Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Reactionary Aid

I don’t know why I am reading this book. Especially late at night when I am trying to fall asleep. It tells of stories and brings up issues that get me so angry towards the global systems. How we allow our humanity to be managed. And it reminds me of my own experiences, where I felt powerless to change hypocrisy or maybe was even party to upholding these norms.

I am half way through The Zanzibar Chest, on the chapter on the famine in Somalia in the 1990s. He is describing how the world with its tons and tons of grain arrived too late. And when they did arrive, the militia leaders rejoiced – more resources for exploitation and manipulation, while those people trying to live simple peaceful principled lives were the ones turning into skeletons.

Where had the world been before? Why had we reacted so late? Why had the kids not been “thin enough” to journalists, before disaster stages?

I recall a friend once cynically saying that wasn’t it fascinating that the world only woke up to the 26 December Far East Tsunami after New Years Day 2005. It was as though we all needed to get over our personal festivities before we were willing to be empathetic to others.

I have never known what I felt about such an observation. Yes, I think my friend was right, but I do not think the world’s reaction was necessarily wrong. Is not everyone entitled to a holiday and a week of selfish personal indulgence? It was rather a case of bad timing.

At the same time, we did not all realise the extent of the devastation until it had been assessed over a few days…taking us to past New Years. At much as we like to believe we have an instant grip on world events, thanks to time-free media, we do not. Decent assessments are not sensational and do take time.

And once the reaction did arrive, but wow, did it arrive. I remember seeing how much people in the UK were willing to hand over and how badly they felt the effects even if they could not put a friend’s name to this tragedy.

I still have so many wonderings on this humanitarian event, and no decent judgement calls.

I was also frustrated that I was not over there. I term myself an “aid worker”, or humanitarian worker rather, yet I did not jump onto the first plane available and see what I could do. I reasoned with myself that I always had a plan, and that was to rather become part of the system, so to change it from the inside. I was learning elements, skills, factors and opposing ideas so to ensure that in the long term we can adapt our systems so such tragedies do not again happen to such proportions.

Plus I did not have relevant skills – like nursing, or being able to speak a single applicable language for that region, nor did I know the cultures. I would arrive with no clue and end up draining aid companies. So I squelched my worries and wonderings and went back to my own life.

By the following Christmas I was working at an aid NGO. I recall getting back from that December holiday to news that flooding in northern Mozambique and Kenya was causing thousands of people to be left homeless and starving. I became ridiculously frustrated as we did nothing. I was working for an organisation that claimed part of its very fundamentals were to feed impoverished desperate Mozambican people, and yet I watched my bosses arrive slowly back from their fancy holidays, in their fancy cars. They never even mentioned this natural disaster let along considered using our “charitable” resources to aid people there.

And I became stressed that I too was playing into this hypocrisy. But I chose to squelch my stress and questions and anxieties, to follow their lead, and get back to my day-to-day office routines.

Granted that organisation is not an “emergency relief” organisation. Our systems were not geared to suddenly be airlifting crates of food off to areas where we did not even have operations. I assume that our food stocks were budgeted for set areas within Mozambique, and it is not easy (or maybe even ‘right’?) to simply “reallocate” when one has donors.

But the ethos we kept championing in order to gain more funds, more donors, more awe and gratitude for being “so humanitarian” always knocks against any “reasonable” argument I twist into my head.

There are so many elements that argue against acting immediately when disaster hits a part of the world. Or even when it is just hinting at us. And I guess, the question I am asking is when are these elements valid reasons and when are they self-indulgent excuses?


Unknown said...

The more that needs to be done, the more powerless we seem to feel - or at least I do. How scary does the world have to become before we become brave (enough)? Maybe we all have different thresholds. Maybe one day the collective threshold will be strong enough to make a real difference. Hopefully it'll be in my lifetime... It had better get a fucking move-on! Lol.

Really nice piece, Champers.

Champagne Heathen said...

Hi Gillian! And welcome to my blog, and more so - thanks for all the comments and obviously exploring my blog so well! Much appreciated!!

Very true about becoming overwhelmed in this game.

The collective threshold - like 'the tipping point'. Have you read that book? It's on my list, although by this stage, after everyone else telling me about it, I feel like I have read it.

Yeah, I wonder when it will stop all being lipservice & we'll see people making proper concerted efforts. Really dedicating proper TIME and money. And not just using the loopholes and still demanding gratitude for doing so!

Anonymous said...

so... i wrote this a while back as a draft email to you and never finished my thoughts on it... so many things you mentioned in here sparked so many divergent thoughts, so much anger just thinking about it all.

I think the real sin is not that people took a week to notice the effects and react to the Tsunami, but rather that people rarely commit to doing anything about such problems and atrocities that are occurring on an everyday basis, particularly within their own communities and own countries. Even with the aid pledged to deal with the impact of the Tsunamai - the commitment lasted the period of convenient TV coverage (free advertising).

Ignorance is easiest - people hide from the problems in many ways, whether by blaming their inactions on the fact that nothing will ever change and that they can have no impact; blaming their organisations, their companies; or fear, or by protecting "their own" be that ethnic background, family...

I guess in response to your direct question - "when are these elements valid reasons and when are they self-indulgent excuses?" - I would say that if one is considering this question one is probably already doing as much (or at least something) as one can and as such a holiday is no longer a self-indulgent excuse. We are unfortunately not all born to be those that can dedicate their entire lives and sacrifice everything towards bettering our world.

Many people would not even bother to ask the question you put forward as their entire life is committed to self-indulgence (so ignorant of the fact that a reality other than their own exists - and so oblivious to how they contribute to the suffering that they conveniently dont see.