The Politics of Relief
January 6, 2005
The tragedy in South and South East Asia has shaken the
world. Barely ten days after the tsunami swept thousands of
kilometers of coastlines, killing an estimate 150,000 people
and displacing millions, world leaders gathered for a mini
summit in Indonesia to take stock and promise more money and
technology. The UN is to lead the effort. The international
community is estimated to have pledged over USD 2 billion in
relief and rehab. The overwhelming grief of the victims is
being matched by an enormous outpouring of sympathy and
support. Money and material are pouring in from all across.
But the response has been too slow, and politics are to
blame for that. No one will know how many thousand
victims perished either at sea, or of thirst, or for lack of
medical attention trapped beneath debris of buildings,
because relief did not reach these people in time. Politics
is the number one reason for this slow response to rescue
and relief operations when it was most needed.
Indonesia, the country most seriously affected by the
tsunami, had an insurgency in the Aceh province. Aceh was a
closed province where journalists and aid workers need
special permission to go. The Indonesian government first
wanted relief material for Aceh to land hundreds of
kilometers away and then be taken by road on a twelve hour
journey to the affected areas. News media reported that when
the first foreign doctors reached Aceh, some Indonesian
military personnel asked what they were doing there. It took
three days for the government in Jakarta to allow
international relief to reach the most affected areas.
In India, the government announced its decision not to seek
international aid. As an aspiring power she sent relief
missions to other affected countries. India said that it was
adequately endowed, with money and manpower to deal with
this crisis by itself. An official explained that India
wanted the international relief to go to areas where relief
was more urgently needed, and where local capacity to deal
with the crisis was limited.
Perhaps it was the ideology of self-reliance that had a part
in the failure to raise an alarm at the onset of the
tragedy, even if it was Indian lives that were at stake.
Perhaps it was national security concerns, since Nicobar had
an air force station, and India is said to be monitoring the
region from there. Or the nuclear power plant near Chennai
that had to be shut down because of the tidal surges: could
military aircrafts from US or Australia be allowed to fly
over such sensitive areas?
Perhaps there were more practical reasons. At the last major
earthquake disaster in Gujarat province, India, in 2001,
around 30,000 people lost their lives. There were many
reports of international relief and rescue teams stranded at
airports, because of logistical and information bottlenecks.
By politely refusing foreign assistance this time, the
authorities may have been seeking to avoid the same the
The international community too had other priorities. It is
not politically correct to blame Mother Nature for heaping
this misery. So the search for some other scapegoats was on,
and today, the world has a universal punching bag --- the
United States. For a couple days, there were headlines that
some UN official had called the US `stingy` for failing to
open its purse strings enough. Over the week, the US
government raised its pledge ten-fold to about USD 350
As for the UN, its record of handing disasters, natural or
man-made, is less than impressive. If the oil-for-food
scandal in Iraq is any indication, a new UN agency to deal
with this disaster will not inspire confidence. Few may
remember that the UN had declared the 1990s to be the Decade
for Natural Disaster Reduction.
China has over the past week reportedly raised its
contribution from USD 3 million to around USD 65 million.
China's slow response may have dented her aspiration to be
regional political force. On the other hand the Islamic
countries of the Arabian Gulf region have received some
criticism for exhibiting restraint while the most affected
country, Indonesia, is the world's largest Muslim nation.
Europe proposed debt relief for many of the affected
countries. Such relief has often helped recipient
governments to perpetrate failed policies, and perpetuate
poverty; the poor paid the price for those failed economic
policies and continue to remain vulnerable to natural
At the summit in Indonesia, the leaders should seek
people-oriented, market-driven diverse operations, much
beyond the hands of bureaucrats and professional aid
agencies. For instance, direct cash transfer to the victims,
either a lump sum through a bank account, or a weekly
dispersal, allowing them to decide how and where they would
like to begin reconstruction of their lives would be a good
The present crisis provides an opportunity to seize the
political initiative and push through fundamental reforms.
Poor people deserve better.
Barun Mitra is the director of Liberty Institute, an
independent think tank in New Delhi.