When we’re faced with a catastrophe like the one still unfolding in Asia, any response seems inadequate, and it is perhaps inevitable that there have been complaints about weak responses. In the short run, the issue isn’t financial commitments: the main problem is the logistical one of getting help to where it is needed as fast as possible. In the longer term, however, dollars will matter. The record of the developed world on this kind of thing is good. Big promises are made during the initial outpouring of grief and sympathy, but when the time comes to deliver on those promises, the ordinary processes of politics push foreign aid to the bottom of the priority list. People in Bam, the Iranian city destroyed by an earthquake last year, are still living in tents because the aid promised to help them rebuild their homes hasn’t arrived. Meanwhile, with or without disasters, poverty, preventable disease and malnutrition kill people by the million every year.
If all the rich countries gave only 1 per cent of their income to development and emergency aid, there would be enough to pay for huge improvements in living standards, like those set out in the Millennium Development Goals and to have a standing response to disasters and emergencies. For Australia, the cost would be an extra $5 billion per year, about the cost of a “sandwich and milkshake” tax cut, or a couple of days worth of the promises made during the last election campaign.
It’s sadly unlikely that the rich countries will, in fact, do anything on a collective basis. But with Indonesia being the country hit hardest by the disaster, Australia in particular is faced with a challenge, an opportunity and a test. We can, if we want, send a few emergency missions, then return to business as usual. Or, we can make it a major policy priority to help our neighbours, and particularly Indonesia, rebuild over the next few years.
For various reasons, our relationship with Indonesia has been fraught with tension ever since that country achieved independence. We have the chance to put that history behind us and work together now. In this context, it’s worth looking at the example of Turkey and Greece, two countries with a long and bitter history of conflict and war. The positive response by the Greek government and ordinary Greek people to the terrible earthquake that hit Turkey in 1999 began a process that has seen much of that bitterness dissipated, even though problems like Cyprus remain unresolved. Helping our neighbours won’t eliminate all sources of disagreement with them. But it offers the chance for a relationship much better than we have had in the past.
Of course, we should help because it’s the right thing to do, and not just because it will do us good in the long run. But when the disaster has faded from the television screens, it’s worth remembering that it’s in our own interesting to keep on helping.