Every time a natural or man-made catastrophe strikes, human compassion results in an outpouring of aid, including medical assistance and money for support operations and reconstruction. At such times, political differences can be cast aside.
Such generous responses to suffering are noble indeed, but as laudable as that reflex may be, the result might not be the one that is intended.
The region’s two latest catastrophes — the devastating cyclone in Myanmar, which has resulted in more than 120,000 deaths, and the powerful earthquake centered in China’s Sichuan Province, killing about 50,000 — offer us perfect examples of cases in which providing cash assistance may be counterproductive.
This is not to say that the victims and local governments do not need money to deal with the immediate impact of the catastrophes and their after-effects, for they do. Rather, the reason why donor countries should refrain from giving money is that doing so takes away responsibility from the central governments that should be providing for the victims.
Sending cash also allows governments to maintain grave economic disparities and socioeconomic neglect that contributed partly to the high death toll in the first place (a similar argument has been made against providing humanitarian assistance during armed conflict, as doing so allows warring factions to focus their efforts on waging war rather than caring for their own people).
Myanmar’s case is more problematic, as it involves a government that is not, by any standard, a wealthy one.
Nevertheless, its flagrant disregard for the welfare of its citizens in the wake of Cyclone Nargis and its failure to respond appropriately underscored the fact that it is unrepresentative of Burmese and unworthy of being their government.
By providing money and assistance, contributing countries could paradoxically contribute to the survival of the regime by giving it a new lease on life.
In other words, donor aid — provided it reaches those in need — would act as a life support for a junta that should be overthrown for its criminal failure to provide for ordinary people.
The case of the Sichuan earthquake provides an even starker justification for why donor countries should refrain from giving money, and this is particularly the case for Taiwan, which, with NT$2 billion (US$65 million) set aside, quickly became one of the top contributors of aid, both monetary and medical. The reflex to give to victims and their families is natural and worthy. But unlike Myanmar, the central government in Beijing, with the world’s biggest foreign reserves and a booming economy, has more than enough money to provide for its people, including those made destitute by natural disaster.
If the infrastructure in Sichuan Province did not meet safety standards — and the uneven pattern of devastation in certain towns suggests this — then this was not the result of empty government coffers, but rather an unequal distribution of wealth. In this regard, China is faring quite badly, as its Gini coefficient (a measure of a state’s domestic inequality, with zero meaning perfect equality and 100 perfect inequality) of 46.9 — and growing — shows us.
Given the assessment of financial analysts that, despite the devastation, the damage to China’s economy will be minimal — the booming centers in the province were largely spared by the earthquake — Beijing will have little incentive to make financial investments in the region on a scale that would ensure a catastrophe of this avoidable magnitude does not happen again. Rather, the money for ordinary Chinese who really need it will come from donor countries, including Taiwan.