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.