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Sunday, Aug. 15, 2010

SOS for world disaster victims


Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG — Television pictures tell terrible stories of the week: swirling floodwaters gobbling up people, cattle, homes, bridges, communications systems and threatening up to 20 million people in Pakistan; torrential rains triggering landslides in northwestern China; while dense smog suffocates Moscow, caused by unprecedented temperatures of 39 C and wild fires around the Russian capital.

The rest of the world watches as if mesmerized, giving only token sums of aid, while lives and livelihoods are being swallowed whole as the destructive power of the monsoon rains and floods ravage Pakistan and China.

We — the world — have been here before and we will no doubt be again as natural disasters, earthquakes, floods, drought, cyclones, fires, volcanic eruptions, and disease epidemics strike suddenly. It is time now for the world to stop watching and to start doing.

Who will be the statesman who will demand that the Group of 20 (G20) so-called leaders of the world put the issue of disaster and emergency relief on the main agenda for a string of meetings in the near future, including the November summit in Seoul, alongside the question of how to revive the sickly global economy?

Will it be U.S. President Barack Obama coming to the rescue of America's reputation as a true global power and his own as a man who would build new bridges to the world?

How about the host, President Lee Myung Bak, showing that South Korea does have international vision?

Or Chinese President Hu Jintao demonstrating that the aspiring great power and disaster victim can see beyond the demands of the Middle Kingdom?

Or Naoto Kan, in the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, seizing an opportunity to show empathy with other victims?

Or European leaders doing something constructive rather than squabbling over petty national issues?

So far there has been no rush to lend a hand. The United Nations called for $460 million in urgent aid to Pakistan, to last for about three months. After 10 days of flooding in Pakistan, less than $45 million had been committed with another $91 million "pledged," though too often pledges aren't fulfilled. More than $300 million had been raised in 2005, 10 days after the Pakistan earthquake, and more than $1.6 billion after the Haiti earthquake.

To give some credit where it is due, the much-maligned Americans have been the fastest to provide both money and heavy-lift helicopters quickly on the scene, which is more than can be said for Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari, who lingered in Europe to visit his chateau in France and chat with Britain's prime minister before returning to his palace in Rawalpindi. Europe also provided some funds.

The death toll in Pakistan and China is still just a few thousand — small compared to the 230,000 victims of the Haiti earthquake or the half million people swept from the earth in the 1970 cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, or the 242,000 who perished in the 1976 Tangshan earthquake in Hebei. But the deaths will rise as torrential rains continue in China and the Indus River makes its swollen bank-bursting way south through Pakistan.

More than a third of Pakistan is under water. So many homes and so much infrastructure have been destroyed that it will take years to put the inundated areas and their people on their feet again. Floodwaters have destroyed roads and bridges that date back to the British colonial era, as well as key modern infrastructure like electricity lines and hectares of fertile farmland.

The G20 leaders should pledge not merely a substantial sum to meet the immediate needs of Pakistan and China, but set up a fund to meet future disasters.

They should commit to give a mere 1 percent of their combined defense expenditures for the next three years. With global military spending of $1.53 trillion last year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the new fund would have more than $45 billion to get started.

It should be under the aegis of the U.N. and consist of two parts: one to commit resources swiftly to any major international disaster; another to concentrate on reconstruction and planning to obviate future disasters.

Bangladesh has done much to avert the destruction of a future cyclone by improving sea defenses and an early warning system. A better organized Pakistan would have built better barriers and taken potential victims to safety before the waters struck.

The fund would need a strong and capable administrator to set goals and prevent it from becoming another corrupt U.N. boondoggle. The reconstruction wing should work in cooperation with the World Bank, and the disaster effort with nongovernment organizations, such as Oxfam, which often have the local knowledge and staff but lack the funds to cope with massive disasters.

John Holmes, the U.N. humanitarian chief, or Mark Malloch Brown, a former World Bank vice president, head of the U.N. Development Program and a U.N. deputy secretary general, would be strong candidates to get the fund going.

I use "defense" expenditure as the paradigm because it is the most wasteful form of spending, not least because the ultimate waste, on warfare, solves nothing, as American and others forces are discovering in Afghanistan. A tiny nibble from those funds before they get blown away could help create a better more secure Earth.

Is it donor fatigue, or the feeling that Pakistan is a corrupt and failed state that is holding back relief funds?

Whatever the reason, to ignore the plight of so many millions of people is a judgment against the values of the so-called global world. To offer aid and comfort is also an opportunity to show the warped form of religion called militant Islam that there is better way of living together than murder and mayhem.

Kevin Rafferty is a former managing editor at the World Bank.


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