A challenge, an opportunity and a test

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.

30 thoughts on “A challenge, an opportunity and a test

  1. P.M.Lawrence — 3/1/2005 @ 11:03 pm serves up more of the same:

    When I point out that US defence efforts should not be counted as aid for others, it’s just a claim that when you do accounting you shouldn’t do double counting.

    5 years the civilised RoW has been a gigantic free-rider on global US global defence expenditure, which has been useful aid to countries in the Second and Third Worlds battling revolutionary ideologues and reactionary theologues. It is not “double counting” to put global defence into the US’s credit column because the (non-ex British Empire) has hardly put a single resource into this public good.

    Matthew Parris’s articles in the Spectator, in some of which he looks at the reflexive conservative support for the USA these days and compares it to the much more clear eyed awareness of the different interests of the two countries that the UK (and Australia) used to face up to.

    w Parris was right about the unwisdom of the US attack on Iraq, and perhaps the UK’s co-operation with it, he is ignorant of AUS strategic realities. He also strikes me as a bit of a tosser, perhaps indicative of the push that his toeing his line .
    The ADF’s participation in Iraq-attack consolidated our most important strategic alliance during a time of increased instability and threat in our region and was payback for US military asssistance to INTERFET. I predicted this rationale at the time of Iraq-attack and it was subsequently confirmed by Downer.
    The periodic renewal of the ANZUS alliance is not “reflexive conservative support” it is in AUS national interest. THis fact has been systematicly ignored by “reflexive progressives” and DFAT Jakarta Lobbyists. It would be nice for once, in the history of the cosmos, the progressives had the intellectual courage to face this unpleasant fact that sits in front of their noses.

  2. Jack,

    You’re running a very foolish argument if you believe US taxpayers cough up their hard-earned tax dollars for defence spending as a form of aid. Yes, there’s a lot of free-riding on the USA, but you’re exaggerating the benefits to the RoW of the USA’s watch as global policeman. You were better off focusing on private charity, trade and technology transfer – that’s where the USA helps poorer countries most.

  3. JS, you mistake me. Even to the extent that the rest of the world really is free riding, the point is that it’s free because the USA is doing it for itself. While possibly the rest of the world should be glad, there’s no reason to be grateful – the USA has had it’s money’s worth already.

    But it’s wrong to classify it as a free ride, when the only reason for the USA being in that position (“global policeman”) is that it muscled other people out of the way to begin with. It’s like expecting gratitude for a tax cut. Perhaps you’ll appreciate why that’s not really something to be grateful for – either the government is “giving back” something it really needed for our collective benefit, or it’s letting us keep what it had no moral right to anyway, and either way that sort of gratitude is a trap for fools.

  4. JQ,

    I think it’s worth pointing out that the Howard government has increased its aid package to Indonesia to A$1bn over five years.

    [http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200501/s1277184.htm?fp_news_stor].

    I’m proud of the way our government (yes, including the Rodent) and our people have handled this crisis so far. Credit where it’s due: boy done good; challenge met.

  5. Jack writes:

    “. . .the civilised RoW has been a gigantic free-rider on global US global defence expenditure, which has been useful aid to countries in the Second and Third Worlds battling revolutionary ideologues and reactionary theologues.”

    Of course, we also need to enter, on the debit column of the ledger, those elements of US global defence expenditure which were “useful aid” to governments in the Third World battling the legitimate aspirations of their own people and/or national or religious minorities within their borders. On this point it also needs to be acknowledged that: (a) on occasions the agendas of the “revolutionary ideologues” coincided with the interests of the peoples concerned, as in the cases of FRETILIN and the South African Communist Party; and (b) the “reactionary theologues” in Iraq may yet emerge as the windfall beneficiaries of Gulf War II and its aftermath.

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