is easier to imagine the death of one person than those of a hundred
or a thousand . . . when multiplied suffering becomes abstract,"
the Peruvian novelist and politician Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in
his book The War at the End of the World.
Asian Tsunami disaster has created 'multiplied suffering'. The destruction,
in part because of the power of television, is, on one level, only
too real. On another, the magnitude of it is really intangible to
those of us thousands of miles away.
I cannot capture the destruction in words. I find myself not wanting
to reel off statistics of the number of dead and the horrible ways
in which they died. The media's ever-present body count, generally
rounded off to the nearest thousand, adds to the unreality of it
all. It belies the impact on each individual affected.
of this nature creates a sort of existential void. Why does it happen?
How can we respond? The easiest way is to give money. Money somehow
reconnects us to those hurting. It makes us feel we are doing something.
British public are on course to give over £100-million pounds.
The British government promises to match what the public raise.
US government promises $350-million and the US public have found
nearly $200-million for the victims. Both the UK and US governments
have also supplied military personnel and equipment to help with
relief and reconstruction. The world in total has raised over a
is it really enough?
is £100-million to a British government that found £6-billion
to fight an illegal war in Iraq? The National Priorities Project
estimates that the US will spend $152-billion on the war in Iraq
by the end of January 2005.
companies pat themselves on the back for their donations. Vodafone
is giving £1-million and BP found £1,6-million. But
each record profits of somewhere between £8- and £10-billion
a year. According to Jonathan Freedland, writing in the Guardian
this week, Vodafone's donation is the equivalent of one hour of
we should never look a gift horse in the mouth says the old adage.
I do not want to rubbish the amounts given. It is encouraging that
companies, governments and celebrities are making sizeable donations.
The public too has responded generously. A recent story in England
focused on children who sold their Christmas presents to make a
somehow I am still not satisfied by all this. I cringe when I read
headlines such as 'Great Brits give £110m'. The great British
public also spent £240-million on presents for their pets
this Christmas, according to Churchill Insurance.
not mean to knock individual generosity. To be fair the poorest
10% of British society allocate three per cent of their household
income to charity a year. Governments should not be lambasted when
they make an effort. But something is still skewed here.
hundred or two hundred million in Tsunami aid from the British government
is minuscule compared to a GDP of £1,2-trillion. At a broader
level, UK foreign aid in total only counts for 0,4% of the GDP still
less than the UN-recommended 0,7%. Governments talk about their
donations as if it is a personal gift from them or politicians.
But it is taxpayers' money. Surely, somewhere, the public should
have a say on how this is spent not only on this disaster but across
the board in terms of foreign aid and poverty reduction.
UN estimates that $900-billion was spent on military acquisitions
worldwide in 2003, this went up to $950 billion by the end of 2004.
The world is set to hit the $1-trillion mark on military expenditure
a year. Foreign aid is at a maximum of $60-billion. This is a global
needs to be done in terms of this disaster, not to mention worldwide
poverty, is bigger than you and I. Governments must curtail military
spending and increase foreign aid.
I feel wracked with guilt when I think of the small donation I made
to the Tsunami appeal. I wonder if government officials feel the
is needed on top of charitable donations. Each of us has a responsibility
to put pressure on our governments to make a real difference in
the lives of all who are suffering. Maybe in addition to financial
contributions we could all write letters to our local politicians
or sign up to campaigns aimed at redirecting public funds in more
anything, we should all be humbled by what has unfolded before us
in the last two weeks. It is a wake-up call if nothing else. We
can all do more.
donate to the Disasters Emergency Committee visit http://www.dec.org.uk.
Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis
of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its
relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.
"Look South" published by