Fears that Aid Won't Reach Tsunami Victims

As the grisly details emerged in the wake of Southeast Asia's EARTHQUAKE and TSUNAMI, the world pulled together as never before.

Fears that Aid Won't Reach Tsunami Victims

As the grisly details emerged in the wake of Southeast Asia's EARTHQUAKE and TSUNAMI, the world pulled together as never before. Within days, Western governments rounded up the largest FOREIGN AID package ever assembled - a US$5-billion effort aimed at rebuilding the parts of coastal Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India hardest hit by the rogue waves.

Canada pledged $80 million, including loads of emergency supplies and the military's disaster assistance unit, by the end of last week. The United States came up with US$350 million, fending off suggestions it's too stingy with foreign donations. Australia, at last count, led all donors with a promise of US$815.5 million. Add to that the proceeds from various benefit concerts and million-dollar donations from Hollywood celebrities, and you have powerful evidence of what is possible on those rare occasions when the depths of human misery are laid bare on nightly newscasts.

At times like these, genuine need intersects with political expediency. Millions of individuals dug into their pockets in quiet acts of compassion that undoubtedly saved lives. And politicians obediently followed the lead of their constituents, because there is no greater political folly than looking like a cheapskate when death is front-page news. But even at its best, the help offered by Western governments is superficial and fleeting when stacked up against the relentless suffering that plagues so much of the world.

The staggering death toll is a symptom of the region's deeper disease: widespread poverty, manifested in a lack of decent medical and emergency services, shoddy infrastructure, poor sanitation and overcrowding. And that's a disease that goes beyond Southeast Asia and the tsunami, to places where far bigger human tragedies are unfolding even now, particularly in Africa.

It is within the West's power to bring about the fundamental economic change needed to address that bigger picture. By providing massive debt relief - forgiving tens of billions of dollars in loans owed by poor nations to their industrialized neighbours, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund - the world could free up those billions for the poor countries to use elsewhere, and take a critical step forward in the fight against poverty. But that, it appears, is too generous by half for Western leaders. When it comes to the Third World, the wealthiest nations can muster more than enough cash to clear debris and bury Indonesian villagers by the thousands, but not to reform the conditions that led to their deaths, and millions more in other countries.

The Group of Seven industrialized nations, led by Germany and Canada, has announced a temporary suspension of debt repayments by countries directly hit by the disaster. And this week, the so-called "Paris Club" of debtor states will meet to discuss expanding the moratorium. Britain is pushing for broader forgiveness - a deal to wipe out US$40 billion in Third World debt - but that idea appears to be going nowhere. Japan and the U.S. are balking, and Australian Prime Minister John Howard has said he opposes debt forgiveness because there is "no guarantee that money ends up where it should." Like so many of his political colleagues, Howard prefers the traditional foreign-aid approach whereby rich nations decide who gets help and how much - a system that amounts to doling out spoonfuls of cough syrup to a patient dying of pneumonia.

If the Paris Club's objectives were moral rather than political, then its members would have no choice but to look beyond temporary reprieves for the handful of tsunami-affected countries, to places like sub-Saharan Africa, where 25 million people have died of AIDS since the pandemic began more than a decade ago - more than 150 for every person killed in the tsunami. There are currently about four million with advanced-stage AIDS in Africa, of whom only about 100,000 have access to the drugs needed to treat the disease, and it is estimated that another 3.2 million are infected each year. Despite the ever-deepening crisis, aid to the 28 worst-affected African nations fell by a third between 1995 and 2000.

Africa's AIDS catastrophe is but one example. A million people are killed every year by malaria. UNICEF estimates 1.4 million children die annually because they don't have access to safe drinking water. Morality would say those lives are worth as much as the ones lost in the tsunami, but politics say otherwise. Aid organizations in other parts of the developing world worry that their funds will be garnisheed to help pay for the cleanup in Southeast Asia. Indeed, the UN has warned much of the foreign aid now being pledged is money that's already been budgeted for other development and relief initiatives.

Of course, those agencies shouldn't worry too much about what is said, since it's often so different from what is actually done. After past disasters in Iran, Mozambique and Honduras, much of the promised aid never arrived. In 1992, the West committed to increase development aid to 0.7 per cent of gross national product. As of 2003, the United States was still spending only about 0.14 per cent of its revenues on Third World development projects. Canada was only marginally better at 0.26 per cent. Promising money is good politics, you see. Actually spending it is bad fiscal policy.

If politicians were capable of thinking beyond their next budget, they might see a strong economic argument for debt forgiveness. African nations paid roughly US$15 billion in interest on their foreign debts in 2003 - money that could have gone a long way to slowing the spread of AIDS, funding the development of better malaria drugs, and upgrading the sorrowful state of basic infrastructure. Those improvements, in turn, would lead to development and eventually self-sufficiency. The World Bank estimates that malaria alone costs African economies as much as US$12 billion a year, and has depressed the region's gross domestic product by up to a third over the past four decades.

Microsoft founder Bill Gates is one Western capitalist calling for debt forgiveness, not just because it's the right thing to do, but because it will pay global dividends in the form of increased trade and modernization. To put it bluntly, he knows you can't sell software to people who struggle just to feed themselves.

In 1996, the World Bank and IMF took the first stab at widespread debt relief with the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative. Four years later, the U.S. Congress finally approved US$435 million for the program - about one-tenth of what the U.S. is spending every month in Iraq. Some debts have been erased under the HIPC initiative, but progress is excruciatingly slow. In Zambia, one of the program's supposed beneficiaries, 20 per cent of the population is infected with HIV/AIDS, and the government still spends 30 per cent more each year servicing its debts than it does on health care.

Britain promises to keep pushing for a broader debt relief program, but after five years of failure it's hard to get excited about the chance for real change. Perhaps if those millions of AIDS victims in Africa died suddenly and violently, alongside a few thousand Western tourists, rather than wasting away for months in isolation, then the world would take notice. Maybe then rich nations might find the money for a debt relief plan based on morality rather than on politics. For now, our monumental efforts are limited to restoring a few countries to an acceptable level of poverty, a level at which their suffering can be easily ignored until the next famine or earthquake or outbreak comes along to momentarily shame us into action.

Maclean's January 17, 2005