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Playing Politics with Disaster Aid

The past week’s news has been all-Tsunami all-the-time. But a couple of important aspects of the disaster haven’t received much air-play.

One issue that’s received almost no mention is that the worst-hit areas are also war zones. The island nation of Sri Lanka has been the site of a decades-long civil war, and the Aceh region on the northern tip of Sumatra has been fighting a war of independence from Indonesia. The Indonesian military is notorious for human rights violations, and tens of thousands of people have been killed in the conflict in Aceh, most of them civilians and most of them murdered by the Indonesian military.

The Indonesian military is, out of necessity, playing a key role in transporting food, water, and medical supplies into Aceh, and this poses a two-fold problem for the Acehnese and international aid organizations. First, the Acehnese may not trust the Indonesian military and any groups that work with them, making the effort to save lives and rebuild the region twice as hard as it needs to be. Aid groups whose supplies and personnel arrive in Indonesian military aircraft and ships, and whose goods are unloaded or distributed by uniformed Indonesian troops, will have a hard time establishing a relationship with the Acehnese, the very people they’re trying to help.

In addition, the Indonesian government may try to play politics with aid distribution, withholding it from areas that have a history of resisting Indonesian government control. Historically, aid groups have been the first witnesses to this kind of political crime, a human rights violation that tends to occurs over the course of weeks and months after the initial disaster, long after the international media has moved on to juicier stories. Instead of chasing the next big headline, the international media should keep an eye on the long-term political and humanitarian problems that could develop, not just in Indonesia, but also in Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), and Somalia.

In the meantime, ordinary folks like you and me can give support to aid groups who have experience serving people in war-torn regions and who know how to recognize–and expose–repressive governments who play politics with humanitarian aid. There are many good aid groups out there, but many tend to donate to regions where they already have on-going projects–in this case in Thailand and India. The governments of India and Thailand, however, have both announced that they have the resources to assist their own people and don’t need foreign aid. Whether that’s true or not, those two nations were not as severely hit as Aceh and Sri Lanka. Much of Aceh was leveled by the massive 9.0 earthquake that proceeded the Tsunami, and a large part of its coastal region remains swamped with seawater. In effect, it suffered a horrifying one-two punch.

Two organizations recognized this immediately and mounted efforts to send aid to Aceh within hours of the disaster. Oxfam International specializes in sending the basic necessities, like food and water, to the most devastated regions of the world. Doctors Without Borders, the Nobel-Prize-winning organization that regularly speaks its mind about the causes and conditions of poverty throughout war-torn regions of the world, sent medical supplies and equipment to purify water to the border of Aceh within less than 24-hours after the Tsunami hit.

Neither of these two groups are faith-based organizations, unlike many who are soliciting donations to send aid: World Vision, the Red Cross, Mercy Corps, American Friends Service Committee, or other organizations who base their giving on Christian values. While many folks argue that these groups and others like them do fine work while keeping their religious beliefs to themselves, many donors have difficulty giving to faith-based groups; we often feel that aid distribution ought to be a secular activity. In this case in particular, the victims of the earthquake and tsunami are primarily Muslim, Buddhist, and Animist peoples, making it hard to escape a feeling of nausea and/or arrogance when donating to a Christian relief organization.

But donating to World Vision is not a crime and can do much good. What is a crime is the Bush Administration’s response to the disaster. First announcing only $15 million in aid, international pressure eventually forced Colin Powell to announce an additional $20 million. Then, after other nations stepped in to donate hundreds of millions more (for example, Japan, with a much smaller economy than ours, is giving $500 million), George W. Bush took a break from his extended vacation at the ranch to announce a measly $350 million aid package.

The richest nation in the world, the United States, ought to be able to muster at least a couple billion dollars. After all, we have about $17 billion sitting in a fund for Iraqi reconstruction that’s been largely unspent because of an on-going guerrilla war that shows no sign of ending any time soon. Diverting just 15% of that money would send more than $2.5 billion to people who have lost, literally, everything, and it could build a feeling of goodwill toward the US that’s been sorely lacking since shortly after 9/11.

There is more that we can do, and that means pushing our government to get its priorities straight and to stop playing its own brand of politics with our aid money.

MARIA TOMCHICK is a co-editor and contributing writer for Eat The State!, a biweekly anti-authoritarian newspaper of political opinion, research, and humor, based in Seattle, Washington. She can be reached at: tomchick@drizzle.com

 

 

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