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Posted by Helen Monday, January 03, 2005

There have been great natural disasters before, pace the Archbishop of Canterbury. Perhaps the numbers of dead are higher now than in many others, perhaps not. There have also been natural disasters caused entirely by misguided or criminal political decisions (just think of what the truth behind that Ethiopian famine was or how many millions died as a result of collectivization in various communist countries).

There is, as I have said before, a certain sameness about disasters and an equal sameness about response. Of course, people generously donate money, alas, preferring not to find out how and on what that money is used for. Some sense is shown by those who give to small, named charities, that can and probably will be held to account.

Chaos at the receiving end, with little ability to organize transport and distribution, no possibility of ensuring that the food and other supplies flown in actually get to the right recipients. The aid that is pouring out of the rich west seems to be reducing itself to a “trickle” to those who have suffered. Supplies lying around, rotting away, as usual in these cases.

Naturally, the newspapers are full of stories, mass and individual. That will not last, but it is good to see that occasionally something is more interesting than the private lives of footballers and TV personalities. It is also a relief not to watch the appalling hunt that the journalists conduct on their, usually very young and often helpless, prey for the entertainment of the great British public. Why the destruction of a marriage or the reduction of a human being to a gibbering wreck, even if those involved are footballers or pop singers, should be acceptable entertainment is beyond me.

Then there are the journalists. On present count, at least six have claimed to have been the ones who fearlessly revealed the true extent of the tragedy and inspired charitable giving on a scale, unprecedented since, well, since the last time something like this happened. I expect the numbers will grow.

The politicians are making their stand. Hilary Benn, son of Tony, is fully expected to make his mark in NuLab politics by the generous and fearless way he is shelling out taxpayers’ money to international organizations. In a rare display of political intelligence, Tony Blair has defended his continuing holiday. What could he do if he returned that he cannot deal with wherever he happens to be with his family? Let Gordon Brown take the plaudits for the moment. His erstwhile friend will deal with him when he does return.

Kofi Annan has announced that the effects of the tsuname will be felt for decades. Not a particularly illuminating statement but at least he has refrained from blaming the United States, globalization and western capitalism. Early days yet, I expect. And talking of Kofi Annan, where is the man? It seems that he, too, declined to interrupt his very pleasant holiday in Wyoming with James Wolfensohn, the President of the World Bank. In fact, his first statements, three days after the disaster and well into the aid-giving frenzy, were made by telephone. There were to be no pictures of Mr Annan enjoying himself.

His colleague, Jan Egeland, Head of Humanitarian Affairs, has had to retract, though not explicitly, as my colleague has written. From accusing the wealthy nations of being stingy (for wealthy nations read the United States) he has moved to praising one of the few programmes that has been successful: aid being delivered directly to the people in need of it by the US Sea Hawk helicopters.

Who knows? Mr Egeland may yet accept that the only useful aid giving effort has been that organized and delivered by individual nations, such as the United States, India, Australia and Japan, who have immediately started organizing and co-ordinating their activity.

Interesting to note the presence of India among the Big Four. For decades that country remained the poorest of the poor, subject to every natural disaster and the recipient of large amounts of aid. Some time ago it began shaking that burden off, opened its economy up to the world, began to develop it seriously (refusing to sign the wretched Kyoto Protocol) and is now in a position to help provide aid.

In the meantime, the sheer inability of the large international organizations, who are supposed to deal with disasters, such as the UN and the big NGOs, to deal with the situation has been breathtaking. They have had to deal with such situations before. Why have they not learnt anything?

What is the point of taking plane-load of blankets, a week after the event, into tiny airports, with no unloading facility and no possibility of distributing anything? The same applies to food and medical aid. Unless you know how to take it to the people, there is no point in bringing it in.

Some of what is needed, helicopters, fork lift trucks, bridge building equipment and so on, is already there and much more is being provided by the US and Australia, with additional help from Japan, China, India, Israel and, possibly, soon the other G8 countries. The military is moving in, to organize transport and distribution. Clearly, an operation of this size needs military discipline and control (not to mention guns to protect the actual aid). In the coming days we shall see more of that.

And again, one comes back to the same question: what is the point of the vast international and transnational apparatus of the UN, the Red Cross, Oxfam, various other organizations with initials? What have they been collecting all this money for? Why have they been strutting the stage? Is this not to be their finest hour? Alas, no. It seems that these organizations, whose aim is to deal with problems of this kind, cannot really do so.

What they can do is play at politics, make huge statements, mostly of the anti-Western kind, build up bureaucracies and support idiotic events like the recent European Social Forum in London. Practical help? Forget it. Apart from the large scale equipment and disciplined organization provided by individual countries, the only organizations that might be able to distinguish themselves, will be the small charities, who can be held directly accountable by the donors. Oxfam, as it keeps proclaiming, will be there. But what it will be doing there will remain shadowed in mystery.

The UN has so far not even managed to get there. The EU, as we know, is planning to have a donors’ conference next week, an opportunity for the Luxembourg Presidency to show its mettle. The food and various arrangements will be good, I expect. As to practical outcome? Well, what exactly is a donors’ conference for? Presumably, to ensure that the member states who have already given directly, should now also give to the EU for it to produce its vast and useless projects, probably never to be finished if past experience is anything to go by, but crowned by the blue flag with the ring of stars.

There is more ridiculous nonsense to come. The rent-a-mob pop singers are organizing a concert, hoping to raise vast amounts of money. Whether that will succeed remains questionable. After all, people have already given and done so with great generosity. As more and more news of chaos and inefficiency comes in, the same people will not want to buy tickets or records as well. Perhaps, the whole concert can be performed to an audience of UN and EU officials.

Finally,we come to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has publicly announced that this sort of thing makes him doubt the existence of God. Really, he is supposed to be a brainy, intellectual sort of cove. Like all those aid agencies, he has spent too much time politicking, instead of which he ought to have read some of those many works of religion and theology, starting with the Book of Job, that discuss the very issue of natural calamity and God,. If, on the other hand, he finds it hard to maintain his faith, then he should resign or whatever an Archbishop does and become a Sociology lecturer with a regular column in the Guardian.

Not all is gloom and doom, however. As my colleague has pointed out, the voices that say it is poverty that is the problem are getting stronger. The voices that add: we should stop worrying about global warming and start paying attention to how the developing world should actually develop rather than live on endless hand-outs, are beginning to sound across the western political spectrum. The tranzis may think this is their hour of glory. But it is beginning to look like their nemesis.