Washing away the lies about disaster relief

Last week’s tsunami served as a stark reminder that natural disasters can bring out both the best and worst aspects of human nature.

Like the rest of the world, I watched the rapidly rising death toll obsessively, crying when the video footage showed people being ripped from their tenuous grasp on solid structures by the surging water.

Like the rest of the world, I tried in vain to comprehend what at least 150,000 dead plus at least a million homeless or displaced actually means.

And, like the rest of the world, I made a financial contribution to the relief efforts to help those affected find access to water, food, shelter and medicine with the hope that the already astronomical number of lives taken by this astounding catastrophe doesn’t grow any more unbearable.

Yet, there is a dark side to this amazing worldwide effort to assist those affected by this disaster.

As the fervor dies down and the media stops their fanatical coverage of this event, moving on as they inevitably do to the next celebrity basketball match or the next Pentagon press release, what will happen to the tsunami victims?

If the past is any guide to the future, countries may fail to deliver quickly enough or at all the aid promised in the recent aftermath as has happened in Afghanistan and Liberia.

And while the combined world pledges may seem like a lot, one’s perspective changes with a fuller understanding of the affected countries’ financial situations and the different types of relief countries pledge.

While some countries still provide direct aid in the form of cash or supplies, many instead provide debt relief, allowing the "relieved" countries to write off or push back debt payments. Debt relief reads well in the financial ledger but its actual benefit isn’t as clear when you consider the magnitude of the debt problems that existed before the tsunami.

For example, according to a recent Telegraph article, last year, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand paid 10 times the relief amount pledged in debt repayment, and in Indonesia, 35 percent of government spending was for debt repayment, while only 10 percent went towards health and education.

Furthermore, according to a report issued by the United Nations a couple of weeks ago, around 29,000 children a day, or more than 10 million a year die from malnutrition and curable diseases. Are their lives less valuable? Are they less worthy of our assistance than the tsunami victims? Where is their aid?

The disgusting, dark underbelly of the brilliant outpouring of support for individuals and governments around the world is that tens of millions of people die every year from avoidable situations: poverty, hunger. You’ve heard it all before.

The sad fact is that soon the average citizen will forget about the tsunami victims, and without his or her watchful eyes, the governments will silently withdraw their pledges of aid, and/or insist on repayments of money they have given, continuing the cycle that cripples any attempts for underdeveloped countries to join the first world.

And yet the United States government still is unwilling to pledge more than a small fraction of what it spends yearly on the war machine currently killing Iraqis and U.S. soldiers to try and save the lives of these impoverished and displaced people.

The most frustrating part about the reaction to the tsunami is how it shows how much people of all races and classes really do care about each other while simultaneously exposing just how unwilling, afraid or ignorant those same people are of the need to restructure our global village, to redistribute wealth and power. This alone will erase unnecessary death, terrorism, poverty and hunger.

Natural disasters will always happen. No warning system will ever be enough to predict every possible curveball that nature may throw at us, but we can work together to for a world in which we can truly join together and avoid the power struggles and half-truths that interfere with creating an effective response to such extreme disaster, as well as the millions of everyday disasters that don’t make it to the headlines.

Michelle Howa can be reached at [email protected].