Disaster tourists’ should stay at home
South Asia needs emergency relief, not Western soul-searching.
According to current reports, up to 30,000 people have died as a result of the earthquake that struck south Asia on Saturday. In the worst affected region, the mountainous no-man’s land of Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, whole villages have been flattened and whole families killed.
The humane response to these events would be practical assistance, sending the helicopters, search teams and supplies that are so desperately needed. But while relief is on its way from countries like the UK and USA, it comes with hang-ups attached. The West’s response to this disaster, as with others, seems to involve more soul-searching than doing the right thing.
Instead of humanitarians, too often the West sends ‘disaster tourists’. These come in two breeds: voyeurs and saviours. Voyeurs – usually from the media – flock to the epicentre to search out tales of human suffering. They dwell on victims’ experiences, going over their pain and grief in microscopic detail.
The Independent’s Justin Huggler yesterday took several hundred words to describe a rescued victim’s fight for life: ‘The skin on his face had already taken on the grey of a corpse, and when they got him into the light his eyes rolled back in his head and his left hand gripped convulsively at thin air for a moment, then dropped.’ Today Huggler evoked the collapsed town of Balakot: ‘One man found a child’s exercise book in the rubble and sat silently leafing through the pages. Under every mound lie the bodies.’
It’s important that journalists report from the scene of disasters, but such creative writing efforts border on pornographic. It’s as if some journalists want to climb right down to the bottom of the pit, to plumb the absolute depths of despair. They put themselves in the shoes of the man trapped under a building, the child who has lost his parents. There’s a grisly competition to find the most terrible stories. ‘I have lost 60 relatives’, headlined a piece in the Daily Express, describing the grief of a lorry-driver from Luton. Any advance on 60?
Because parts of the media are always looking on the dark side, they are suckers for rumour mongering. After the New Orleans hurricane, journalists recounted wholesale stories about babies being raped and scores of people murdered – all of which turned out to be untrue. Too often, the media seize the biggest estimates of deaths, rather than the most realistic. The New Orleans death toll was estimated at 10,000; in actual fact it was nearer 1000. We could find that the estimates of the Pakistan earthquake dead are similarly off the mark.
Voyeurs often see disaster as a positive bonding experience. ‘Out of disaster, a chance to heal’, headlined an article in the Australian (1). Many wishfully speculated whether the geological rift in Kashmir could solve India and Pakistan’s political rift. ‘This is an opportunity when Indian and Pakistan can forget their differences’, said NM Prusty of the aid agency CARE. Of course, people do pull together in tough times, and Pakistan has accepted some Indian aid. But shared suffering isn’t going to make political conflicts vanish.
Saviours are another kind of Western dispatch, from aid agencies and governments as well as the media. The main concern for saviours is to be seen to care; it’s not practical results that count, but the gesture.
Everybody wants to be photographed helping stricken victims. In New Orleans journalists searched for trapped citizens to ‘rescue’. This concern with being seen to care makes for ineffective aid. As the recent World Disasters Report noted, after the south Asian tsunami in December 2004 aid agencies flocked to high-profile camps where their efforts would be caught on prime time TV, but ignored more remote regions (2). Some areas were oversubscribed, others left without aid. Bickering was rife: agencies refused to share information with rivals, and in one region 20 surgeons competed for one patient.
After Saturday’s earthquake, the bidding wars began, with countries competing to pledge the biggest bucks. Britain started with £100,000 but raised to £1million after it came under criticism for being cold-hearted; Australia went from $380,000 to $4.2million; and the USA went from $500,000 to $50million (3). Of course, the more money the better. But donations made to make the donor look good aren’t the best kind of help. When there’s little focus on how such large sums could be usefully employed, pledges are likely to go unspent or misspent.
Disaster tourists do little good abroad. They also pollute the political air at home, encouraging narcissism and victim culture within Western societies. Instead, we could use a bit more straightforward humanitarianism. This means going to the aid of fellow human beings, offering help simply because people are in need. This isn’t very dramatic or romantic; it’s just about doing the right thing.
The earthquake has shown yet again, though, that aid isn’t enough. It’s only thoroughgoing development that will provide protection against the kind of devastation we are now witnessing. Many were killed in Pakistan when public buildings collapsed, including schools, hospitals and universities. By contrast, when an earthquake of 7.2 on the Richter scale hit Japan in August 2005, it injured only 40 people (5). High-quality buildings stood up to the shock. In the meantime, northern Pakistan’s lack of roads and public services is severely hampering rescue efforts. It doesn’t matter how much countries pledge if they can’t distribute supplies.
As the TV crews get into position, and the politicians call their press conferences, it seems that a grisly Pakistan Earthquake Show is starting to roll. We should cut the self-obsessed dramatics, and try a little human decency instead.
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