Wednesday, January 12, 2005
SO-CALLED "NATURAL" DISASTERS III. The Aftershocks to Our Religious Beliefs James S. Henry
Unhappy mortals! Dark and mourning earth!
Affrighted gathering of human kind!
Eternal lingering of useless pain!
-- Voltaire, Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, 1755
(T)housands of pilgrims to a Marian shrine (on India's coast) were washed away as they attended mass….(A) divinity student.. said she watched one man shout: ‘There is nothing! There is nothing! Where is God? What is God?’
-- Chicago Tribune, 12/31/04
They also shook our world views to the core, and placed a tremendous PR burden on the more than 100 competing members of the global “non-profit” religion industry.
This is partly because of the sheer scale of the disaster. But it is also because this was surely one of the most ecumenical "natural" catastrophes in history.
While at least half the victims are Muslim, there are also substantial numbers from most of the world's other major religions, including Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Jains, and Sikhs, as well as many non-believers.
This has posed an interesting explanatory challenge to all these different religious perspectives at once, and has allowed us to compare their responses. When we do so, as discussed below, we find that many of them have been unhelpful, anti-humanitarian, and even downright loony.
Indeed, the aftershocks that the tsunami has caused to religious mythology, especially to the curious views held by true believers, fundamentalists and extremists of all persuasions, may be among its few benefits.
Meanwhile, of course, the crisis has also permitted those of us who are perhaps a little less certain about Divine Will to join together in what has become an unprecedented, salutary transnational effort to help some of the world's least well off.
We truly hope that the Gods are watching -- They may learn something.A Wave of Skepticism?
On the one hand, many of the world's faithful are now questioning their religious beliefs – a logical reaction that parallels the wave of skepticism that swept across Europe after the devastating Lisbon tsunami of 1755.
According to these new skeptics, recent events in South Asia have demonstrated that our modern gods may not be quite as powerful, helpful, or attentive as we had hoped.As a former head of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum put it, we may be dealing with a real "nebbish" here.
Certainly the notion of “praying for the victims,” as one Protestant minister blithely suggested that we do at a memorial service that I attended this week, seems a little odd in this situation.
After all, if Poseidon were willing or able to help the innocent victims of this disaster, presumably He would have done so several weeks ago.
The fact is that we may just have to rely upon each other. That leaves precious little extra time and energy to pay homage to diffident bystanders, no matter how immortal.
Sending Us a Message?
On the other hand, some true believers are stubbornly digging in.
Under the gun to explain how the mass suffering produced by the tsunami is consistent with the existence of Supernatural Powers that deserve our respect, they have reverted to variations on the age-old theme of "blaming the victim."
As these fundamentalists would have it, Poseidon (or Allah or God or Shiva or karma or...) is just “angry” with some or all of us, and is trying to send a message.
According to this anti-empathetic view, the millions of people who have suffered from this tsunami -- and presumably all other disaster victims from the Genesis Flood on down -- richly deserved what they got, or were sacrificed to teach the rest of us "lessons."The precise messages sent and the lessons to be learned are a bit murky, but there is no shortage of proposed alternatives:
For example, Godhatessweden.org, a website owned by the Topeka, Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, has suggested that the suffering of “filthy, faggot Swedes” in the tsunami disaster was punishment from God for Sweden's tolerance toward homosexuality.
This particular church has also sponsored another website that features a rather tasteless proposed design for a monument to tsunami victims.
Meanwhile, Sheik Fawzan Al-Fawzan, who is Imam of Prince Mitaeb Mosque in Riyadh, a professor at Imam Mohamed Bin Saud Islamic University, and a member of Saudi Arabia's Senior Council of Clerics, its highest religious body, sugggested in a recent interview on Saudi television that the tsunami was "sent by God" to punish South Asian countries for immoral sexual activity, and for letting gay people into their countries
The illustrious Sheik has also argued that "slavery is part of Islam," and that those who deny this are "infidels" who deserve to be beheaded.
One leading American fundamentalist commentator, Bill Koenig, has suggested that a disproportionate number of Christians miraculously survived the tsunami, compared with their Muslim or Hindu brethren. (Presumably Bill does know that there were more Muslims and Hindus than Christians in the region to begin with...)
Similarly, a Salvation Army officer in Sri Lanka commented that it was indeed very odd that "All of our officers (clergy) survived.... God spared their lives."(...Although he admitted that some of them also had SA flotation devices....)
Another proto-Christian website argues that disasters like the recent tsunami and the Flood in Genesis don't make God a "mass murderer" because "there is no such thing as an innocent human." (....and unless you are absolutely innocent, or can swim really well, you deserve to drown......)
Korean "scientists" have demonstrated conclusively that Noah's ark was strong enough to have withstood a tsunami and floods even larger than the Sumatran one -- like those produced by the Genesis Flood. The Reverend Sun Myung Moon, who recently described himself as "the Messiah" at an event held in his honor at the US Congress, is evidently planning to enter the shipping industry.
Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Shlomo Amar, the President of its High Rabbinical Court, also saw fit to blame the tsunami victims, asserting that God was punishing people who failed to fulfill the seven "Noahide commandments," those that G_d supposedly gave to Adam and Noah. (He also promised to tell folks around the planet what the "Noahide commandments" are.)
Pandit Harikrishna Shastri, a Hindu priest at New Delhi's Birla temple, claims that the tsunami was caused by a "huge amount of pent-up man-made evil on earth" and by the positions of the planets. (He did not resolve the perplexing question of whether we should deal first with the stockpile of evil or the planets' positions.)
To Buddhist Ananda Guruge, a former Sri Lankan ambassador who teaches at California's Buddhist-affiliated University of the West, "Buddhism makes people responsible for their own fate," and the region's "bad collective karma" explains the disaster. (He did not clarify whether regions that have never experienced destructive tsunamis necessarily have terrific collective karma.)
To Ruth Barrett, a Wiccan high priestess who heads a Wisconsin temple dedicated to the goddess Diana, the disaster was simply a chiropractic problem. It was caused by "Mother Nature stretching — she had a kink in her back and stretched."Interestingly, the religious extremists who advocatethese hard-shelled positions take a different view when the victims of a disaster are closer to home -- in New York, Oklahoma City, or Jerusalem. But not all -- recall the Reverend Jerry Falwell's conclusion that that 9/11 was also part of God's vengeance for gay rights and abortion.
The secular humanists in the audience also have to ask: Were the sixty thousand children who have died in this tsunami disaster so far, and the 400,000+ other children who have lost their parents really old enough to understand, much less deserve, such punishment? Precisely what lessons are we supposed to draw from their capricious fates, other than that we have to prepare more carefully for such disasters,
These extreme fundamentalist interpretations also remind us of J.L. Mackie's conundrum“If God is Good, he’s not God. But if God is God, He's not Good." In other words, if it just so happens that an arbitrary, vindictive, brutal Satan now rules the world, does that necessarily mean that we are obligated to worship Him?
As the 19th century poet John Todhunter put it:
No Cell Phones in Hell?
From the standpoint of “sending us a message,” surely Poseidon must also understand that many of us have cell phones and email. Personally, I have preset my spam filter to let all messages from Absolute Deities pass right on through.
For that matter -- a point that should be of particular interest to the dozens of seismologists and tsunami experts around the globe who received almost instantaneous warnings of the December 26 undersea earthquake's severity, but now say they "just didn't know who to call" -- there are also online telephone directories for all these places – including Banda Aceh, Sri Lanka,numbers of Phuket, Thailand, and TamilNadu, on the southeast coast of India.
Starting from scratch, it recently took two SubmergingMarkets journalists just 15 minutes to locate hundreds of long-distance numbers and Internet addresses for dozens of hospitals, schools, hotels, lawyers, doctors, local businesses, and government offices on the frontlines of the tsunami – not to mention US Embassies, consulates, and military bases.
Evidently all these phone numbers and Internet connections just happened to be busyprecisely when the earthquake struck. That must have prevented all the international experts from getting through.
Perhaps Poseidon was trying to send us a message after all!
© James S. Henry, Submerging Markets™, January 05
Tuesday, January 04, 2005
SO-CALLED “NATURAL” DISASTERS Part II. The Need for a Global Disaster-Relief Agency James S. Henry
So far, the Boxing Day 2004 Sumatra tsunami is still not quite the most destructive earthquake-related disaster in history, but this may soon change. Until now, the casualty records have been held by the 7.8 Richter-scale earthquake that leveled Tangshan, China, in 1976, claiming at least 244,000 lives, and by the 1556 earthquake in China’s Shanxi province that claimed 830,000.
However, the Sumatran quake has already resulted in more than 150,000 deaths, including 94,081 confirmed dead in Indonesia, nearly 9000 dead or missing in Thailand, 15160 in India, (andup to 20,000 more in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands), 44,000 in Sri Lanka, and 396 in Tanzania, Somalia, the Seychelles, Madagascar, the Maldives, Burma, Malaysia, and Bangladesh. Furthermore, the latest reports from UN observers in the region indicate that even these death tolls may grow “exponentially.”
For the bankers and investors in the audience, the purely economic impact of the Sumatra tsunami is expected to be relatively slight, since most of its victims were indigenous poor people in remote areas, and the region's tourist industry will quickly recover. Japan’s 1995 Kobe earthquake, in contrast, caused more than $100 billion of property damage.
However, in terms of lives lost, injuries, displaced people, and damage caused beyond the boundaries of the country where the earthquake originated, Sumatra is already a record-setter. While other tsunamis have taken lives outside their countries of origin, this one’s long-distance impact has already taken more lives in more countries than all other tsunamis since 1800. The potential human and geopolitical impact of all this is much more significant than the destruction of over-valued Kobe high-rises.
In other words, this is one of the most profound transnational disasters ever. It is therefore not surprising that, as discussed below, it has already commanded an overwhelming global response from the world's aid donors -- at least on paper.
For the moment, at least, the developing world may have finally succeeded in capturing our attention, if by nothing more than the sheer power of its own suffering. Perhaps we will finally now come to understand that both the relief and the prevention of such disasters are appropriate global responsibilities.
We may also wish to reserve some of our benevolence and good will for the victims of more "routine" Third World perils -- for example, the two million children who die from drinking dirty water each year, the 1.6 million people who still die each year from tuberculosis, and the 1.2 million who die from malaria. These continuing disasters may not be as dramatic, sudden, and visible as tsunamis and earthquakes, but they are no less worthy of our concern.
TO THE RESCUE?
Après le fait, the world community has mounted a huge relief effort to provide clean drinking water, food, medicine, energy, medical care, and temporary shelter for 5 million displaced people.
The most rapid progress has been made on fund-raising. In one week, 45 governments and international institutions pledged more than $3.2 billion in humanitarian aid, more than the world spent on all such disasters from 2002 on. The tsunami pledges so far include an incredible $680 million from Germany, $500 million from Japan ($3.91 per capita), $350 million from the US ($1.19 per capita), $182 million from Norway ($39.13 per capita), $96 million from the UK ($1.59 per capita), $76 million from Sweden ($8.39 per capita), $76 million from Denmark ($14 per capita), $250 million from the World Bank, $175 million from the Asian Development Bank, $309 million from other EU member countries ($1.06 per capita), $66 million from Canada ($2.06 per capita), about $60 million apiece from Australia ($3 per capita) and China (5 cents per capita), $50 million from South Korea, and $25 million from Qatar. Somewhat less generously, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have each contributed $10 million, New Zealand $3.6 million, Singapore $3 million, Venezuela, Libya, Tunisia, and UAE $2 million, Turkey $1.25 million and Mexico $100,000.
Furthermore, there are also discussions underway among G-8 countries to provide debt relief for Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the other victim countries, which might yield another $3 billion a year -- so long as these countries agreed to spend it on aid for tsunami victims.
Three days after the quake, President Bush had promised just $35 million. As several observers noted, that was just 12 cents per capita, less than 10 percent of Canada’s per capita effort. As Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy said, “We spend $35 million before breakfast in Iraq.”
Furthermore, in 2004, the US Congress had provided $13.6 billion to Florida’s hurricane victims, 5.6 times more than the $2.4 billion that the US spent on all global humanitarian assistance that year. Colin Powell rebuked the critics in public, reminding them that the $2.4 billion was 40 percent of the entire world’s budget for humanitarian relief in 2004. Apparently he also quietly lobbied the President to increase the official US aid.
Meanwhile, in addition to the pledges of official government aid, more than fifty private relief agencies have also pitched in, from Action Against Hunger, CARE, Catholic Relief, Doctors Without Borders, Islamic Relief, Oxfam, the International Red Cross, and Save the Children to UNICEF, World Action, and WorldVision. The American Red Cross alone reports that it has already received more than $79 million in private aid pledges for tsunami victims, while CARE US has received $3.5 million, Doctors Without Borders $4 million, Save the Children $3 million, Americares $2 million, Oxfam US $1.6 million, Catholic Charities $1.1 million, and World Vision $1 million.
Private donors from European countries have also been exceptionally generous. For example, Swedes’ 9 million people have contributed more than $60 million, in addition to the $76 million that their government has offered – more than $15 per capita. And Norway’s 4.6 million people have raised nearly $33 million in private donations, in addition to their government's $180 million -- a $46 per capita global record for tsunami relief.
...THE PAPER THEY’RE PRINTED ON?
...THE PAPER THEY’RE PRINTED ON?
Unfortunately, the historical record shows that such official government disaster aid pledges are cheap -- they often do not result in “new money,” and many countries actually renege on their official pledges completely.
For example, in the case of Iran’s Bam earthquake in December 2003, 40 donor countries also responded to a similar “UN flash appeal,”pledging $1.1 billion of aid. However, one year later, less than 2 percent ($17.5 million ) of that has been forthcoming. Most foreign aid workers and journalists came and went in less than a month, and Bam’s reconstruction problems have long since disappeared from the headlines. While significant progress has been made in restoring basic services like water and electricity, most of the city’s 100,000 former residents are still unemployed and living in tents.
Such reneging by the world community has also been the pattern in most other recent disasters, including Mozambique’s 2000 floods, Central America’s Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and similar crises in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh.
We will just have to see whether the victims of the Sumatran tsunami experience something similar. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has predicted that it will take a decade for many of the countries affected by the tsunami to recover.
ANOTHER AD HOC RELIEF EFFORT?
ANOTHER AD HOC RELIEF EFFORT?
Each time there is a crisis, the world’s aid organizations have to scramble to pass the hat.
The outpouring of all this assistance for the tsunami’s victims on short notice has been impressive. But perhaps we should not be so proud of ourselves. The reality is that this effort has been yet another ad hoc, “aid pick-up-game," where the world waits until there is already a life-and-death crisis with millions of people in peril to swing into action, raise money, and rush assistance to the front lines.
This reactive approach has many unfortunate side-effects:
~ Each time there is a crisis, the world’s aid organizations have to scramble to pass the hat, even as they are also scrambling to organize assistance.
~ The actual delivery of relief on the front lines is much slower than it needs to be.
As usual, in the case of the Sumatra tsunami, most of the victims are located in remote areas with poor transportation, sanitation, water, and health care systems, and many other problems. Several key regions – in this case Indonesia’s Aceh province, Sri Lanka’s eastern regions, and Somalia – also have active guerilla movements or local warlords. Some countries -- India, in this case – have also insisted that they don’t need any foreign assistance, showing more concern for nationalism than their own people.
However, when it comes to disaster relief, all of these problems are just par for the course, and predictable. What is inexcusable is the world has once again had to organize yet another massive relief effort from scratch.
One result is that in most of the affected countries, it has taken more than a week to get medical aid and substantial quantities of food, blankets, and clean water – to the victims. In a situation where hundreds of thousands are injured and each incremental day costs hundreds of lives, only Finland and Norway had relief planes in the air by Tuesday December 28, two days after the disaster. Most other donors needed a whole week.
~ Given the semi-voluntary nature of the relief process, national interests, domestic politics and media exposure play an excessive role in deciding how much aid is given, who manages the assistance, and how much goes to any particular crisis – as compared with raw human need.
~ One by-product of all this was last week’s unseemly spectacle, where donors like the US, the UK, and Japan conducted a veritable public auction for the value of their aid pledges. The results may have little to do with actual aid requirements. We can only hope that this time around most the pledges will be honored.
~ There is a tendency for global aid efforts to be limited by the media’s attention span – as Bam’s victims, the residents of Sudan’s Dafur region, and the victims of other disasters have learned the hard way. When the number of “new bodies” tapers off, so does the attention – and the aid.
THE NEEDS FOR A GLOBAL AID ORGANIZATION
THE NEEDS FOR A GLOBAL AID ORGANIZATION
If global humanitarian aid were run on a more business-like basis,
~ There would be an ample global “reserve” set aside for such emergencies. This would be funded by a global tax in proportion to objective measures of donor capacity like population size and wealth.
~ In case of an actual calamity, we would not try to assemble “aid brigades” on short notice from dozens of different organizations all over the globe and expect them to work well together under impossible conditions. There would be already be a solid global organization in place, ready to respond rapidly, with coordination agreements and contingency plans already worked out with local governments.
This organization would also have basic stocks of transportation equipment and relief supplies pre-positioned in key regions of likely need. After all, the US military alone now has 890 bases around the world that are on ready-alert, prepared to fight wars at a moment’s notice. The world community has zero “aid bases,” prepared to fight to save human lives at a moment's notice.
Given the increasingly global nature of so-called “natural” disasters, the current approach to global humanitarian relief is no substitute for a permanent, well-funded, global aid organization.
Saturday, January 01, 2005
SO-CALLED “NATURAL” DISASTERS Part I. Overview James S. Henry
For the second year in a row, December comes to a close with a dramatic reminder of the precariousness of daily life in the developing world -- and the continuing failure of the international community to provide adequate early warning systems, pre-crisis funding, and rapid, effective global relief for the victims of so-called “natural disasters” -- most of which are actually quite predictable, at least in the aggregate.
This year, on December 26, 2004, it was the 9.0Rs earthquake off the western coast of northern Sumatra, Indonesia’s second largest island, the fifth largest earthquake recorded since 1900.
One year ago to the day, on December 26, 2003, the disaster in question was the 6.6Rs earthquake that devastated the city of Bam in southeast Iran, at a cost of 26,500 lives, 25,000 injured and 80,000 homeless.
The death toll from this year's Sumatra quake is likely to exceed 150,000, with thousands of people still missing, several hundred thousand who have been seriously injured, and more than five million -- most of whom were impoverished to begin with -- suffering from thirst, hunger, homelessness, lost employment, and the threat of mass epidemics.
Furthermore, as we were also reminded in Bam, among the worst consequences of such catastrophic events are the longer-term traumas associated with disease, losing friends, family, fellow citizens, livelihoods, communities, and whole ways of life.
As usual -- and as was true in the case of 9/11, for example -- much of the initial media coverage of this Sumatra tsunami has focused on body counts, other dire visible consequences, and the massive relief effort that has followed.
That is to be expected. But before our attention span drifts too far off in the direction of some other new Third World calamity, it may be helpful to step back and examine some of the systematic factors that contribute to the high costs of such mishaps over and over again, and the extraordinary costs of this "natural" tsunami disaster in particular.
Our overall theme is that there is really no such thing as a “natural disaster” per se. This is not to say that man-made forces were responsible for Saturday’s tsunami. But, as discussed below, the degree to which any such event results in a social and economic “disaster” is often to a great extent under our control.
In the case of this particular tsunami, its high costs:
- Were entirely foreseeable, at least in a “sometime soon” sense, based on both long-term and recent experience with tsunamis in the Indonesian arena;
- Were actually foreseen by several geological experts, some of whom have been advocating (unsuccessfully) an Indian Ocean tsunami early warning system for years;
- Could have been substantially mitigated if US, Japanese, and other scientists around the globe who monitor elaborate earthquake- and tsunami-warning systems, and had ample warning of this event, had simply shown a reasonable degree of human concern, imagination, and non-bureaucratic initiative;
- Might have been avoided entirely with a relatively modest investment in tsunami “early warning systems” for Indonesia and the Indian Ocean.
Furthermore, the global response to this horrific disaster has been long on the size of aid pledges, dignitary press conferences, and “oh – the horror” press coverage.
It has been conspicuously short on actual aid getting through to the front lines. Today, almost a week after the disaster, aid efforts are well-funded, but they remain sluggish, disorganized, and ineffective, with at least as many additional lives in jeopardy right now for want of aid as perished in the original waves.
This is partly explained by the sheer difficulty of getting aid through to remote regions like northern Sumatra. But, as explained below, it is also due to political factors, and the fact that the world community still runs its humanitarian relief efforts like a “pick-up” softball game.
Fortunately, this particular crisis seems to have captured the attention of the world's donor community. At this point, with more than $2 billion in aid pledged by governments, multilateral institutions, and more than 50 private relief organizations, the real problem is not money, but organization.
But we may want to demand that the UN, the US Government, the EU, and all these relief organizations get their acts together, and establish a permanent, well-run, well-funded global relief organization that can move more quickly the next time around. Along the way, they should also pay far more attention to preventive systems that can help save the future victims of such disasters, before all the relief becomes necessary.
© James S. Henry, Submerging Markets™, January 05