PUBLICUSS: THE POLITICS OF NATURAL DISASTERS
Ten days ago, nature reminded us that it could inflict as much damage on us as we can inflict on nature. In moments, an earthquake off the West Coast of Sumatra generated a high-pressure wave in the Indian Ocean. The earthquake itself and the resultant tidal wave (Tsunami) wreaked havoc in South Asia, Southeast Asia and the East Coast of Africa. An unknown number of people died, now conservatively estimated at 150,000. And at least an equal number will probably die of injuries, starvation and disease. The numbers are staggering and numbing, but by no means in the category of the most deadly natural disasters (the recent Chinese floods, for example, which killed millions) or mans own special mischief (wars, which can kill millions, although less efficiently).
It is tempting here to focus on the countless acts of heroism and bravery. There are stories of loss, recovery, charity and irony. Those images will fill our media for weeks and months. I have decided to write instead on the politics of natural disasters, the political realities and consequences that follow on and impinge upon the natural event itself.
Governments and politicians generally get a bad rap during natural disasters. Warnings are not timely enough. Help cannot come quickly enough to people whose homes have been destroyed and their families scattered, whether the event is an earthquake, flood, tornado or hurricane. Relief efforts are costly and complex and governments are only partially prepared for these events. And Im not just talking about developing nations and vulnerable tropical paradises. Many of you, Im sure, can remember a Chicago mayor losing an election because of botched snow removal.
There is a natural and understandable tendency of the public to blame politicians for their slow reaction to natural disasters. Indeed, President Bush has taken his lumps domestically and internationally for a slow and "stingy" response to the tsunami. The complaints were loud enough to encourage the president to send his secretary of state and his own brother on an inspection tour of the region; and to up the initial ante of U.S. aid from 35 million dollars to a more respectable 350 million dollars. This from a president who recently won a "mandate" and was wallowing in the trough of political capital he was about to spend.
But the president really doesnt deserve all of the criticism coming his way. I do think he could have come out of Crawford a day or two earlier to recognize the disaster and assure the afflicted that help was on the way. But the pure fact of the matter is that in this day and age, government is not the first responder to natural disasters. Government is too large, complex and ponderous to move quickly and with dexterity into the realm of disaster relief.
All over our benighted world, we have officially decided to rely on non-governmental organizations as the first responders to natural disasters. There is a long and growing list of non-governmental international organizations (INGOs) whose primary mission is the alleviation of human misery, The media refers to them collectively as INGOs but most of us are familiar with their given names: The Inernational Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent; Doctors Without Borders; CARE; UNICEF; Save the Children; Rotary; our churches; the list goes on and on.
These are the organizations poised and ready to go into the worst devastation in the world; and, barring political repression, ready to stay there and do the hard work of relief. It is instructive to note that in the recent Japanese earthquake in Kobe first responders included the Japanese yakuza, criminal syndicates running soup kitchens and providing tents for the displaced. It is not uncommon, in the event of a natural disaster, for over fifty organizations like these to be on the ground within 24 hours. They are the brave first responders; government is a poor second, getting its bearings in days, its relief in place in weeks.
Victims of natural disasters have immediate needs for water, shelter and food. They cannot afford the luxury of waiting around for effective governmental response. Most governmental first responses are rhetorical, not actual. You cant eat or drink a presidents reassurance.
Governments are, however, the important second responders to natural disaster. Governments are the only institutions on the planet capable of responding in the long run to the need for food and shelter. Only governments can shoulder the costs of rebuilding cities, replacing damaged infrastructure, reconfiguring damaged economies; or forgiving crushing debt.
And governments should do these things. Rich governments, like ours, should do more than poorer governments. Large countries, like ours, should shoulder more of the burden than smaller countries, whose resources are necessarily more limited.
It is true that the U.S. will probably provide more relief funding and effort than any other government on the planet; it is also true that as a percentage of our gross domestic product, we will contribute the lowest percentage of any industrial nation. Less than Japan, Germany, France and the U.K. Less than Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands. Less than Singapore, the U.A.E., or Denmark. Less, percentage wise, than any other industial nation.
There is a real irony here. Americans, as individuals, will generously open their wallets and contribute massive amounts spontaneously to relief organizations. Our government will at the same time lead the race to the bottom, to see who can spend the least, proportionally, in the alleviation of human misery.
Last week former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton appeared together to provide protective cover for President George W. Bush. Criticisms of the president were a "cheap shot," they said, unwarranted given the growing tide of U. S. relief efforts in the area. For me, their protests rang hollow. Americans, generous with their time and treasure for the victims of this natural disaster, deserve a government that more reflects their own values.
This is, of course, one opportunity to put our money where our beliefs are. The INGOs providing help didnt just appear out of the woodwork when the tidal wave struck. They have been planning and preparing for these disasters for decades. They are weary fundraisers who deserve more regular support from all of us. We need to embrace these organizations on a regular annual basis. We certainly cant just sit around and wait for the government to do it for us.
Finally, one last observation. Our reputation internationally has taken a serious beating this new century. More people around the globe think of us as the problem, not the solution, to the worlds difficulties. Disasters like this earthquake/tsunami offer us a chance to confront that perception, demonstrating our generosity and our power in the context of relieving human misery. One can only hope that our government, slow and ponderous, is up to the challenge.