In the infancy of the 21st century, two sudden human tragedies have found dramatic attention in the global eye: the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, and the tsunami of 2004. That the former, a shocking mass murder resulting in 2000 deaths, can be compared to the latter, a numbing horror of tens of thousands of deaths, is testament to the importance of 9/11’s immediate and lasting influence on the order of global political power. But the tsunami, ostensibly a natural force for which no people or nation can suffer blame, has its political dimension, too.

That death and suffering has once more fallen upon the poor of the world is not surprising. Indeed, it is an axiom that those with the least seem sure to always suffer more than their fair share of tragedy. The damage wrought by a five metre high wall of water was amplified by the fragility of the structures that the waves fell upon; and the quality of those structures is directly related to the poverty of those peoples and to the lack of political capital to be wielded and spent by their nations.

The lingering suffering that we shall see in coming weeks — starvation, infection, injury, exposure and malnutrition — will be all the more acute and lengthy due to the economic and political limitations of the nations hit by this tragedy. The suffering of the poor will only accelerate.

Consider if the tsunami had struck a wealthier part of the world, perhaps the eastern seaboard of the United States. No doubt there would have been death and horror. But there would have also been forewarning sufficient to evacuate a large part of the population. A lack of investment in wave detectors in the Indian Ocean prevented such advance warning in Southeast Asia.

The cities of America’s east would have also quickly mobilized emergency response services; bodies would have been retrieved, quarantined and disposed of; and, as was observed after September 11, aid from the rest of the country and from abroad would have quickly found its way, via reliable transit systems, to where it was most needed. There is no such luxury of organization and infrastructure in Southeast Asia, not necessarily for lack of planning or forethought, but simply for lack of money.

In Sri Lanka, Indonesia and south India, a chronic shortage of health services, poor roadways and communications, and a dearth of appropriate building materials combine to make these populations disproportionately vulnerable to natural disasters of this type. As has been observed in the wake of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the health systems of poor countries are geared toward delivering limited primary care services on an as-needed basis. There is typically a minimal budget for disease prevention and long-term sanitation upgrades, except for that small amount provided by foreign organizations, and almost no consideration for large scale or sustained emergency medical responses, hence the ease with which HIV/AIDS has ravaged the poorest nations of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

While countries like India are experiencing an economic re-awakening, they remain yoked to the beast that drags all Southern economies from the solvency needed to address their infrastructure concerns: national debt. With large proportions of their GDP earmarked for servicing debt to wealthier nations, poor countries have little discretionary capital to invest in improved health care, infrastructure and disaster response strategies.

Again, the HIV/AIDS experience exemplifies this truth: by some reports a nation like Kenya, beaten down by its epidemic, spends 17times more on repaying its $6 billion debt than it does on HIV control. Indonesia’s debt hovers at 73 per cent of its GDP, while the people of Sri Lanka have accrued a public debt valued at over 105 per cent of the national GDP. These financial burdens are compounded by governmental corruption and policy distractions, such as, in Sri Lanka’s case, overspending on the civil service and national defence to keep a simmering civil war in check.

The importance of political image and revenue in the face of this nightmare is best exemplified in both the Thai government’s response to the tsunami and in Western media’s initial instincts. CNN reports that in Thailand special hospitals have been set aside exclusively for tourist use, while both CNN and CBC focused much of their time showing footage of Western tourists being airlifted from Phuket while the real story was the untold thousands of dead washed out to sea in Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The lesson seems to be that, beyond all else, the revenue flow must be protected, so dependent are nations like Thailand on the currency of beach-going Westerners.

Nations will rally, emergency response teams and millions of dollars of short-term aid will be sent; yet thousands more will die, a majority of them children, as the chronic Developing World problems of water quality, nutrition, road quality and housing will not be fixed by such temporal measures. We must not forget that while an earthquake and a monstrous wall of water were the immediate cause of this tragedy, its root remains with the inability of Southern nations to marshal sufficient resources to make their people less vulnerable to such events; in a word, poverty.

Stingy tsunami relief

When Jan Egeland, the United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, called the West’s contributions to the tsunami relief efforts “stingy,” he was answered with a defensive cry from the United States. President Bush was recalled from vacationing in Texas and senior White House staff submitted their predictable sound bites, all trumpeting the same refrain: “the United States is the single biggest contributor to humanitarian aid in the world.”

This is true, depending on how you add the numbers. And to be fair, no nation is legally obligated to give aid to others, though the moral, political and economic arguments to the contrary are strong. The maintaining of alliances, global security and trade and power relations all depend on the remittances paid by rich nations to poorer ones. However, it is the scope of such aid, especially in light of this unprecedented humanitarian tragedy, which is disappointing.

Canada has shown leadership in this matter, with our federal government now pledging $80 million in aid. The provinces have so far given over $18 million independently, while individual Canadians continue to give in heartwarming amounts. In addition, we have placed a moratorium on debt payments from stricken nations who owe us a total of $993.3 million.

The United States, however, initially announced a donation of only $US35 million. This is equivalent to 12 cents for every U.S. citizen and is noticeably less than the $US40 million Bush has earmarked for his own inauguration ceremonies in the new year. Poorer Western nations like Spain and Sweden have pledged $US68 million and $US75 million respectively; Sweden’s GDP is one seventh the size of the U.S.’s.

These numbers get tossed around so much that they often lose meaning. Some perspective is helpful. The median salary of the New York Yankees in 2004 was $US3.1 million, the team’s total payroll exceeding $US184 million. It is telling that the world’s richest nation can only offer five million displaced and dying persons a fraction of the cost of maintaining a single major league baseball team for one year.

According to Slate magazine, Bush himself has a net worth somewhere between US$9-26 million, while Paul Martin’s fortune famously hovers about the $50 million mark. The amounts of tsunami aid pledged by these men are, in a sense, equivalent only to the net worth of a single wealthy individual, while working people throughout dig deep to give to the Red Cross.

The entire U.S. foreign aid budget in 2004 was $US2.4 billion, loudly touted as the most generous aid budget in the world. Yet this is what the Bush administration spends in occupying Iraq every 10 days. Moreover, aid is rarely if ever strictly altruistic. The much touted $US3 billion/year of HIV/AIDs money (“Bush money” to field workers) is tainted: only nations which agree to receive imports of U.S. genetically modified foods are eligible to receive it.

In light of such gamesmanship and political disingenuousness, the millions pledged so far to tsunami relief do indeed appear “stingy.”