Tsunami aid and beyond: II
The proposal by Britain to grant
tsunami-affected countries an international debt moratorium is wrong-headed.
Paradoxically, though, good could flow from the suggestion, which is expected to
be discussed next week by the Paris Club of rich country creditors.
The proposal is wrong-headed because the
losses have been primarily human rather than economic.
The devastation in Aceh is an enormous
human tragedy, but it is not a significant blow to the economy of Indonesia, a
nation of 205 million people. Aceh's four million were already some of
Indonesia's poorest because of years of insurgency.
Of all the countries affected, only Sri
Lanka and the Maldives seem likely to suffer major economic loss, as opposed to
human loss, because of the importance of tourism and, in Sri Lanka's case,
Thailand has plenty of alternative
tourist destinations and the setback from the tsunami is likely to prove far
less than that caused by SARS, or even avian flu. India's losses are localized
and tiny relative to its economy.
While Burma's losses are probably much
bigger than officially admitted, the ruling generals have little known interest
either in economic or humanitarian considerations.
A debt moratorium is also wrong-headed
because it ascribes to the tsunami an entirely different character than
disasters in other developing countries, which have been at least as damaging
economically, and, at the local level, as significant in human terms.
The 30,000 lives lost in the Bam
earthquake a year ago were in a confined area. More recently, nearly 2,000
people were killed by typhoon-generated floods and landslides in the northern
Philippines - losses proportionately bigger than India's from the tsunami. Yet
thus far the International Red Cross has achieved only 40 percent of its target
for Philippine relief.
Floods in Bangladesh last year killed
1,000 and left one million homeless. And the appalling Indian Ocean tsunami
death toll is probably still less than the 300,000 who perished in Bangladesh's
typhoon-driven floods in 1970, or the 140,000 who perished in the 1991 floods,
or the 250,000 who perished in 1976 in China's Tangshan earthquake.
Asian commentators have not failed to
note that the response of wealthy countries to the tsunami has been driven at
least in part by their own human losses, and subsequently by a degree of
competition over who is seen to provide the largest amounts of relief or the
most effective delivery teams.
A moratorium is also not favored by the
better-off countries, such as Thailand, because it might hurt their credit
However, there are also two ways in which
good could come of the moratorium proposal. First, it is a clear breach of the
principle which has long limited debt relief - that any relief be accompanied by
economic and governance reforms laid down by the creditors.
Niggardly attitudes to such relief,
together with the pathetic level of new aid disbursements, have long made a
mockery of grandiose proclamations such as the Millennium Development Goals.
Western leaders pay frequent lip service to these, but consistently fail to put
their money where their mouth is.
If Indonesia can get tsunami-driven
relief, then surely the Philippines is entitled to it as well for its typhoons -
not to mention the Mount Pinatubo eruption, whose economic losses through the
destruction of huge areas of farmland were permanent. Ditto much of Africa for
AIDS, and various countries for droughts and other natural disasters that caused
major economic as well as human losses.
In short, the tsunami debt proposal can
be a springboard for getting more capital to those developing countries that do
not have access to private sources.
Second, if there is to be a linkage
between international debt relief and disaster relief, a much more effective
body is needed to implement it.
The international response to the tsunami
has been impressive in terms of money and material, but less so in coordination.
Surely there is place here for a greater
role for the United Nations, but in partnership rather than rivalry with the
United States and other powers.
Why not create a standing UN disaster
task force which can draw directly on the assets of national governments and
charitable agencies in the same way as UN peacekeepers draw on national forces?