Tuesday, 6 May 2008

cyclone nargis

one thing i forgot to mention yesterday was the special recognition award for radio tarana, which, as robert khan said to me on the night, was a long time coming. tarana is a hindi language radio station broadcasting out of auckland, and targetted at the indian community. they've been around for 15 years and are now very successful.

of course the big news today is the tragedy in myanmar/burma. it seems strange that it's usually the poorest countries or the poorest areas in richer countries that suffer major tragedies like this. however, the relationship is clearly due the lack of infrastructure and sound buildings as well as a lack of education, particularly civil emergency information, that leads to the high death tolls. there are also not enough civil emergency staff and services to deal with disasters when they happen.

when disasters happen in rich areas, such as the sweeping fires in california last year, the population is usually well supported, there is plenty of warning and a planned exit strategy. so while there was considerable loss of property, there was very little loss of life. it also helps that richer areas are much less densely populated.

where there is poverty, people are living in very poor quality housing. reports i heard were that people in the affected areas were living in shacks constructed with bamboo and tin that would not have survived a heavy wind, let alone a cyclone. not only that, but the housing is usually situated in high-risk areas, because that is the only land that's available for the poor. hence the massive deaths from floods in bangladesh, occurring very regularly and which are highly predictable. these people simply have nowhere else to go, so continue to build housing on that land even though they know the high risk involved.

the point is that although these deaths arise from "natural disasters", the vast majority of them are preventable. if we care enough. it would require a massive redistribution of wealth, a high level of investment in infrastructure and so on. but people are not ready to make that sacrifice just yet. because it would also mean a real decrease in the standard of living for affluent countries/neighbourhoods.

the reason why i say people aren't ready is because we can already see the reluctance to take on higher costs to deal with climate change. we aren't prepared to reduce our standard of living to ensure fair labour laws around the world, by refusing to buy cheap products manufactured in countries where workers are exploited. sure we can fuss about the olympics and the olympic torch, because that doesn't affect our personal standard of living. it's a convenient protest, because it's a costless one.

and we know that millions of people die of hunger everyday, emphasised in this excellent piece by barry coates from oxfam today. garth george has apparently stated that he is unconcerned by the current food crisis (i say apparently because i refuse to read his columns), and that seems to be pretty typical of many of us. we'll spend a few hundred dollars on charitable donations every year, maybe even a couple of thousand. that tends to be enough to ease our consciences. on particular occasions, we'll go all out and put in as much as we think we can afford at the time.

but making a commitment to real change, at an international level, remains beyond us. the closest we got was the pressure on the G8 meeting just prior to the london bombings on 7/7. of course the bombing diverted attention, which was why it was a double act of terrorism. since then, the pressure has gone down, and doesn't look like going back up any time soon. fair international trade policies aren't going to be happening in the near future. the transfer of wealth from the poor to the already wealthy will continue. death from starvation will continue. and deaths from natural disasters will continue.

it's not enough to watch the news and lament the vast numbers of deaths and displacements, to send money via aid agencies, and to feel sad that such a disaster had to happen. no, we need to feel responsibility, because this IS our fault. it's our fault through our failure to act, through our silence and through our acceptance of the world as it is.


Poneke said...

the point is that although these deaths arise from "natural disasters", the vast majority of them are preventable. if we care enough. it would require a massive redistribution of wealth, a high level of investment in infrastructure and so on

This is much too simplistic. The problem in Burma is that it has been run by a corrupt military regime since 1962. Before then it was modernising like other developing countries. Since then it has descended into the poverty found only in corrupt dictatorial regimes.

One does not need to "redistribute wealth" from middle class New Zealanders to the poor of Burma to upgrade the Burmese infrastructure. One needs to get rid of the Burmese junta and allow the Burmese to put in place a government that will build the needed infrastructure.

Neighbouring India used to suffer natural calamities like this as well as famines and the like, but since its independence (the same year as Burma's) it has been building its economy and infrastructure and more than adequately copes now.

India has never had a military regime, and I think this is key. Elected civilian governments work on improving the lot of their citizens, otherwise they will get thrown out.

stargazer said...

India has never had a military regime, and I think this is key.

now who's being simplistic :). recent disasters in india - the gujurat earthquake in 2001 claimed more than 30,000 lives (http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Station/8361/Quake2001India.html). apparently, in ahmmedabad alone, 40-50 buildings crumpled. likely cause was corruption allowing poor quality materials to be used in construction.

try also googling deaths from floods in assam, not a pretty picture. here's last year's situation: http://www.thehindu.com/2007/09/08/stories/2007090854500500.htm. 1.8 lakhs means 180,000 people affected. this happens on an almost annual basis.

bangladesh is also a democracy, has been for many years. they lose tens of thuousands almost every year because of flooding.

if corruption is the issue, then the best thing would be to ensure that independent international bodies are responsible for infrastructure development, with some pretty tight auditing and regulatory frameworks around them.

but the change required is much deeper than that. i wasn't talking about redistributing wealth from middle class nz'ers. i'm talking about changing international structures, more effective international regulations particularly around trade (see the article by mr coates i've linked to) and around labour laws.

yes, the effect would be to redistribute wealth, not just from middle classes but hopefully from upper classes as well. it's a fact that we can live the lifestyle we do because millions of people around the world are being exploited. yes, some of that exploitation is because of corrupt regimes. the best way to weed out corruption is to improve living standards. when the opportunity cost of not being corrupt is watching your children starve or fall into entrenched poverty because they won't get an education, then it doesn't take long for your moral standards to take a hike.

it's not a simple problem to solve. but until we're all prepared to take personal responsiblity (and i still maintain that each and every one of us is responsible), nothing is likely to change.