December 29, 2004

All together now

As the scale of the tsunami disaster becomes apparent, and the reporting hits home (1,500 Swedes are unaccounted for, for example), there isn't much we can do but give, though I'd like to append some thoughts.

Exactly a year before the tsunami, Dec 26, 2003, an earthquake hit Bam, Iran, killing 43,000. Ten years ago, over 500,000 people were killed by other people in Rwanda and Burundi. So far in 2004, 70,000 people have died in Darfur.

And I didn't give in any of those cases. Probably neither did you.

So why give now? I'm probably going to be a little too honest:

Clear effectiveness: Around the Indian Ocean, right now, a rescue and relief operation is under way that is aiming to prevent the death toll from doubling in the next few weeks. Giving now prevents Red Cross funds from being depleted from this effort. (So make a general donation, don't direct your gift.)

Meanwhile, in Darfur, inhabitans can only wish for such a response. There must be a feeling among the donating public, probably accurate, that humanitarian aid to Darfur is ineffective without political support from donor countries, though this political support would depend on the issue being raised at home. A Catch-22. Perhaps there is some latent racism on our part: It's Africa — what do you expect?

Sense of innocence: There is no-one to blame for this tsunami. It wasn't perpetrated by other humans, like in Rwanda, it wasn't caused by human factors, such as global warming or over-fishing; it wasn't even a measurable risk, in the way that living in Florida, San Francisco or on the slopes of Mount Etna entails known risks. I don't know why this made a difference to my motivation (especially given that many of the victims in Rwanda, being children, were de facto innocent) but it did.

Perhaps it's because humans killing humans is a dog bites man story, unfortunately. Nature killed far fewer people last century than did Man, so when Nature acts up, it's news. We may have atrocity fatigue in Darfur, but not yet Tsunami fatigue in Sri Lanka.

They're like us: Well, some of them are in fact us, tourists at the wrong place at the wrong time. Meanwhile, remember the coverage of Bam? Hardly. It was out of sight and out of mind within a few news cycles, because, let's be honest, earthquakes that only kill poor/brown/Muslim people aren't news.

Well, there you have it, a garbled mess of motivations for giving. Perhaps the only thing this post shows is that trying to rationalize one's way through this is not going to help. Just give.

Posted by Stefan at 01:38 AM GMT

The irony is that the marginal effectiveness of individual donations in this case is probably lower than in most others, just because of the hundreds of millions of dollars which are being pledged by various countries and multilaterals, compared to which even the $450k which the Red Cross has raised at Amazon is pretty low.

In contrast, friends of mine donated money to a fistula hospital in Ethiopia this Christmas, in lieu of gifts. They repair women who have been dreadfully badly damaged in giving birth, and who no one else is going to help, at a cost of about $150 per operation. Rather than throwing a drop into a bucket which helps millions, you're making a huge difference to maybe just a handful of women.

There is always a need for charitable donations, and I think that the choice of charity is a very personal decision. With the enormous relief effort which is now under way, I actually feel no more urgency to donate to this particular charity now than I do to make my slow but steady donations to MSF over the course of the year.

If anything, I think that the best thing that we individuals in the west can do is to keep reminding our politicians of the aftermath of the crisis in the months ahead, and attempt to hold them to the promises they're making now. When disaster is on this scale, you need governments to be leading the aid effort, not groups of individuals, no matter how large.

Posted by: Felix on December 29, 2004 01:51 AM

Well, I agree. If the world was a more rational place, capital would be allocated very differently. The percentage of first world GDP that is directed by governments towards aid in the third world is minuscule and a disgrace, and yet there are no political parties/lobbying groups that have a chance of altering this state of affairs. These rescue operations, and long-term effective aid, should be paid for with our tax money. I'd vote for it. Few people seem to agree.

Check this out: Surveyed Americans think the US govt. gives 20% of GDP in aid to foreign countries, would prefer it to be 10%, though the actual figure is 1% (or below). Why not raise it tenfold, then?

Posted by: Stefan Geens on December 29, 2004 02:03 AM

We should all be grateful that Petra Nemcova survived, sparing us the truly ugly calculus of demonstrating to the world that a maringally attractive woman with fake tits is worth more to American news organizations than 60,000 southeast Asians.

Bonus irony that when I read it, the side bar ad for the link was for AMEX: one of those fake bio spots heralding a man's surfing vacation, with the headline "Man Battles Giant from the Depths... And Wins!"

Posted by: Mr. 99th Percentile on December 29, 2004 02:17 AM

No, it's worse than that: It's the most emailed story on Yahoo News right now, ahead of "Missouri Approves Fishing With Bare Hands", followed by "Over 300 Bodies Found on 'The Beach' Island."

Posted by: Stefan Geens on December 29, 2004 02:24 AM

I don't think they're fake. And what would it have to do with anything if they were?

Personally, I never like it when news organizations televise the victims of crimes or tragedies. It's exploitive. It's better that they show the destruction from a bit of a distance and focus on slebs.

Broken pelvis, though - ouch. That's a serious, serious injury. It's odd that the destruction and death are so great that potentially crippling injuries receive short shrift.

I just can't wrap my head around how big this is. I keep trying to think it out or put it in perspective, but I just get lost in the magnitude of it.

Posted by: Sterling on December 29, 2004 04:55 AM

Amazing video footage from a Swede.

Posted by: Stefan Geens on December 29, 2004 12:53 PM

Direct link.

Posted by: Stefan Geens on December 29, 2004 12:55 PM