wonder why people are so willing to abandon their system of value and transfer property obliquely.

    What do people actually get when they give? They have little or no idea how operations like the American Red Cross (et al) operate. I have never seen a financial statement or an operation plan. How does one know how the money is being used? How does one see results? How does one know whether one’s donation is helping someone they would value or is being used to support someone they would not? The function is not all that different from the obliqueness of taxation. It is mostly faith based, and what the donor buys is short term peace of mind that they Care, even if it means allocating a part of their labor to an action that has no real tangible value to them. The problem is that, just like State Aid, the ‘tidal wave’ of resources will have all sorts of unintended consequences. There is data which shows that a lot of private giving also ends up in the hands of despots and warlords.

    So, as I’ve squirrelishly spouted before, I live my life (or attempt to) as much as possible on a tangible level. If I were truly concerned about the Asian tsunami, I would prefer to do something personally. That is the only way I could gather enough data to make a reasonable value judgement that my efforts are of value. Simply taking from the store of my labor and giving it to someone else and crossing my fingers just doesn’t do it for me.

    Perhaps my attitude is tempered somewhat by the fact that on 9/12/01 I sent $500.00 to the Red Cross for use directly for the victims of 9/11/01. Stories soon emerged that the money was not in fact going toward such ends, and Red Cross bureacrats (sounding much like State bureaucrats) pretty much told people to mind their own business, it was going to good causes, even if they were tangential at best. That will likely be the last time I give broadcastedly like that. I strongly desire to have the results of my labor to have meaning, and that means personal oversight of its use. It is this basic attitude that make the theft of it all the more unbearable.

  • Richard Buckley

    Am I the only person to have noticed that the countries who have given most to the tsunami victims (who were mainly Muslim) were the wicked, capitalist democracies of the West whereas the rich Islamic tyrannies and theocracies of the Middle East, notably Saudi Arabia, appear to have given virtually nothing. And who have provided the helicopters necessary to actually deliver the aid to where it’s needed – the evil Americanoes!

    I, of course, consider top-giver Japan an honorary Western nation because it is undoubtedly capitalist and democratic. And why does Israel not feature on the list of donor nations? Because its plane loads of aid, which were amongst the first to arrive, were turned away.

    It’s a funny old world. And an odd one when even the Daily Telegraph will not publish a letter to this effect.

  • toolkien

    Richard Buckley,

    Just because the imperialist exploiters of the West decide to return a meager portion of that which was STOLEN from the enslaved third world is no reason to give praise to them. No thanks is required or will be given. In fact the hatred will only grow as the downtrodden get a taste of what they’ve been denied all these years.

    Or something like that….

    I have yet to see appreciation accrue to those who give unilaterally. As a corollary to my previous comment when the giver shears their labor from their value system, the recipient rarely values the property properly correctly either. Unless strict rules and conditions apply which can stand as a form of consideration. When the recipient gives no consideration, it is rare they establish value in what they have received, and without value, there is no thanks.

  • I’d have to disagree that the aid is going to be well used. Sri Lanka and Thailand are wellish governed countries an that is why they don’t really need aid – they can probably cope on their own as it is. Indeed I think that the Thais are already trying to turn down some of the aid.

    So what’s going to happen is that most of the aid is going to go to the incompetent country –Indonesia – where variously aceh movement is going to try to get its mitts on the money, the government is going to try to use it to suppress that aceh movement (e.g. by getting houses built then giving them to Javanese settlers) and the local islamist will see it all as a crusader plot and start blowing up NGOs.

    I hope people seriously start thinking about not giving pretty soon.

  • I’d have to disagree that the aid is going to be well used. Sri Lanka and Thailand are wellish governed countries an that is why they don’t really need aid – they can probably cope on their own as it is. Indeed I think that the Thais are already trying to turn down some of the aid.

    So what’s going to happen is that most of the aid is going to go to the incompetent country –Indonesia – where variously aceh movement is going to try to get its mitts on the money, the government is going to try to use it to suppress that aceh movement (e.g. by getting houses built then giving them to Javanese settlers) and the local islamist will see it all as a crusader plot and start blowing up NGOs.

    I hope people seriously start thinking about not giving pretty soon.

  • Julian Taylor

    “that is why they don’t really need aid ”

    Yet another reason to stop reading Samizdata I think. Can you honestly say that we should ignore the plight of those people, not provide aid, not provide assistance, not help those who have had their lives and their means of livelihood wrecked? Do you seriously think that we should idly stand by shuffling our consciences while people have to bury their dead in makeshift sand mounds by the roads in Sri Lanka, or watching people tearfully pinning a scrap of paper to a noticeboard in Phuket in the slight hope that someone will have identified their husband/wife/children etc?

    If there is but one thing this disaster has shown us it is that when the chips are down religion does not count for anything. If anything the USA’s standing with many Muslim countries (forget most of the dreadful Middle East regimes) has dramatically increased as a result of the colossal aid donated by both the American people and the US government.

    The again I should think that doesn’t fit your view of the rest of the world, that they could be thankful to the USA.

  • The Islamists won’t change their mind, of course, there are reports of some of them taking pop shots at UN workers in Indonesia. That does not mean that people on the ground, getting help to live, do not appreciate the help. They are even saying nice things about Americans to the BBC.

    Unlike much aid that might go to a country, this stuff is at the ultimate grass roots. These people are seeing American helicopters delivering food that they need to survive. That will have an impact, most probably for the good.

  • Andy Mo

    All this nonsense about Israel not being listed as a donor – puleeez, one plane of supplies – even my own country (S Africa) sent a plane of supplies and we didn’t expect any news coverage), the fact that some of you are obsessed with this possibly shows your own dislike of muslim nationality and absolute support of Israel no matter the circumstances etc etc. (the way people are harping on about it).

    OK NOW ON A TOTALLY NEW TOPIC. NEW NEW NEW. Hey you, new topic……

    Reading about the voluntary aid packages to Tsunami victims-

    In a totally libertarian society I assume all healthcare, disaster relief etc etc. is privatised in the form of insurance companies selling insurance to individuals in the marketplace. I was wondering about the following circumstance:

    A mother gives birth to a mildly disabled child that needs at least 15 hours of constant care a day. She is now not able to find any employment to pay for the medication needed for the child. Insurance only pays out a fraction of what is needed.

    Now what?? – I could agree that its tough cookies for the mom she, has to deal with the risks of giving birth to a disabled child, and thus must now perform superhuman tasks.

    But what of the child, she can lead a healthy life if taken care of properly, but what happens if the mom cannot make ends meet? Should the child suffer? Do we assume that private donations will cover her expenses? If the child is left in the gutter, some might say ‘tough’ , but surely this goes against ‘our ideas of fairness and compassion’ How do the weak get taken care of in a ultra libertarian society.

  • Andy Mo

    If we as a society do give to the disabled in the form of free healthcare – do we then give to those that are less privileged than us. Studies show that malnourished mothers (normally from the lower rungs of society) give birth to lower IQ children. Are we then to give those kids assistance? Where do we draw the line?

    Personally – Having been in the UK, paid lotsa tax to the NHS – and gotten worse service than back in S Africa. I thought it was wasteful and excessive. But I also think its is necessary.

  • toolkien

    Andy Mo,

    Your assumption is that there is only a mother. How do other societies who are not so well off handle such situations? Perhaps a grandparent helps out. An aunt or some other relative. Maybe a religious association. The issue is whether there is a voluntary group who will feel inclined to assist and who are more intimately associated with said mother and child. Libertarians (should) refuse to use force to make someone assist the mother. That only gives the person or people with the guns a power they should not have. The issue is whether the assistance is voluntary, and culturally based, or is it forced, and is the result of the narrow value judgement of the enforcer. Ultimately someone has to decide how resources and property are allocated, and I’d much rather the allocation reside with the person who produced it versus someone who appoints themselves based on some superior moral draft.

    Also, I hate to burst your bubble but there are plenty of disabled people receiving all sorts of horrific ‘care’ from state subsidized facilities. Having a Statist solution in no way guarantees proper care. Of course it is the Hope that it will that really is the root, and that people feel that they Care. The end results of Statism are rarely examined by anyone. The notion that people at large cannot allocate resources properly and must be compelled to reallocate is innately quasi-theocratic. I must ask the question is how many times have you personally audited the quality of State care facilities to be sure that your money is spent well? Or do you just take it on faith?