Monday, January 24, 2005

Tsunami: moving beyond charity

Words of profound wisdom from my good friend, Rick Axtell:

The outpouring of charitable response to the tsunami tragedy is heartening. The generous public and private impulses are inspiring responses to a disaster that is one of the worst the world has seen.

As with Hurricane Mitch that devastated Central America in 1998, today's outpouring is largely media-driven. But several years hence, Honduras and Nicaragua have received little of the $9 billion pledged in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. And half of what they did receive was in the form of loans, to be paid back with interest.

When the media attention subsided, the U.S. Congress set a two year deadline on reconstruction funds, and the promised aid dried up. Three years after the hurricane, 20,000 Honduran victims were still without homes. While generous initial responses are laudable, suspicion of media-driven, focus-of-the-moment compassion seems warranted when one recognizes the short attention span with which we approach events that clearly require long-term commitments.

Further, one wonders why the media has concentrated on this tragedy to the exclusion of others to which we have turned blind eyes. Obvious reasons are the shocking horror of the tsunami, its utter randomness and widespread destructiveness, and the seemingly unprecedented levels of suffering--all from a single cataclysmic event. We cannot help but be moved by such agony.

But another reason for our disturbingly selective compassion might be that the media have been able to present this particular story largely without complexity; i.e. as a horrifying act of nature, period. That narrative, if it's the whole story we get, reflects a lack of systemic analysis that is likely to lead to incomplete and short-term, if not detrimental, responses.

For example, media coverage is not asking why debt-ridden Indonesia and Sri Lanka have been unable to afford a tsunami warning system. (One-fourth of Indonesia's national budget goes to debt service payments to the IMF or first-world banks--and that's just paying interest on debt).

The coverage is not asking why fishers in Sri Lanka and India live in such deplorable, crowded, and inferior conditions that whole ramshackle villages were simply washed away.

Nor is it analyzing the structure of tourism in Thailand's beach resort areas--a development model that has created a dual society consisting of playgrounds for the elite, catered to by desperately poor service laborers.

And it has done little to educate us on how civil wars in both Sri Lanka and Indonesia's Aceh province have exacerbated poverty and undermined genuine development, much less to analyze the roots of these conflicts.

Such emphases would require the media to operate in an uncharacteristic educational and analytical mode. So, with a simplified image of this tragedy, we can open our hearts and give, freed of any systemic understanding of the host of underlying realities that victimize the poor who always suffer disproportionately in natural disasters.

That this crisis can be presented as merely a natural disaster partly explains why it has gotten such enormous coverage while chronic situations like Sudan (2 million deaths, 1 million refugees), Congo (4 million deaths, 1000 children dying daily, 1 million refugees, a total of $188 million in humanitarian aid in 2004), or Colombia (1 million refugees) remain largely absent from public view. But these tragedies are complicated; they require informed understanding and analysis; and they are largely creations of human cruelties and systemic realities that implicate us.

Media coverage has facilitated a genuine outpouring of charity that the human suffering in this crisis rightly elicits. But how do we respond in ways that move us beyond the public's dependence on media priorities for determining our compassion's attention span? And how can we address human need with a vision that goes beyond charity and toward genuine justice, fairer distribution, and real structural change?

That would require giving to organizations that are committed to reconstruction and sustainable development for the long terrm. But it may also mean that we raise our voices and open our wallets in ongoing responses to other great crises where faceless victims suffer in deafening silence. And it certainly means that we must engage in the structural analysis that exposes the real roots of suffering in crises that are painted far too simplistically in a culture that wants to feel good about its generosity while neglecting the prolonged engagement and systemic change that might lead to a more just and peaceful world.

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