13 January 2005 Edition

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A tidal wave of empty promises?

BY JOANNE CORCORAN

The usual greeting of "How was your Christmas?" as people returned to work last week was suspended this year. Instead, the main topic of conversation was the tsunami that wiped out 150,000 people in Southeast Asia on St Stephen's Day.

Few people, tuning into the news on 26 December, were aware of what was unfolding in front of them. The early amateur tourist footage of waist-high waves enveloping beachfronts did not do the catastrophe justice. When most people think of a tsunami, they conjure up images of a huge wall of water rising out of the sea and swallowing everything before it. As the numbers of the dead began to come in, our view of tsunamis was altered.

The feelings of shock were soon surpassed by the heartbreak felt listening to the tales of the living — the mother who had to choose which of her three- and five-year-old sons to try to save, the husband honeymooning with his bride of one week who was witnessed trying to resuscitate her on the beach.

As we watched, safe at home and surrounded by our loved ones, the desire to help kicked in and we began making donations. The biggest humanitarian relief operation in history was about to get underway.

The public and their governments

To date, worldwide public aid pledges have amounted to over $3 billion. Ireland has played no small part in contributing to that figure.

It is believed the total amount of money contributed by Irish people in the 26 Counties alone is €40 million. Compare this to what the Dublin Government has offered. After initially suggesting the paltry sum of €1 million, Ahern and Co. quickly upped this to €10 million, then €20 million when they realised the public mood.

When you look at the money this government has wasted over the last eight years — €157 million on clearing the Abbotstown site for the Bertie Bowl, before the plan was abandoned, €4 million on the self-cleaning spire, that doesn't clean and will cost €200,000 a year to maintain — €20m looks like a ridiculous figure.

However, in comparison to other countries, the Dublin Government is coming up smelling of roses.

Two days after the tsunami struck, US President Bush was vacationing at his ranch in Texas when a junior spokesman was trotted out. The offer of US aid was $15 million — $2 million less than the star pitcher of the Boston Red Sox was paid in 2004.

The same day, UN emergency relief co-ordinator Jan Egeland had criticised wealthy nations for "stinginess".

Later, a White House spokesman told the country that US aid would be increased to $35 million.

Eight days after the tsunami, Bush appeared in the White House flanked by his father and Bill Clinton, who, he announced, would lead a private aid effort, and said that US aid would be increased tenfold, to $350 million. Since then, he has promised $1 billion.

In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair initially offered £1 million. Ministers later increased that to £50 million.

The US has spent $148 billion on the Iraq war and Britain £6 billion ($11.5bn). The war has been running for 656 days. This means that the money pledged for the tsunami disaster by the US is the equivalent of one-and-a-half day's spending in Iraq. The money Britain has given equates to five-and-a-half days.

In addition to this, political spectators have been pointing out that the money being offered by governments are pledges only. Leaders in the US, Europe and Japan are notorious for making grandiose promises for the cameras and then failing to deliver. For example, over $1 billion was offered to victims of last year's devastating earthquake in Bam, Iran, but so far only $400 million has been given.

UN Criticism

The criticism being levied at governments is nothing compared to the pasting that the United Nations is getting from some quarters.

As the UN Iraqi oil-for-food scandal revealed, money, once in the hands of the UN administrators, does not often reach its promised destination. Billions in funds generated by sales of Iraqi oil disappeared in a web of relations between various capitalist interests, government representatives and UN bureaucrats.

It is impossible, however, to see what could usefully replace the UN. The tsunami proves the need for a better UN, and to give it its due, it has sprung into action for this crisis.

Kofi Annan has headed the demand for richer nations to suspend the debts of the countries affected by the tragedy, and the response has so far been a positive one.

Generous capitalists

On the foot of requests from Annan and others, finance ministers of the G-7 industrialised countries met yesterday to agree to freeze the debt repayments of several Asian nations hit by the tsunami and to work with financial organisation, the Paris Club, and other creditors to arrange how.

In Indonesia, to cite just one example, almost $7.5 billion dollars, or one quarter of the country's tax revenue, is owed in the coming year. The country owes $81 billion overall, half of which will go to the Paris Club.

The money owed in debt far exceeds the aid relief Indonesia will be receiving.

While some analysts are saying the debt relief plan reflects a generous spirit on the part of the G7, most people know that the debt relief for tsunami-hit Asian economies may offer them short-term gain, but bring pain in the long run, when the world looks away and the cost of servicing debt payments comes back with a vengeance.

Big Business handouts

The 'kindness' of the third world's debtors is being echoed by the corporate world.

Big business was quick to realise it needed to stand with the public mood and publicise its concern. Donations were made on camera, and doubtless, many companies now feel proud of their generosity. But they should be ashamed.

Soon after the tsunami, phone company Vodafone announced it would be giving £1 million and matching all staff donations.

Vodafone's annual profit, registered last May, was £10 billion. That means the company made substantially more than a million pounds an hour. Yet that is all they gave — less than an hour's profit.

Another early giver and publicity seeker was the English Premiership. It gave the same figure, £1 million. The Premiership is made up of 20 clubs, so that would have set back each team a grand total of £50,000. That is what Manchester United pays Wayne Rooney for four-and-a-half days' work.

The Legacy

So now, almost three weeks later, the donations are being counted, the monolith of the UN has creaked into action, and the world is promising early warning systems to make sure such a disaster never happens again. New earthquake monitors will ensure that a crab can't scuttle across the floor of the Indian Ocean without activating a sensor somewhere.

But what will be left when this tsunami of international solidarity has subsided? Most likely broken aid promises, a lack of long-term reconstruction projects, and a harvest of orphans — some, allegedly, already kidnapped into prostitution.

Nothing will really change unless the spirit of global cooperation is real. That means confronting the overlapping problems of climate change, humanitarian crises and war.

It means governments following through on their promises, re-allocating resources from war to aid, and demanding an end to debts for countries that had nothing to begin with. It means refusing to allow big business to make offers that suit their own interests.

The tsunami offers many lessons, but the test of compassion is what happens next to millions of people made hungry and poor by acts of nature and global policy alike.


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