One year ago — Dec. 26, 2004 — a tsunami walloped a huge swathe of the world from Indonesia all the way to Africa. Some 300,000 people were swept to their deaths, from the grandson of the king of Thailand and the daughter and granddaughter of film director Richard Attenborough to Njoroge, a Nairobi car mechanic, who picked the wrong day for his first visit to the beautiful East African coast and died a statistical fluke, his country’s solitary fatality from the disaster.
Across the Western world, TV viewers reached into their wallets, chipped in the best part of $5 billion, and left it in the hands of the United Nations and the “nongovernmental organizations,” the world’s self-proclaimed moral consciences.
You’ll recall that, immediately after the tsunami, Jan Egeland, the Norwegian bureaucrat and big U.N. humanitarian honcho, gave a press conference attacking the “stinginess” of wealthy nations, like the Great Satan. Given that, at that moment, Mr. Egeland’s vast, permanent 24/7 “humanitarian relief” bureaucracy was focusing on giving press conferences in New York, while the only actual “relief effort” was conducted ad hoc by the Pentagon and the Royal Australian Navy, his remarks seemed a little churlish, to say the least.
But the trick when something unexpected happens is to make it fit with your general theory. Thus, if you’re one of those wacky cultists worshipping at the Church of Global Warming, the tsunami obviously has something to do with America not signing the Kyoto Treaty. Likewise, if you’re Mr. Egeland, the point of the tsunami is to emphasize his own indispensability. A bunch of Yanks and Aussies saving lives and restoring water is no use to him unless they do so under his agency’s aegis.
But even folks who aren’t on the Turtle Bay payroll have somehow bought into the curious proposition that helping people without going through the U.N. bureaucracy — saving lives unilaterally, so to speak — is illegitimate. So Mr. Egeland and the like-minded got their way: Billions and billions of dollars were contributed to tsunami relief. And what happened to it? A year later, of the 1.8 million left homeless, only 20 percent have been rehoused. The rest are still in temporary shelters.
Well, OK, but what about their communities’ economic revitalization? If you go to the South Indian coast near the town of Nagapattinam, you’ll see a fleet of brand-new fishing boats sitting on the beach. A Western charity had them built and delivered. But they’ve never been used because they’re not seaworthy, having only two skins of fiberglass.
In Sumatra, relief agencies gave interest-free loans to boatbuilders to replace the region’s lost vessels: The replacement skiffs now sit unsold in Indonesian boatyards because nobody thought to also give interest-free loans to the fishermen, who can’t afford to buy the new skiffs.
I don’t pretend to be an expert in the Indonesian fishing industry. I pretend to be an expert in Islamic terrorism and U.S. foreign policy and a bunch of other stuff, and believe me that’s hard enough without trying to feign expertise in the watery economy of Banda Aceh.
So who ought to be the experts? Well, how about Jan Egeland and his U.N. staff? These guys get full-time salaries to think about nothing but international disaster relief, and yet the best they can do when disaster strikes is stand in front of a camera in New York and announce they’re sending someone to the region for an “assessment” of the “situation,” just as soon as the U.S. Air Force emergency team have flown in and restored room service to the five-star hotel.
It was obvious at the time that Western TV viewers had donated more money than could ever be usefully spent. Even so, it’s fascinating to learn quite the multitude of ways in which the dough was squandered. Hitherto somnolent bureaucracies cranked themselves into action for lean mean Tsunami shakedown operations. Oxfam paid the best part of a million bucks to Sri Lankan customs for the privilege of having 25 four-wheel-drive vehicles allowed into the country to get aid out to remote villages on washed-out roads hit by the Boxing Day tsunami. Your charitable donations at work, folks.
In fact, Mr. Egeland was wrong. Had Western nations been more “stingy,” the aid might have been better targeted and more effective. As it was, your average Third World kleptocrat official quickly figured out every NGO on the planet was trying to catch his eye by waving large amounts of dollar bills.
Next time it might be easier just to eliminate the middle man and have Bongo and Sting and Sir Bob Geldof and Sir Elton John and Sir Paul McCartney hold an all-star fundraising gala for the Indonesian Customs Inspectors’ Retirement Fund.
I confess I’ve been antipathetic to the NGOs ever since one of them — in the usual gleaming white Suburban — almost ran me off the road between Rutba and Ramadi in the Sunni Triangle.
The Western do-gooders are an arrogant lot and, if Iraq is anything to go by, deeply resented by the locals. And, to be honest, I long ago got sick of their predictions of disasters that never happened: “The head of the World Food Program has warned that Iraq could spiral into a massive humanitarian disaster”; “The U.N. Children’s Fund has estimated that as many as 100,000 Afghan children could die of cold, disease and hunger,” etc.
It’s one thing to invent humanitarian disasters to disparage President Bush’s unilateralist warmongering. But after the tsunami the U.N. was reduced to inventing a humanitarian disaster to distract attention from the existing humanitarian disaster it wasn’t doing anything about.
So its agencies issued hysterical warnings about post-tsunami health effects — dysentery, cholera, BSE from water-logged cattle, etc. — that, they assured us, would kill as many people as the original disaster. How much difference would it have made if the professional humanitarian bureaucracy had gone to the Riviera for the month after the tsunami? The NGOs skedaddled out of Iraq after the U.N. headquarters was bombed in summer 2003 — and it made absolutely no difference.
How come no one is interested in what happened to those billions of dollars? Within 24 hours of Hurricane Katrina making landfall, the media demanded investigations into what, by historical standards, was a better-than-average federal performance. With the tsunami, who cares? The glow of moral virtue in chipping in your donation is so bright the fact that it accomplishes nothing is unimportant.
As if to confirm that, Time magazine, in yet another milestone on its accelerating plummet into irrelevance, nominated as its Persons of the Year Bongo, Bill Gates and Bill Gates’ missus — three do-gooders who believe the solution to the problems of the developing world require more Western money.
No, the solution is more accountability for the money they’ve already had, and the tsunami would be a good place to start.
Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.
© Mark Steyn, 2005