Why Tsunami Relief Matters

The unavoidable tsunami relief backlash has arrived. Commentators, such as this guy, are echoing the Rand Institute’s position that government money should not be spent on aid; and at many social gatherings I’m hearing frustrated mutterings complaining about tsunami aid overkill and overexposure. I myself no longer watch images of devastation on the news, and indeed my latest column explores assertions that tsunami aid is taking attention away from equally needy causes, such as HIV/AIDS and malaria control.

But let’s put things back into perspective, shall we? While it is true that the Asian tsunami has “only” killed 160,000 people (small compared to annual death tolls from war, hunger, malaria and AIDS), loss of life is not the only issue here. At least 5 million people remain homeless and suffering in refugee camps on the beaches of stricken countries. And yes, there are homeless in our own country, too, but our homeless problem can’t be solved with a few million dollars investment in reconstructed infratructure; ours is a much more economically and medically complicated phenomenon. The Asian case, however, is one than can be dramatically improved with sufficient initial investment in this brief window of time. These are peoples with skills and jobs, but no longer any industry infrastructure, such as a pier from which to fish. And unlike our situation, there is no social safety net large enough to absorb so many people for a prolonged period.

Additionally, it’s not just about loss of life and homelessness. The stricken nations are among the fastest recovering of Southern economies. The Indian economy was projected to grow by 8% this year, Thailand’s by 6% and Indonesia’s by 4%. (No figure for Sri Lanka, sorry, though the country was on its way to recovering from 20 years of civil war.) These nations are ripe markets for our exports and thriving environments for Northern/Western manufacturing —for better or worse. My point is that devastation in SE Asia means potential economic shrinkage in other parts of the world. And unlike malaria or HIV/AIDS, which at this point require sustained global efforts, sufficient and focused tsunami reconstruction/relief investment now might just head off calamnity later. Just imagine if we’d had the wherewithal to address the AIDS epidemic in the early days, well before it became a pandemic.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for the movement of HIV/AIDS funds to tsunami relief. Heck no– I consider myself a rabid AIDS fighter! Rather, I want you to understand that the tsunami affair is not overblown by the media. It’s a gosh darned honest to goodness catastrophe and a potential global nightmare.

Zero-Sum World Economics

There are, it seems, two competing views of world economics. The first is the most common and goes almost unquestioned in everyday affairs; it holds that there is no limit to potential wealth and that everyone, conceivably, can be wealthy at the same time; all you need is something to trade.

The other view holds that global wealth is a zero-sum affair wherein for one cluster of people to be wealthy another must be poor. The latter view has been inaccurately characterized by a regular visitor to this website as “communist” and “pure Marxist posturing.” In economic terms, Marx’s only real contribution was the (correct) suggestion that labour can be a kind of capital, which has nothing to do with what I’m talking about. Today’s economics are more or less Keynesian and hold that macro-level trends tend to overwhelm individual behaviours.

The zero-sum scenario only makes sense when all factors of economic transaction are accounted for. A problem is the idea of an “externality”, or the cost that others must pay for you to use your product. You pay a price for gas at the gas station, for example, but that price does not necessarily reflect the “external” price of producing and transporting the gas; such costs are often not monetary but environmental.

In the non zero-sum world, there are no appreciable external costs. Rather, unquantifiable externalities are absorbed by the “commons”, the shared pool of human assets, such as the earthly environment. Garret Hardin captured the world’s imagination with his 1968 article, The Tragedy of the Commons, in which he pointed out that regulation of pollution and depletion of the commons is a losing affair. This is partly because those who have acquired wealth also dictate the terms by which the commons can be exploited. In this sense, those who acquire wealth deny it for others by skewing exploitation of the commons toward their own advantage.

Here’s a good way to better understand the situation. Play the Tragedy of the Bunnies game! By some measures, the world may be wealthier now than it ever has been before. But by other measures it’s never been poorer. Don’t close your mind to either measure. Don’t let wishful or defensive thinking blind you.

Yet Another Op-Ed

Oh I need sleep like nobody’s business. I started writing another blog entry and it expanded and became another op-ed column called, Why Not Diarrhea?

I suppose part of my reason for writing it is to see if some magazine will actually publish something with such an unpleasant title. More importantly, the article explores an important question. I’ve been championing tsunami relief for days now, losing much sleep over it. After all, 160 thousand people have died. But more people die every month from each of diarrhea, malaria and HIV/AIDs (as was discussed in this week’s Diplomatic Immunity). To me, this doesn’t mean we should spend less on tsunami relief. Rather, it means we should triple the international aid budget! Please tell me what you think about the article.

My original tsunami articles (here and here) are getting a lot of attention. I’m rapidly becoming a fan of web publishing for op-eds, since feedback is much faster and much more likely. Also, your work lives on well past the publication date.

My Head Hurts

I have this perpetual migraine these days. Being stressed out is not good. Too much work to do, too far behind in getting it done, and too much emotional turmoil, both in the personal life (read: love life) and the international life (read: tsunami). Aieee.

Speaking of the latter, our group finally has a fundraising event in Ottawa coming up. It’s a benefit yoga class (hey, why not?) to be held Jan 30th. Watch this space for more details. The funds are rushing in, and our first mission to Sri Lanka will occur in the begining of February. It is unlikely that I will be part of that mission since there are others better prepared and more personally invested. It’s a dangerous undertaking, and I hope they will remain safe.

If anyone out there has a contact with Air Canada or another airline, please think about sharing it with me. We’re looking to get an airline to donate a couple of seats to Sri Lanka. Surely there’s a generous carrier out there somewhere?

We are approaching, in some respects, one of the more dangerous periods in disaster relief: that moment when the disaster slips from the front pages, but the death toll continues to rise. This is not a short-term thing. What is required is pretty much the reconstruction of whole nations…. and this time, the people will welcome our efforts, unlike in the more disingenous attempts at nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But let’s end today’s update on an up note. Congratulations to my beloved parents on their 48th wedding anniversary, one day before Elvis’s birthday.

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