Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Help the tsunami survivors with trade, not aid
Ushio - February 2005

How much should we help others, and if so how? Those questions of human morality seem to be in a special category: the category of questions so basic they are almost never asked. The terrible tsunami that killed so many people around the Indian Ocean on December 26th does seem to have prompted many to at least offer the answer "much more than ever before".

            Certainly, governments and individual citizens in the rich countries, including both Japan and Britain, reacted with great generosity. Some have argued that the generosity was a result of television, bringing news of the devastation, death and despair so quickly into all our homes; and that the TV companies provided such extensive coverage mainly because rich-country tourists were involved. Rwanda and its 1994 genocide, in which more than four times as many people died, never got anything like as much coverage, and attracted hardly any philanthropy.

            Even if those explanations were correct, the fact that little was done about Rwanda´s genocide and relatively little aid was sent would not make it wrong to provide help to Indonesia and Sri Lanka now. Just because one chance to do good was missed does not mean that future chances must also be missed. But I nevertheless think there is probably another, more constructive explanation. 

            It is that the Indian Ocean disaster was a natural phenomenon and not a man-made one. That simple fact not only made many millions of rich people feel that the same thing could well have happened to them. It also was the sort of disaster, the sort of problem, for which people believed that their donations and other assistance might actually make a big difference.

            In man-made disasters, such as Rwanda´s genocide, or Ethiopia´s terrible famine in 1984, or North Korea´s famines in recent years, the men who made the disaster were still there. Although donations might help keep people alive for a while, they were unlikely to make much difference to the fundamental causes of their misery or starvation: the murderers of Rwanda, the war stirred up by Ethiopia´s government, the appalling mismanagement and brutality of North Korea´s regime.

            So although it made sense in all those cases to offer some help, if only to ease our own consciences by showing we had not just stood by and left people to starve, it made little sense to donate huge amounts of money. It would have been wasted, or misspent, or simply stolen.

            After the first few weeks and months of providing food and medicine just to keep people alive in Aceh, Sri Lanka, the Indian islands and other affected places, the same dangers will exist there. Corrupt officials may try to steal money. With armed conflicts long under way between the Tamil rebels and the government in Sri Lanka, and between Acehnese separatists and the Indonesian government, aid could be diverted to be spent on bullets or manipulated for political purposes.

            Such dangers do not exist only in poor, developing countries. In Italy, for example, it is well known that after earthquakes and other disasters city mayors have misused aid, making sure that their townsfolk remain homeless for a long time in order to keep the aid flowing, spending the first lot of cash on such things as bridges and sports stadiums rather than helping the needy.

            That example shows that the fact that Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia are all democratic countries is not a complete protection against the misuse of aid, though it will help: as in Italy, such behaviour can be spotted and exposed by the press or by political rivals.

            Probably, though, we should be guided by another, more practical principle. Yes, when someone is starving and homeless after a natural disaster, it makes moral and practical sense to help them: we should hope that someone would help us if we were in the same situation, and we can be fairly confident that our help will get through to them. But, later, when the starving has been mitigated and the problem is one of rebuilding lives, businesses and incomes, our help should change.

            No country has ever become prosperous thanks to overseas aid. Rather, those that have been helped by aid are those that also had two other things: well-run governments; and unhindered access to markets for their goods and services.

            The principle, like my opening questions, is a very basic one. As the Chinese philosopher, Sun Tzu, said way back in history, if you give a man a fish it feeds him for a day. If you teach him to fish, it feeds him for life. In modern times, we should add another part to this proverb: if you give him the chance to sell his fish, by making your markets open and helping to construct ports and roads by which the fish can be transported, then he can become truly prosperous rather than just surviving by eating what he catches.

             With the Indian Ocean victims, our aid should be directed not at rebuilding their lives but rather at rebuilding the roads and boats and ports that they need to use in order to make their lives more prosperous. Aid to help with infrastructure is harder to steal or misuse, for the projects are easier to monitor. Most important of all, though, will be to ensure that they can sell their goods and services. And that means help with trade, not aid.

            Those principles also apply to other poor countries that need and deserve aid, especially in Africa. It makes no sense just to send money, indiscriminately. It makes more sense to help with basic infrastructure and provide open trade.

            That means, first of all, open trade in food. Japan´s huge barriers against the import of rice and Europe´s huge barriers against the import of sugar, wheat and many other farm products all help ensure that poor countries stay poor. So do America´s barriers against the import of cotton. The political power of farmers in Japan, Europe and the United States have all preserved these barriers. Prompted by the tsunami, our countries must now all try to overcome that political power and remove the barriers.

            If we do not, much of our generous aid to the poorest countries, including those devastated by the tsunami, will be wasted.


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