When a natural disaster as great as the tsunami that killed 300,000 people and orphaned more than 50,000 children in Southeast Asia occurs, one never knows how to react. Some UR students have risen to the occasion and have begun a fundraising effort that expects to draw in $10,000 by the end of the semester. This campaign, and the countless other tsunami relief fundraising throughout the world, are a testament to human compassion. However, as I was walking past the table advertising the Tsunami Relief Chili Dinner, I asked myself, “Why do people care this time? What is it about the tsunami that has motivated human beings throughout the world to care about other human beings halfway across the globe?”
In 1994, almost one million Rwandans were murdered in a 90-day span. Almost all of the victims and perpetrators of the genocide were civilians. Not only did the Western world fail to acknowledge the genocide, the U.S. government actually lobbied for complete United Nations withdrawal from Rwanda while the killing was taking place. While this disaster was man-made, rather than seismic-induced, surely it deserved a relief effort.
Over the past year, more than 70,000 Sudanese have been murdered in what the U.N. has labeled “war crimes” but not genocide.
While the U.S. government has used the word “genocide,” they have chosen not to intervene in the atrocities and Americans and most U.S. media outlets have given little attention to the events in Sudan. Once again, this is a man-made disaster on a different continent, a fact that many Americans feel absolves them of any responsibility to act.
Perhaps the issue of poverty may compel you to care. Approximately 790 million human beings in developing countries are chronically undernourished. Nearly 3 billion people live on less than $2 a day. In 2000, approximately 1.7 million children died as a result of living in poverty. Many academics in the fields of political science, history, anthropology and economics, including Joseph Steiglitz, Paul Farmer and Howard Zinn, conclude that the poverty in the developing world is directly related to colonialism, unregulated global trade, and structural readjustment programs of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Still, most Americans remain unmoved by global poverty.
One conclusion that I have considered is that people are more easily compelled to help with relief efforts for natural disasters because they are unexplainable. The aforementioned examples have complex histories that involve western capitalist nations. Who wants to be reminded that their country may have played a part – or in the case of Rwanda and Sudan, didn’t – in social disasters. Maybe it is the sheer magnitude of the tsunami that has motivated people to act. After all, CNN called it “the worst natural disaster in living memory.” Still, I disagree with CNN. The tsunami should be called the most media-covered natural disaster in living memory.
Between 1981 and 2003, over 20 million people died of AIDS. In 2004, 3.1 million people died of AIDS. By the end of 2003, the AIDS pandemic had left 12 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa alone. Not only has AIDS destroyed millions of lives, but also it has handicapped the developing world socially and financially. It is well known that AIDS has hit sub-Saharan Africa hardest. But most Americans still don’t act.
If you are still reading my article at this point, you probably want me to stop bitching and explain why the tsunami has evoked greater relief efforts than any other disaster in living memory. Well, I do not think that there is one definitive answer, but rather, a few contributing factors. First of all, our free and independent media isn’t so free and independent. Like any other corporation, they are driven by profits and not informing the public. They sensationalize events and use catchy graphics to capture their audience. For example, Fox News’s headline bar included the words “Killer Wave” for over a week after the tsunami took place. I don’t mean to pick on Fox News – although they often make it easy – but I think the title “Killer Wave” would be more appropriate for a shitty LL Cool J movie rather than a news report. This is not to say that such coverage has been bad in this case, for it is apparent that the media frenzy over the tsunami has prompted relief efforts by corporations, citizens, and our government.
Secondly, tsunami relief is something we can all do. International aid agencies are asking for monetary donations, something we can all do.
Social disasters oftentimes call for military intervention, a step that most countries want to avoid. AIDS relief would require cheap medications and health education. Unfortunately, pharmaceutical companies have a significant amount of influence over both Democrats and Republicans.
Also, AIDS education requires that people have access to condoms, a step that would go against President George W. Bush’s abstinence-only policy.
My third argument is the most debatable of the three but I will try to make it nonetheless. The U. S. government will only respond to a disaster in another country, whether social or natural, when they stand to benefit or when the people who are suffering are white and/or Christian. After a four year period in which U.S. policy has kindled the flame of Islamic fundamentalism throughout the world, the U.S. stands to benefit by sending troops and money to Indonesia, the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. This last argument is not absolute. However, visit the Project for the New American Century Web site and patterns in foreign policy will begin to emerge before your eyes.
Let me make clear that I have the utmost respect for the students involved in tsunami relief. This article was in no way meant to discredit their work. Rather, it was meant to open up everybody’s eyes to the broken world we live in. As we pour money into tsunami relief, 30,000 people are being killed every month in the Democratic Republic of Congo. For every hour we spend watching news coverage of the tsunami, we remain inactive in the fight against global poverty. While most people can retell an incredible story of how one person survived the wave, very few can tell you the dilapidated state of public schools in Rochester. I am not asking anybody to save the world. I am just asking you to open your eyes.
Ladon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.