Friday, December 31, 2004

Action instead of words

I suppose it is of some comfort to learn that each nation has its share of bien peasants, ever-willing to denigrate the efforts of their own nation and to side with its critics.

Such is the tenor of a piece published in the New York Times today, republished in the International Herald Tribune supporting the UN emergency relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, who has called the overall aid efforts by rich Western nations "stingy" – with his eye very much on “America's initial measly aid offer of $15 million” to the victims of the tsunami disaster.

The NYT/IHT come down firmly on the side of Egeland, stating that he was "right on target". Says the piece: "We hope Secretary of State Colin Powell was privately embarrassed when, two days into a catastrophic disaster that hit 12 of the world's poorer countries and will cost billions of dollars to meliorate, he held a press conference to say that America, the world's richest nation, would contribute $15 million. That's less than half of what Republicans plan to spend on the Bush inaugural festivities."

Comparisons are now being made with the amounts of money being offered or pledged by various donor countries and organisations, in what is becoming an obscene "beauty contest" as groups vie with each other to be seen to be the most generous.

But what is being lost sight of is that money alone is not the answer to immediate disaster relief and in fact money, in itself, is not an answer at all. This has to be converted into practical help and unless the physical means to deliver aid are present, the money might just as well rot in the banks for all the good it will do.

In that context, there is a letter in today's Telegraph from Prof. Euan Nisbet, Department of Geology, Royal Holloway, University of London. He reminds us that tsunamis can be destructive anywhere in the world and that many of the world's most vulnerable countries are in the Commonwealth.

To deal with a possible disaster, in addition to setting up a warning system, he also suggests that we should have stand-by naval vessels, possibly converted from old ferries, loaded with food, medicine and helicopters.

However, this, in effect, is a role which is being admirably performed by the US Expeditionary Strike Group 5, comprising the amphibious assault ships, USS Bonhomme Richard, USS Duluth and USS Rushmore, which we featured in an earlier posting.

Moreover, the collective costs of this hardware are well in excess of $2 billion, yet the provision of this form of direct aid does not figure in the cash sums offered by the US government.

In the days and week to come, we will start to hear stories of piles of aid rotting on quaysides, of congestion in airports and distribution problems, with whole communities left untouched by the flood of aid that is winging its way towards the disaster area. All this will illustrate that the most pressing problem in disaster relief is often distribution.

Yet it is precisely here that the US assets will prove most valuable, far more so than the flood of money, much of which we know from past experience will be wasted, misused or unspent. In fact, the aid offered will be more precious than any amount that money can buy after the event.

Thus, as the politicians and the bien peasants take over, and the EU assumes its customary air of moral superiority, it will be important to remember that, when it comes to offering real practical help, the NGOs and especially the trans-national organisations like the UN and the EU will not feature highly.

Instead, it will have been nation states, like the US, and like Australia, India, Japan and others, who will have been there in the thick of it providing the action instead of words.

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