In the wake of the tsunami disaster: Millions donated but where are they going?

A lot of money was spontaneously donated by millions of people to help the victims of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean. The governments were then embarrassed into promising further millions. But will this money reach its destination? And will the governments come up with the promised funds? Originally written in Dutch and for a Belgian public, this article by Erik Demeester gives some revealing statistics about what is really happening and unveils the hypocrisy of the mass media campaign.

Operation “Tsunami 12-12”, the media campaign that raised funds in Belgium for humanitarian aid, reached its peak on January 14. All Belgian radio and television channels were on standby from 6am onwards to cover the countries where the devastating tidal wave had caused the most damage at the end of December.

Nobody can deny that a great part of the world population was deeply moved as never before in the past by this immeasurable human catastrophe. Some of the footage reminded us of the old yellow pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the explosion of the atom bomb.

A macabre head count has revealed that at least 286,000 people perished within a few minutes time; even more have been wounded and millions of others have lost their friends, husbands, wives and children. The little infrastructure that there was has been swept away. In Aceh, in the north of Indonesia, 6,000 kilometres of roads were destroyed and 500 bridges need to be rebuilt.

Given this terrible death toll, it is no wonder that the tsunami was followed by an even greater wave of solidarity on the part of ordinary people around the world. Millions of people spontaneously donated money and other material aid to humanitarian organisations. This is a clear proof that people can engage in solidarity actions towards people on the other side of the planet, with another culture and skin colour.

Governments like the Bush administration were forced to increase their financial support, even to triple it, under the pressure of this huge wave of solidarity.

The political consequences of the tsunami

In fact, the established order was terrified of the global political consequences of this tsunami. That is why all the compassion and the spontaneous solidarity of ordinary people are being abused. The adage of governments and other institutions is to curb, to channel, to muffle, to deceive and particularly to keep the people apolitical. “The problems are of a humanitarian nature and have nothing to do with politics”, so they say. Hence the sudden eruption of organised charity. Emotions are being artificially maintained, even reinforced.

Let us be clear: we are not indifferent and cold blooded. Indeed our blood was boiling with indignation when we saw the terrible footage of this misery. Emotions and feelings are not alien to us. Feelings can play a very good role if they stimulate thinking. However, in the minds of the bosses the purpose of all these charitable efforts is to numb critical thinking and to talk us – yes, us, the common people – into a sense of guilt.

Natural disasters very often uncover the social structures that either have not been able to prevent the catastrophes, or have not been able to limit the consequences – or both. A natural disaster reveals clearly the relations between rich and poor and between certain wealthier countries and other less developed countries, but in particular they reveal the contradictions existing within these countries themselves. Let us call a spade a spade: the overwhelming majority of the victims of the tsunami were poor people. Not only because there simply are more poor people than rich people, but because the coastal areas were inhabited by poor fishermen and because the fragile houses could not resist the water, whereas big villas made of bricks and concrete did stand the waves.

The clear awareness of this inequality on the part of the population being hit can have revolutionary consequences. Once the basic needs have been seen to (if they ever will be), big protest movements can erupt, revolts and revolutionary explosions against the ruling classes, against the ruling oligarchies and the corrupt bureaucracies can take place. The beginnings of such protests could be seen in the last two years with the earthquakes in Algeria, Turkey and Iran. Last year we saw in Morocco that the police crushed the protest of people in the Rif region after the earthquake that had hit the area. They were on the streets to protest against the corruption of the bureaucracy, which was in league with local organised crime, and against the indifference of the government towards their terrible fate.

Sharpen the consciousness

Today with the help of the bourgeois media a smokescreen is being created. They erect a wall that prevents us from seeing the real social situation. We are being told that the support of the governments in Europe, the US, Canada, etc., has never been so big in history. On television shows companies come to show off their “generosity” and continuously repeat the name of their company, thus in effect making cheap commercials. Governments and company managers wish to give the impression that capitalism is really concerned about the fate of the common people. Their interests are being presented as being the same as ours. Let us remove this smokescreen!

Here is a health warning: the following statistics are meant to sharpen your mind. The consequences for your consciousness can be irreversible.

How many people are aware of the fact that the financial commitments of Bush and Blair to the victims of the tsunami are actually less than what they spend on just one bloody week in Iraq? This amount is less than the cost of one Stealth bomber of the American air force.

With the money that was spent on the party to celebrate the inauguration of Bush’s second presidency, the whole coast of Sri Lanka could have been rebuilt. Their “aid” equals one sixteenth of the amount of cash that Blair spent on bombs for the invasion of Iraq. It is one twentieth of the soft loan of £1billion that the British government granted the Indonesian army on condition they would buy the British made Hawk jets. With these Hawk jets the Indonesian army has been terrorising the population of Aceh for years, in a situation comparable to the Israeli war against the Palestinians.

The sums of money that the various governments make a lot of noise about are never actually handed over. It is estimated that one third of the promised money never gets transferred. Consider the international aid Afghanistan was allocated. Barely 3 percent was used for rebuilding the country. The military alliance took up 84 percent of the money, the rest going to urgent aid (figures taken from the article The other man-made Tsunami by John Pilger, January 6, 2005). After the earthquake in Iran in December 2003 $115 million were promised. For the moment Teheran has seen only $17 million. (Libération, January 5, 2005)

What passes for charity is in fact hypocritical capitalist self-interest. Australia for instance has promised $1 billion to Indonesia. Half of this is being spent on the Australian army delivering the humanitarian aid. The other $500 million are in the form of interest-free loans for reconstruction. Experience teaches us that 75 percent of these loans are to the benefit of Australian companies, which will profit from reconstruction contracts.

Cancel the debt

And things are getting worse. A great many of these so-called gifts to all kinds of humanitarian agencies, will in actual fact be used to pay back the foreign debts of these countries.

Eleven countries were hit by the tsunami: India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Somalia, the Maldives, Malaysia, Burma, Tanzania, Bangladesh and Kenya. In 2003 the overall foreign debt of these countries amounted to $406 billion. The nature of this debt is different from country to country. In some cases the creditors are the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, in others they are loans taken out on the international capital market. In the same year these same countries paid back $68 billion to their foreign creditors. In 2002 the amount was $60 billion, of which $38 billion by the governments themselves. Between 1980 and 2003, because of the huge levels of interest, these reimbursements amounted to eleven times their original debt. In that same time span their debt multiplied five times!

Compare all that to the total sum of approximately $6 billion promised by the international community in answer to this latest disaster. Each year the governments of these countries pay back more than six times this amount to the banks and Western governments. The Committee for the Abolition of the Third World Debt, which is the source of the figures given above, has explained that behind this public display of generosity on the part of governments and banks is hidden a subtle mechanism by which the wealth out of these populations is sucked out and into the pockets of the rich creditors. The money that the governments cannot or do not want to invest in emergency aid or reconstruction is being used to pay back the unjust debt. In other words, to a large degree our donations won’t finance the emergency aid and reconstruction, but the accounts of the big banks. Is this not a perverse mechanism?

That is why real solidarity with the victims of the tsunami demands the immediate and unconditional abolition of the foreign debt of the countries hit by the disaster.

No charity but political solidarity against capitalism

Despite (or thanks to?) the charity campaign Tsunami 12-12, there is now a growing doubt emerging among the Belgian population. A study made by Panel Wizzard that questioned 700 people shows that 45 percent do not feel confident that their donation will reach the right destination. They think most companies, organisations and politicians are seeking personal benefit out of this natural disaster. According to the same study half of the Belgian population is suffering from a certain “Tsunami 12-12” tiredness. (Metro, January 13, 2005)

The victims of the tsunami deserve more than charity. They deserve our solidarity and political support. The best support, however, remains the struggle for a structural change of society. We must end the capitalist made tsunamis of poverty, which kill 24,000 children on a daily basis. We must end the system where the rich banks, along with local governments, bleed dry the majority of the people in the Third World in a disgusting manner. It is a fact that most of the victims could have been avoided (see also The Tsunami Disaster – Horror Without End). However, under capitalism funding the safety of the majority is not a priority; lining the pockets of a powerful minority is.