Mon, Jan 17, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Can disaster change the world?

The global response to the tsunami has been an unprecedented outpouring of aid and compassion, but will it in the longer term help fight poverty in Asia and Africa?

By Mary Riddell  /  THE OBSERVER , London


Soon it will be over. No more cod theology, no more recycled orphans' faces on front pages and no more of the media's perishable brand of pity. What happens next, in the countries devastated by the tsunami, and in Africa, will depend on whether the mood of the past fortnight really is a conduit to a better world.

UK Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown thinks so. His three-part prescription of debt relief, increased aid and better trade terms for poor countries is, at first sight, nothing new. He rehearsed his action plan, complete with an international financial facility for front-loading funding, several months ago in an essay for New Economy.

Two factors made last week's program different. The first is the Asian earthquake and the second the supposed feud Brown has with British Prime Minister Tony Balir, who rolled out his own salvation package simultaneously.

Brown is, apparently, playing Prometheus to Blair's Zeus. In the legend, the underling filched the leader's fire to bestow on struggling mortals. In the modern variant, the Chancellor has merely stolen the prime minister's thunder.

Blair wants to be a savior, too, but he has been upstaged by Brown's talk of `the extraordinary power of human compassion to build anew.' The two men's wishes may be similar, but Blair's lack the transformation element. Only Brown believes that the events of the past fortnight can turn people into better human beings who will now refocus their newfound altruism on Africa.

Governments are not usually very optimistic about the goodness of their citizens and Blair's is no exception. Any legislative or social program suggests that the human condition is to hang around the fast food shop in a hoodie, planning antisocial acts or to binge fecklessly on alcohol and carbs.

The perfectibility of mankind is a frequently recycled hope, despite its dubious record. Communists held it as a primary goal.

Thomas Malthus thought it might work, if only there were fewer people to perfect. Enlightenment do-gooders were always trying to civilize wild children, as proof of the triumph of rationalism and reason and then growing bored with them once the novelty had faded.

Brown tacitly admits he has some way to go. The statistics quoted in his speech do not bear witness to the kindness of the affluent: 110 million children denied a school place and 60,000 others who suffer or die each day as the rich world falls 150 years behind in its millennial pledge to eliminate avoidable infant deaths.

Then there are the bits he did not mention, such as the competitive giving in which nations vie to outdo one another, while corporations get denounced as tightwads. In all this who-gave-whattery, only the generosity of citizens offers some hope that they can become the army of salvation that Brown's vision requires.

Can people really change so fundamentally and do they need to? On two of his proposals -- writing off debt to developing countries and doubling aid -- the Chancellor is asking nothing radical. As Rodney Barker of the London School of Economics says, Athenian regimes of the 4th century regularly cancelled debt in the hope of building a fairer society. Helping the poor has always been the duty and the luxury of the wealthy.

Fairer trade policy, the third plank of Brown's plan, will be the test of whether the earthquake has unleashed the will for a better world. Some months before the tsunami struck, Oxfam interviewed a woman called Nong, who was stitching underwear for Western retailer Victoria's Secret in Thailand. She explained she was afraid of having children because she feared she could not feed them.

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