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Politics and the uses of enchantment

Posted by Helen Thursday, January 06, 2005

The rows and jockeying for position that have accompanied genuine success in speedy delivery of useful aid after the tsunami are further proof, if that were needed that next to poverty, what kills is politics. Natural disasters come a distant third. Of course, politics is not separate from poverty or from the inevitable conclusion that the worst natural disasters (and the not so bad ones) always hit poor countries with corrupt, oppressive rulers hardest. All these matters are linked.

The jockeying for position has been done largely by those wonderful transnational organizations: the UN, the EU and the many and assorted NGOs. The UN, as we know, has been busy sending out co-ordinators, setting up conferences and producing endless assessments, in between claiming credit for what individual countries have done and shrieking that more aid is needed. Actually, as anyone who has looked at the situation even at one remove can say, it is the distribution and delivery that is difficult, not least because of the patent inefficiency of the NGOs and the superfluity of international co-ordinators who commandeer the best hotels and divert resources for their own agenda.

The EU is also organizing donors’ meetings, ministers’ meetings, officials’ meetings, what have you. It is also claiming to co-ordinate all sorts of efforts that are quietly going on without the Commissars and it has added one extra twist of its own: the three-minute silence, which has annoyed a surprisingly large number of people.

Meanwhile individual countries, led by the United States and Australia are sending in frigates, helicopters, trucks and other forms of transport, laden with the required goods and accompanied as likely as not by engineers and constructors. Incidentally, individual European countries have been taking part in the effort as well. The UK, France, Spain, the Netherlands have all sent frigates or helicopters. Others have boasted about collecting money, which is still hanging around presumably, before ending up in numbered accounts. But we shall not talk of it now. Time enough for that when the scandals start erupting.

There have been some exceptions. A certain amount of soul searching is going on among the very rich Gulf states, who have not responded nearly as generously as the western ones have done. This is very surprising, as many of those who have suffered are Muslim and charity, unlike the jihad, is one of the five basic teachings of Islam. There has been some muttering that the Saudis are not sending money because they have been accused so often of helping terrorists through so-called Islamic charities. This may be an excuse but surely it cannot be a reason for very long.

Other political problems have emerged, not least in Burma, where the military rulers have effectively refused to acknowledge the scale of the country’s losses, material and human, and in Sri Lanka, where the Tamil Tigers have refused to accept help either from the Americans or the Indians. (India has, incidentally, sensibly announced that it did not need the various NGOs that were salivating at the thought of getting in there, has coped with its own problems and has provided help for other countries. Oh what it is to have a strong and genuinely developing economy.)

The Tamil Tigers explained their decision by their supposed fear that the Americans and the Indians would use aid distribution as an excuse for spying for the Sri Lankan government. Certainly, aid distributors would see the truth of what was going on in areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers and the truth is probably extremely unpleasant. So much for how the disaster brought together the warring Sri Lankan authorities and Tamils, sentimentally written up by the media. It is clear that the Tamil Tigers care very little for the people under their control and a great deal for their own political authority. If thousands more will die in order to protect the latter, well, so be it, as far as they are concerned. So many have already died in that civil war, what’s a few thousand more?

Then there are the children. Whenever heartstrings need to be wrung and wallets opened, we hear about the children. Suddenly UNICEF has become very vociferous, announcing that there were dangers that children in the stricken areas might be kidnapped. Furthermore, the same children will need counselling because of their traumas. Some people might suggest that putting them into the hands of unscrupulous counsellors is tantamount to kidnapping but it is reasonable to suppose that there will not be enough money or organization to set up hundreds and thousands of children’s couselling services.

The Indonesian and Malaysian governments have responded by saying that they will protect the orphans from potential kidnappers, which is very sensible. Undoubtedly, many children have died and many more have been left orphan, perhaps losing their entire families. It will take a little while to sort out the real situation.

Historical experience tells one that children usually get over traumatic experiences, particularly if they are not prolonged ones, better than adults. And even if they do not, it is reasonably well known that the best thing for them is to go back to as much of the family as can be found, rather than be looked after by government or international officials. Many of the areas hit by the tsunami still have functioning extended families. Before they let UNICEF in on the act, the governments in question may well decide to try and place orphaned children with distant aunts and uncles.

If UNICEF is really worried about traumatized children, it might like to take a look at the ones who have gone through extended and repeated horrific experiences in DR Congo. In particular, they might like to deal with those young girls who had been rounded up and raped by UN soldiers.

I could not help thinking about the Austrian born, American child psychiatrist, Bruno Bettelheim. Many of his theories about autism have been attacked and disproved. But he had also dealt with the subject of trauma in children.

Himself a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, he worked with children who had come out of them after the Second World War. These children had been far more extensively traumatized than the victims of the tsunami, though it may sound invidious to make comparisons. Bettelheim found that the most effective method was not endless analysis or discussion of what had happened but a sublimation through traditional fairy tales.

In his book The Uses of Enchantment Bettelheim analyzed many of the best known fairy tales and talked about the way he had used them on the children from the concentration camps, many of whom had lost their entire families having also witnessed horrors of the kind we cannot even imagine. Subsequently he used those tales with seriously disturbed adolescents in Chicago.

Alas, he himself never got rid of his demons. In 1990 he committed suicide on the anniversary of Anschluss and the Nazi take-over in Austria. But many of the children he had worked with survived and flourished. Is there not something to be learnt from that? The myths and tales of South-East Asia are intriguing and enchanting. But I doubt if self-important UNICEF officials or ideology-ridden counsellors know much about them.