Responding To Third World Disasters
issue 222 - August 1991
THIRD WORLD DISASTERS
Chris Brazier explains why the poor are besieged from all sides.
We're overwhelmed, what can we do? The images and tragedies pour down like bitter rain, sweeping the sweet taste of the Cold War's end and 'the peace dividend' away like so much flotsam and jetsam. 1991 has been as much a year of disasters as 1989 was a year of hope.
The Kurds shivering on their mountainside, trapped between the Devil they call Saddam and the Deep Blue Sea of 'careful' Western' diplomacy. Africans - Ethiopians and Sudanese, Mozambicans and Somalians - playing out yet again that most dreadful of human dramas, the relentless descent into starvation and extinction. Bangladeshis consumed in an apocalypse of wind and tide. Filipinos fleeing the wrath of the Pinatubo volcano.
Faced with so much suffering, so many thousands dying, it is hardly surprising that we turn our faces away and try to get on with our daily lives, persuaded by the sheer scale of the tragedies that this is the only sensible response.
It may be an understandable response. But it is also a very convenient one for the West as a whole because it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we assume there is nothing we can do bar sending a few planes full of emergency aid, then the forces that render the Third World more vulnerable to these kinds of disasters will continue to bear down and leave us feeling still more powerless. To the old phrase 'the poor are always with us' we will add 'and they'll always be afflicted by disasters'.
Only if we decide that they should be. Because disasters are not, as we prefer to think, natural events, Acts of God beyond human ken and control. The most violent earthquake on record will not be a disaster if it takes place in an unpopulated desert. But a mild earth tremor will be a disaster of major proportions if it dislodges shanty towns built, out of poverty, on the edge of a ravine.
Letter, Guatemala 1988: I grew up thinking people were crazy to live in San Francisco above a fault line just waiting to whip back. Yet here in Guatemala City, where 23,000 people died in a cataclysmic quake in 1976, there are people living in shacks perched over a sheer ravine - and they are apparently quite sane. What else can they do? Here the land costs nothing. Here they can scrape a living. Their poverty, and the risks it forces them to take, make the boastful Americanized fast-food gloss of this capital's centre - so striking after the enforced austerity of Nicaragua - very difficult to take.
Earthquakes and hurricanes, floods and droughts, will always happen. But it is human society which determines who will suffer from them. And throughout the world it decides to put the same people in the firing line - the poor.
The cyclone in Bangladesh this year was a classic illustration of this terrifying global principle. The people who died on those tiny low-lying islands in the Ganges Delta knew full well that one day a huge storm was likely to engulf them. But while cyclones happen every year in the Bay of Bengal, it had been 21 years since the last one of truly catastrophic proportions. And when you and your family are landless and hungry you have to take survival decisions day by day. You cannot afford to worry about a disaster that may happen next year or next decade if your family faces hunger here and now.
The poor here were failed at two key points. Either their own long-term problem of landlessness and poverty could have been dealt with. Or else, knowing that this was not going to happen, they could have been protected with at least another 500 community shelters to add to the 300 which saved so many lives this time. But there is no way that Bangladesh, the fifth poorest nation on this earth, could have brought about even this option on its own - the shelters would have cost about $35 million, which is peanuts to a Western country but a vast sum to them.
It is the same the world over: the poorer societies on the planet bear a disproportionate share of the burden. This is not just because there are more cyclones and volcanoes in tropical countries; it is because a rich country can afford to look after its population and prepare for the worst.
The US plains suffer from severe drought every 20 years or so. But farmers there are insulated against starvation because there is enough general wealth to bolster them up in emergencies and stop it happening. Similarly the 1988 earthquake in Armenia was of the same force as that in San Francisco in 1989; yet while the Soviet one killed 25,000, the US one killed just 62. Even within rich countries the rule that the poor suffer most will operate - as when warnings about imminent floods in the Australian town of Alice Springs were broadcast on channels unused by Aboriginal people living in the most vulnerable housing on the lowest-lying land.
But still rich countries are less at risk. Not everyone could be as prepared as the Californians (see article). But the Third World could be much better prepared if only the West were willing to put its long-term development money where its emergency-relief mouth is.
Diary entry, Indonesia 1981: I went down to Tanjung Priok this morning. There Jakarta's poor have been pushed by desperation or lack of alternatives into building huts on stilts over the water. As I plodded along the narrow plank walkways I responded in kind to the chirpy children and general good humour but underneath I was raging. I find it staggering to think that people have been living in these conditions without my knowing anything about it. Why isn't everyday poverty like this headline news, screamed from the rooftops as an indignity that humans in the late twentieth century should not have to bear?
TV journalists love disasters. There is no point in blaming them for this because, to be honest, we give them every encouragement. No-one in their right minds wants there to be a flood in India or an earthquake in Indiana. But there is certainly a part of us which expects that kind of drama on our evening news. We are accustomed to high drama - even addicted to it. When something momentous happens in the world these days we expect to see the wind still blowing, the waters still rising, the volcano still blowing its top.
But we also expect the story to be wrapped up and go away quickly. In its place we expect to be offered drama from another quarter and if the best we can get is a political slugging match between Bob Hawke and Paul Keating or a play-off in the US Open Golf then that'LL have to do.
This way of looking at things means that a certain category of disaster has maximum appeal. It will have a sudden impact - an earthquake or a tidal wave, perhaps. It will have helpless victims wrenching our heartstrings. And it will have heroic rescuers and medical workers, if possible from our own neck of the woods - dedicated Dr Smith from Uttoxeter or Utah. The Colombian mudslide caused by a volcanic eruption in 1985 was one such. Because it fitted the Western expectations of a disaster it received massive coverage. Though even then it is likely that what you, like me, remember is not the 21,800 people who died but one child who, against the odds, was rescued after days in the mud.
Governments and even relief workers are also prone to be misled by their expectations of a disaster. Aid worker Andrew Maskrey calls this the 'kitsch script'. His experience of Peru's Alto Mayo earthquake in 1990 led him to conclude that agencies intervening in emergencies often do so 'following a pre-elaborated and fictitious script of how the drama is supposed to unfold. This kitsch version of disaster relief seems to respond more to the expectations of the mass media and its readers than to the reality in which the disaster has occurred - and in turn reinforces those expectations by providing and feeding the same comforting images.
To take just one example, one of the basic suppositions of the kitsch script is that food is essential after any disaster, no matter where it is. So in Alto Mayo much of the effort went into getting food to the area. Yet in the months before the earthquake local community organizations had been on strike demanding that the Government buy and transport away tens of thousands of tons of rice and maize which were starting to rot in the region's overflowing warehouses. To complete the irony, the emergency supplies included sacks of rice imported from abroad.1
Another of our expectations is that anything we send out of the goodness of our hearts to disaster victims will be useful. Yet many of the medicines sent to Armenia after the 1988 earthquake were inadequately described or labelled in any of 21 foreign languages; others were time-expired. The local authorities decided to burn those that they could not use. But because of the risk of dangerous fumes being released, a special costly incinerator had to be purchased abroad and imported.2
Letter, Nicaragua 1988: The first impression of Managua is of a ghost town. It is a capital without a capital letter in front of it; a city whose heart has been ripped out and left casually by the roadside. From its ruined cathedral to its nameless streets it still bears eerie testimony to the earthquake that destroyed it in 1972 - and to the greed transcendent of Somoza, who siphoned into his own bottomless pockets all the international aid that poured in. It's a reminder that when a disaster happens you can't just tear up all your careful, sensitive rules about giving aid.
Because our collective attention-span is short, our political representatives tend 'to send off a hastily assembled shipment of emergency aid and then pass on. Often there is not even the will to see the initial relief programme through to reconstruction. After Hurricane Hugo had devastated the Caribbean island of St Lucia in 1989 its Prime Minister said: 'The response from the international community has started to come in... We appreciate the immediate response. But we are looking for continued assistance over the long run to re-establish the infrastructure.'2 All too often such follow-up help is not forthcoming.
There are disasters, of course, which don't fit anyone's script; notably drought and the famine which can follow it, which are months or even years in the making. Few media representatives are as brazen as the one from the UK's notoriously gutter-hugging Sun newspaper who, just before the Ethiopian famine became a major public concern in 1984, rejected pictures of it saying 'We're actually not interested in famine'.3 But many others would have dressed up effectively the same message in less honest clothes - and have done so again this year as another major famine has loomed into view.
Aid agencies have been warning for at least 18 months that a major famine in the Horn of Africa was likely, and warning that it was imminent and certain since Christmas. Yet public and media interest has been minimal. Why? Is it because we feel we've heard it all before, that six years is too short a gap between famines in the same place? Or is it that we feel they really ought to have got their own act together in the interim? Whatever the reason, there are Somalis dying of starvation in the Ogaden as I write these words, and our easy acceptance of that helps show the politicians and the global financiers that they do not have to care.
NI Keynote, Burkina Faso 1985: The widow leant back against the mud wall of her compound and gestured at the bowl of baobab leaves in front of her. 'Since our mifiet ran out,' she said, 'we've been living on those.' Suddenly the tranquillity of the scene, so striking after the flurry of activity in the other family compounds, took on a sinister aspect, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of her hunger... Once I had flown back to the West, there was one question that people always asked me first: 'but what did you eat?' The answer, of course, is that there was plenty of food in Burkina Faso, just as there is in Ethiopia - if you have the money to pay for it... It is poverty that starves people to death or stupefaction: not a callous whim of nature.
The current cholera epidemic in Latin America is another classic case of a genuine disaster that doesn't fit the West's script. If we could deal with it by sending in expert teams to inoculate everyone in sight what a great story that would be! How we saved a continent!
But we can't do that. There can be no quick fix, no interventionist miracle provided by the wonders of Western technology or medical genius. Cholera is erupting because people are poor, because they don't have the decent water and sanitation services that they deserve. According to Dr Hiroshi Nakajima, Director-General of the World Health Organization: 'The current cholera epidemic in Peru is the worst visible symptom of a much greater public-health problem, which is an inadequate health infrastructure, poor water supply and sanitation, and lack of food safety for large sections of the population.4
As the disease stretches its fingers across the continent it is like a litmus test showing up on the map all the pockets of unnecessary and indecent suffering, all the favelas and shanty towns. We can say that Latin American countries should do more to confront their own inequalities and do away with such poverty. But they are likely to find the advice bitterly comical after a decade in which the primary message from the West has been delivered by the IMF and goes something like: 'You must pay your debts by slashing public spending and letting the free market do its work. Sorry if that means you can't spend money on services for the poor (including water and sanitation) but that's the way it is.'
We're reaching the heart of the matter. There is no cure for cholera but development and justice - over-used words but no less meaningful for that. And that is even more true of the great disaster that goes unreported precisely because it is with us all the time. It is indeed horrific that 140,000 people died in the Bangladesh cyclone. But it is even more terrible that about the same number of Bangladeshi children under five die from diarrhoea and pneumonia every three months.5
This is information that we would rather not be given. We can focus on the sudden anguish of someone injured or bereaved by an earthquake because we know that will pass. Even the coruscating images of famine will be left behind in weeks or months. But the death by malnutrition or disease - effectively by poverty - of 40,000 of the world's children under five every single day5 is unbearable, a knowledge we have to screen out in the interests of retaining our sanity. We would be utterly unable to cope with a news programme that told us every evening these 'true facts' about our world.
Yet we have to find some way of living with the knowledge and using it to campaign for a sea change in global priorities. Otherwise our silence will be offering its own endorsement of the present set-up.
Does anybody seriously believe that famines would still happen in the Third World if preventing them were high on the international political agenda? If the same resources, technological know-how and strength of purpose were brought to bear on famine in poor countries as were dedicated to rescuing one tiny, undemocratic rich country from the clutches of Iraq, does anybody doubt that the obscenity of famine could be outlawed at a stroke?
All that is missing is the political will. The George Bushes and John Majors, the Jim Bolgers and Brian Mulroneys of this world are not entirely to be blamed. Their political will (or lack of it) is supplied by the interests and enthusiasms of their electorates. And if most of us are more concerned about the dollar in our pocket than we are about ridding the world of famine, the politicians will continue floating lazily on the ocean of our unconcern.
1 Disaster Mitigation in a Social Vacuum - The Alto Mayo Earthquake, Andrew Maskrey. A paper delivered to the Royal Geographic Society Conference on Disasters in London, April 1991.
2 World Health, WHO Geneva, Jan-Feb 1991.
3 News Out of Africa, Paul Harrison and Robin Palmer (Hilary Shipman 1986).
4 WHO press release, April 1991.
5 Calculated from current UNICEF figures.
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.