A Tale of Two Responses

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Rarely has the contrast been so stark. On the one hand the response by ordinary people to the Indian Ocean tsunami that has killed more than 150,000 people has been overwhelming.

In Britain alone tens of millions of pounds has been collected, with aid agencies reporting that the size and number of donations are at record levels. The generosity by people in other countries has been on a similar scale.

Yet compare this to the attitude of our leaders. Two days after the tsunami struck - when it was already clear than tens of thousands had been killed - New Labour's miserly donation to the relief effort was less than £500,000. It was forced to raise this on a number of occasions as the public gave so much and as questions were asked about the government's priorities - although Tony Blair still thought the disaster wasn't serious enough to interrupt his winter holiday. It took George Bush three days to make a statement and even then the US only pledged $35 million. Like the British government it too was forced to raise this substantially as a result of public pressure.

Should we be surprised at the mean and slow response from the leaders of two of the world's richest countries? Given their record so far in office, maybe not. But as the scale of the disaster became apparent and as the images of death and suffering were flashed across the world, it would seem that the natural response of any humane individual would be to do whatever possible to help. Yet it was ordinary people, who do not have the resources of world superpowers at their disposal, who led the way. This latest display of public generosity once again rebuts the myth that most people only have self-interest at heart.

If we are to raise questions about the speed and extent of government responses, we must also question why so little was done to put in place an early warning system that could have saved so many lives in the first place. While the power of the tsunami is not in doubt, the technical knowledge exists to minimise the extent of such disasters. There has been an emergency early warning system for a similar catastrophe in the Pacific for many years, and a well rehearsed and regulated system of evacuation.

The fault line between the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates was known to be an area where a major earthquake was possible, yet little was done to introduce the regulations and public infrastructure that could have reduced people's suffering considerably. Similarly we must also question why tens of thousands were forced to live in inadequate housing in areas vulnerable to flooding. The growth of the tourist industry, and the scant disregard it has for the lives of the local poor, has a lot to answer for.

Most immediately, however, we need to ensure pressure is maintained on our government to do whatever is possible to help those most in need. Blair has at his disposal one of the largest military machines in the world which, if it was redeployed to help those currently suffering in South Asia, could make a real difference. He has shown that when it comes to war no expense is spared. A similar commitment should now be given to those millions who are suffering as a result of this latest disaster.

Shifting Priorities

Is it simply political point scoring to demand that Blair should redeploy resources from the Iraq war to help those in suffering in South Asia following the tsunami? If we look at what is necessary for immediate relief it is clear that this is the only course of action likely to save the tens of thousands of lives still hanging in the balance.

This requires the immediate redeployment of equipment such as aircraft and helicopters, and tens of thousands of personnel to ferry water and medical provisions to frontline disaster areas. It also requires emergency bridging equipment, generators and water-purifying systems. Heavy engineering equipment is needed to locate any remaining survivors and to bury the dead before the health risk becomes too severe. Coordination and logistical support are essential to ensure that resources are best allocated. The thousands of aid workers in the region need emergency field hospitals, doctors and health workers as well as catering and other support services.

This may sound elementary, yet much of it is currently lacking in the disaster area. Such logistics will be familiar to military planners, so the question becomes one of political will and commitment. Although it is often difficult to predict when the next 'natural' disaster will strike, we do know for certain that these things happen and they require an immediate response to save lives. Once again the world's richest nations and their leaders have been found wanting, and have only responded when pressure was applied. This raises profound questions as to where their priorities lie, and the nature of our response.