Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Disaster Zone

No-one can have been left unaffected by the images coming from Southern Asia in the last couple of days. If ever there was need for a reminder of the awesome and terrible power of nature, the tsunamis would fit. We cannot come close to imagining the terror of seeing and feeling the waves strike, but the grief India Uncut has a wonderful post - it is sad to describe something as wonderful when it deals with such tragedy, but the word is right - about how much the "refresh" button on his computer scares him. I know exactly what he means, for when I turned on Sky News a few minutes ago, it was reporting that AP estimated 55,000 were dead in the disaster.

And the implications of the tsunamis shall be much greater. Disease will spread in these areas quickly; as they are struggling to cope with merely rescuing the dead, I dread to think how adequate medical provision can be provided swiftly. Looking at it from a longer term perspective, the countries affected will have their tourist industries decimated by the floods. Millions have been left homeless, but if their businesses and infrastructure have been totally destroyed, then it will be almost impossible for them to restore order to their lives quickly - even if governments relax their fiscal policy and pump money into the region. According to the Times on Monday, two-thirds of the Maldivan capital was under water following the tsunamis. Restoring the damage will be a seriously long-term project. Loss of the tourism industry will affect up to 19 million people in the south-east Asian area.

No doubt there will also be a psychological effect upon prospective travellers - to a certain degree irrational, but I for one would not wish to travel to an area so soon after such a catastrophic occurrence. So yes, this is a gigantic human tragedy, and one which needs immediate aid to give some relief to the areas, and to do as much as possible to restore a sense of normalcy to the region (this, of course, will be an impossible task given the all-consuming nature of the disaster, and one which occurred on a Buddhist bank holiday to boot).

Long-term investment in the region, therefore, is necessary, as well as the world's "largest rescue mission". And here I make a plea to Gordon Brown, Hilary Benn, and anyone else involved in the decision-making process with regards to international aid. Rather than cancelling huge amounts of Third World debt, please, please give some of the money you would have been prepared to write off to help encourage investment and to rebuild industries in the worst-affected areas of south-east Asia. The BBC article linked to earlier suggests the effect of the disaster could be to slow down growth as much as 1% on its own in these countries. Only investment can lessen such effects.

Now, I know that there are always problems with giving grants to governments. But most, if not all of the countries affected in this disaster are democracies. Yes, corruption appears to be a problem in some areas - but ultimately, these governments are controlled by the people and foreign investment will have to find its way into the right areas. The politicians will be held accountable otherwise. If the money were put to cancelling the debts of dictatorships in Africa, then there is a strong danger it only helps to prop up their evil regimes - a far bigger stumbling block for progress. We can do far more in Africa if we start removing the corrupt governments in place - governments who used their loans from us to buy guns, and who chose not to help their people. No-one could do much to lessen the impact of such a terrible natural disaster as the Asian earthquake; in that region we can make a real difference with our aid.