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Tsunami Disaster

Polly Toynbee

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The horror of the tsunami drowns optimistic new year thoughts. Images of human flotsam and jetsam prompt nihilistic thoughts of meaninglessness. (If only there was a God to blame ...)

The only people trying to make sense of it are raving mad - such as the regular emailer who declares this is the sign of "God's wrath over 1 billion abortions". More tentative religious messages see this as an opportunity to count our blessings, tempus fugit, carpe diem, and so on. Look at the way the world shows its common humanity in the relief effort. But prayers in all faiths fall on earthquake-wrecked ground.

All previous experience suggests too little help will be promised and even less given. A year ago response to the Bam earthquake offered a new openness with Iran: but the non-arrival of pledged cash only added to suspicion of the wicked west. Meanwhile in Iraq, that ongoing calamity for which we are directly responsible, the news that 28 more have been blown up fades into the inside pages.

But the new year is for optimism, if you can manage it. Both Blair and Brown look to 2005 as Britain's big chance at the helm of the G8 to engage the rich with debt relief, aid, fair trade, carbon emissions and Aids-crippled Africa. On debt and trade Labour has done well, but it is difficult to believe great strides will be taken in redistributing power and wealth in a world in which economic and intellectual forces are pushing in the wrong direction and the wealth gap widens. Social democracy and global cooperation are struggling under the tsunami of US neoconservatism.

"Charity begins at home" is the mean-minded dictum of the right, unwilling to spend on foreigners, unwilling to spend on those outside the family fortress at home, either. But there may be a lot of truth in the old maxim. Countries that tolerate vast wealth gaps are unlikely to concern themselves greatly about the poor even further from their door. Countries that give most - the Nordics - are the ones that have created the most socially equal societies at home first. Can America be anything but unjust in dealing with foreigners when it cares so little about the third world poverty within its own borders?

Britain has yet to confront honestly the scale of its own dysfunctional inequality. Labour still has not found a language of redistribution and fairness that it dares to use when talking to voters. In public, both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are at ease with the language of global injustice, but not with talking about domestic poverty. "Africa", in Blair's speeches, is a noble cause more than a real place, sanitised by distance. The fewer details he sees, the easier it is to express the "scar" on our conscience. Brown attacks debt abroad, yet debt at astronomic interest rates still cripples poor families here.

Seen close up, the poor at home are politically difficult. Their children get Asbos and their parenting skills may be questionable; too many are on invalidity benefit with various intractable difficulties. Politicians fear that voters think the poor are all like the characters in Shameless (though who ever says that most of the poor are in work?). "You can't just throw money at them" is the official stance - while quietly redistributing a lot in tax credits and benefits. Labour has not begun to turn the poor into an unequivocally good cause. Far-away orphans are easier: poor children at home arouse ambiguous political feelings.

This is pitiful cowardice. There have been glimmers of hope that the next manifesto really will put social justice first, summoning back disaffected Labour voters. But then a sharp backward step is taken to triangulate any such hope. Multimillionaire Tory defector Shaun Woodward is apparently on Labour's election team for his experience in John Major's campaign. What's his first pronouncement? Labour should cut inheritance tax because it now reaches too many people. "I'm not talking about well-off people," he says.

But what does Labour mean by "ordinary" people when only 5% of estates reach the £263,000 threshold? Virtually all inheritance tax is levied on those with shares: it is a rich man's tax. But that set Oliver Letwin off yesterday with another avalanche of his "suggested" tax cuts, including abolition of death duties at a cost of nearly £3bn. Moving that way risks shrinking the political battle-ground to near-invisible.

But social justice is supposed to be Labour's great third-term theme - or so Alan Milburn says to Guardian writers. If so, Labour must not match Tory tax-cutting and civil-service slashing. Clarity of purpose is what any PR adviser would say Labour lacks most: a good record on delivery lacks the red thread to make that story believed. The only (remote) threat of Labour losing is if too many Labour voters stay home. Every time Woodward opens his mouth, he will make that more likely.

Labour's great chance to be "at its best when at its boldest" now happens to be its best electoral strategy, too: take a risk, be brave, talk loud and often about its mission to abolish child poverty. Be honest about how it will be paid for, the good it will do, the vision of a country and a world without poverty. Take the big risk of losing some middle England votes for the gain of plainly doing the right thing. That's what political trust is made of.

If this seems to have travelled a fair distance from the tsunami, it hasn't. Charity begins at home because people's basic good instinct for generosity and decency has to be nurtured by leaders brave enough to take the risk to appeal to altruism, at home and abroad. Optimism is the great progressive virtue: things can and must get better; hope is the great political energiser. Pessimism is the conservative state of mind: fear all change, self-interest is the only reliable human motivator. Tsunamis may be inevitable; human failure to minimise suffering and share wealth is not.


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The media has made sure that the developed world has been made fully aware of the suffering that has taken place as a result of Asia’s tsunami. This has provoked a great deal of generosity which in itself has shamed governments into providing more aid. However, much of this money is being diverted from other aid budgets. Most of it is coming from a contingency fund. This is the same fund that has been paying for the Iraq War. So far the UK has donated £50m to those suffering as a result of the tsunami disaster. However, it has found £6bn for the war. As the war has been running for 656 days, this means that the money the UK has given equates to five and a half days of our involvement in the war.

A large proportion of this money will not actually be used to help those suffering from the disaster. A recent report from the UN claims that around 50% of money pledged by governments after a disaster is never sent. This is mainly a public relations exercise.

Much of the aid sent by governments (the US is particularly guilty of this) comes in the form of goods not wanted by the donor country. Aid often comes with conditions. For example, $8.9bn of the aid that the US gives has to be spent on military assistance, counter-terrorism and anti-drugs operations.

The UK is no better. An increasing amount of aid it gives is used to force policies on developing countries such as the privatisation of water, land, education and health. Many of the countries receiving this money are actually paying out more in debt repayments than they are receiving in aid. The great irony of this is much of this debt has been obtained by military dictators who needed money to defend itself from insurrections.

The main thing that comes from the disaster is the generosity being shown by ordinary individuals. This often comes from people who can least afford it. There is nothing new in this. According to the Charities Aid Foundation, the wealthiest 10% of the UK income earners give just 0.7% of their household expenditure to charity, while the poorest 10% allocate 3% of theirs.

I have noticed how wealthy individuals and multinational companies have attempted to take advantage of the disaster to get some good publicity. Philip Green, the boss of BHS, announced he was giving £100,000 to the disaster fund. That does not seem a lot when you think that one of his companies paid him a dividend of £460m last year. Nor does it seem very generous when you compare it to £5m he spent on his 50th birthday two years ago.

Vodafone gave £1m. Sounds a lot but it made £10bn profit last year. In other words, they gave less than an hour’s profit.

The World Health Organisation claims that 150,000 people have known to have died so far. It is about the same number of children that die every week from lack of food and fresh water (20,000 a day). Yet none of these children have to die. All we world needs to do is spend half the money we currently spend on armaments and the problem could be solved.

Another possibility is imposing a 1% income tax to deal with world poverty. Where are the politicians advocating that policy? In fact, the opposite is the case with politicians competing with each other with promises of how they are going to cut income tax. The reason for this? They all have the notion we are at heart a greedy and selfish people only concerned with our own problems?

Are they right? Or are they judging us by themselves. As D. H. Lawrence once said, every philosopher ends at his fingertips.

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One of the 'strange' statistics that came out last year concerned active participation in charitable organisations in various countries around the world. The 'commonsense' viewpoint was that the USA must top the league, since church-going and charitable donations are supposedly so prevalent. Similarly, the Nordic countries must come down at the bottom of the league, since 'the state already does everything, so why should private individuals exert themselves'.

The reality was just the opposite.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, really, since statistics have shown time and again that poor people give more to charity than rich people, both relatively and absolutely. Or, to put it another way, the idea that cutting taxes so that rich people can spend their wealth in a socially desirable way is based on the falsehood that rich people actually want to do that - they don't.

As with people, so with countries. Unfortunately, the road to social justice is through concerted, concentrated and collective action, rather than through appeals to the charity of individuals. The problems are almost invariably collective, so the solutions need to be too.

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  • 4 weeks later...

I think it is quite shameful how some governments have acted with regard to aid for the tsunami and other needy areas around the world. ierland gave €20million, while the Irish population gave €50million.

Africa is still far more needy than asia after the tsunami. The tsunami is just a hotter news story than people dying in africa. 30,000 people a day die from diorehea.

This is a great chance to capitalise on peoples generosity and try to encourage people to consistantly give to charity on the scale they have done for the tsunami. awareness is the key.

In Dublin where I live all the major charities (Goal, World Vision, Red Cross, Oxfam) recruit people to work on the streets asking for a minute of peoples time to sign up to give €12 a month towards preventing aids. Most people dont bat an eyelid at these people, they know it is for charity but they do not want the inconvenience of having to hear about suffering half way accross the world.

Just look at the bestsellers list, there are not many books on the poor state of Africa today, but there are plenty on political corruption as this is a more glamorous story.


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I believe that reasons for the huge public response to the tsunami disaster are two fold. Firstly there is the dramatic nature of the disaster meaning that it received a huge amount of press (compare that to the ongoing situation in Dafur).

Secondly the fact that this was a 'one off' event rather than an ongoing political problem.

This gives people the impression that by donating money it will actually lead to positive results rather than being lost in a sea of beurocracy/ corruption. Of course the media has provided amazingly little coverage of the ongoing political issues in Banda Aceh and Sri Lanka. The only place that I have read about Dalits being denied aid by Indian officials is on the BBC online. There will of course be corruption, theft of aid etc and the political problems are unlikely to simply disappear overnight, but in the mean time we keep giving because Asia seems infinately more 'fixable' than Africa. Perhaps it is, but this should not mean that Africans should be denied the aid if needed.

As for development cash, having worked for a development agency I can assure you that the vast bulk of it is wasted by the majority of big players. Development keeps white people in jobs and maintains dependancy of the underdeveloped world on the developed. Debt relief, the removal or rethinking of World bank restrictions and trade would be far more effective tools in lifting the developing world out of its current situation.


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