Thursday, November 03, 2005

The Futility of Nonstop Relief

Tibor R. Machan

United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland was in conversation with Charlie Rose the other night, mostly discussing how little the developed countries of the world provide relief to underdeveloped countries that are hit by natural disasters or simply linger in dire poverty. The Pakistan earthquake devastated thousands of homes, leaving nearly a hundred thousand people destitute and almost as many dead because of collapsed buildings that were not earthquake proof. In Africa draughts are killing thousands.

Egeland and Rose both seemed to give the impression that the only solution is more government, tax funded aid from developed countries. Although Egeland admitted that when major natural disasters strike, private giving jumps considerably, he lamented—though not with the kind if finger wagging attitude we get from the likes of Peter Unger and Peter Singer—that once the disaster is out of mind, the private giving stops.

What made the discussion so interesting to me is what it was that these supposedly smart, well educated people never mentioned. This is that in most of these underdeveloped regions of the world the major obstacle to coping successfully with and recovering from any sort of natural or semi-natural disaster is the political-economic system in which people live. And this, too, is arguably the reason for the lack of massive support from developed nations, be that support governmental or private.

No one can accept the idea of trying to fill a bottomless hole—that people in these parts of the world will forever need to be taken care of, that they simply will never cope on their own. And this is quite rational—if someone requires emergency support, so as to be helped with getting back on his or her feet, after which a productive life will be resumed, helping makes sense. But if help simply goes to be consumed, after which more help is required, on and on and on, this is intolerable. At some point no matter how much is given, it will reach an end and, once again, thousands will perish.

But the idea that the political-legal infrastructure in these regions—where those whom Egeland kept referring to as “vulnerable people” live—has anything to do with the persistent hardship never came up during the entire discussion. Nor did either of these individuals think to mention that given the disincentives that are built into the political economies of the countries involved, there is not likely to be an end of the desperate neediness of the people. Nor are the bulk of the factors that make them vulnerable—bad housing, terrible school buildings, dysfunctional transportation, primitive medical facilities, etc., and so forth—likely to undergo serious improvement. Thus, those who might choose to help are very likely to become frustrated, seeing no end to the demands on them for charity.

This element of the situation was begging for some discussion, yet the main topic continued to be how little of their wealth those in developed countries were sending to help. The issue of how governments and the legal order in these regions prevent development was barely hinted at.

Both Rose and Egeland worried a great deal about the fact that although in absolute terms the USA sends more support than any other country, in terms of percentage of the wealth of the people it sends but an average, far less than the Scandinavians and other Europeans. Both of the discussants made much of this, appearing more bent on instilling guilt in viewers than on seeking working, long term solutions to the problem of poverty.

Why did they dance around the basic problem—namely, that in most of these undeveloped countries there so much poverty, so little productivity? Surely coordinating relief must include establishing a sound infrastructure. What I suspect is that raising the topic of political economy seriously, searchingly, is deemed to be too judgmental. If, say, the political system of Bangladesh, or Kashmir, or Ghana stymies development, this must remain unexamined because to make note of it is to criticize the regimes and many of the officials in those parts of the world. And with the currently very influential multicultural attitude—whereby there are no better or worse regimes, it is all relative—one is simply prevented from addressing the issue of the comparative merits of political economies.

It seems to me that such squeamishness renders these discussions largely unproductive. They amount to little more than hand-wringing and guilt mongering. And, frankly, sensible, prudent people will not fall for that after a while. It will seem to them, and rightly so, futile to even think about the topic after a while.

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