Thursday, January 06, 2005

Helping ourselves?

I should preface what follows by stating that it’s certainly not my intention to offend anyone. If you have been personally affected by the Asian tsunami and earthquake, you naturally have my deepest sympathy. I appreciate that I’d be unlikely to say the things I’m about to if I myself was caught up in the disaster, or even knew someone who had been.

Even in the face of a tragedy of this magnitude, I find myself struggling not to be cynical. To be cynical is not necessarily to lack faith in the relief effort in general. It’s perfectly possible to support the global response in general and the work of aid agencies, and yet still be appalled by articles which reveal what the Government’s pledges of financial aid really equate to and what corporate generosity actually amounts to.

And the less said about the news that self-serving rock stars are intent upon seizing upon the situation to relaunch their careers with a “charity single”, the better. Charity begins at home, eh?

More complex are my feelings about the public reaction, which has manifested itself in an unprecedented generosity. That there has been such an overwhelming response is of course positive in many ways – far better that the nation should come together in the wake of a genuine tragedy rather than in the media-driven mourning of Princess Diana.

At a time when international relations often appear stretched and strained, it’s encouraging that people all around the globe can be united, even if only in grief, and their political representatives can forget their differences and stand side by side in solidarity when it matters most. This was a global tragedy in a far truer sense than 9/11.

And yet despite what others less cynical than myself argue, I can’t help but feel that altruism in its purest form is in short supply. We still seem to need a reason to care for what happens on the other side of the planet, and that reason is the disaster’s direct impact on British nationals.

Sarah has suggested that the Western response cannot simply be explained by the fact that the area is a popular holiday destination, but I just can’t agree. At first, the cameras focused on British tourists sporting a few scratches, complaining about lost luggage and the fact that their ideal holiday had been ruined. Nothing that being featured on ‘Holidays From Hell’ can’t fix, eh? As the full scale of the tragedy has gradually emerged, such crass self-interest has disappeared from view.

But even as the overall death toll rises, the continued media focus on British victims and on the British missing is sickening, frankly. I’m sure it’s the same with French victims in France, American victims in the US and wherever else, and it’s an inevitability given the fact that proximity (of effect rather than distance) is one of the key factors in an item’s newsworthiness – it gives the story an “angle”. But ultimately a life is a life, no matter what nationality that individual happens to be. As obvious as that might be, it’s far too often overlooked.

On Sunday afternoon I found myself in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery in the midst of an exhibition about the Rwandan genocide. Nearly one million people were slaughtered in the space of less than a year, and the lives of so many more were irreversibly changed. Yet the international response was practically non-existent. Why? Did those million lives not matter as much? And was that because Rwanda is a small country in central Africa and not an idyllic playground for Westerners? That has to be a factor.

There is also perhaps something to be said about the way the TV pictures of destruction seem to have caught the imagination of a public accustomed to the “shock and awe” images of disaster movies. The same thing happened with the Boscastle flood last summer. The sheer scale of the devastation as it has been revealed visually in our living rooms has no doubt prompted much of the public reaction.

By contrast, the less spectacular but certainly no less horrific images of the Rwandan genocide only emerged after the event. Whereas a natural disaster, terrible though it might be, is ultimately unpreventable and beyond human control, we’re perhaps less prepared to acknowledge and face up to the horrors that man can inflict upon man.

Just to reiterate, then: Despite all this, I nevertheless stand behind the relief effort, and would urge you to give what you can to help. I hope not to have caused any offence, but felt compelled to commit these thoughts to the blog. Please feel free to agree or disagree.


Disasters Emergency Committee Tsunami Earthquake Appeal

The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog

Mike writes about his own feelings as a very recent visitor to Phuket.

Robyn has the story of a friend caught up in the disaster.

Phill has collected together some links to other first-hand accounts.

Sharply differing perspectives on the three minutes’ silence from Jonathan and Nick.

(Thanks to Phill and Jonathan for some of the links in this post.)

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