The tidal wave that devastated the shores of southeast Asia was followed by a second wave of generosity from individuals who felt compelled to give, and from governments that followed. Those involved in social justice work in Halifax and across Canada are hoping that a third wave is yet to come; a wave that will sweep up traditional ideas of aid and charity and create a more radical framework for addressing global suffering and inequality.
Brian O’Neill has been working and volunteering for Oxfam for over 25 years and is currently program coordinator in Halifax. He’s worked eight extra days in the past three weeks in an attempt to keep up with the fundraising events in and around the HRM—such as a January 16 fundraiser in Grand Lake where 200 community members helped to raise over $6,000. O’Neill has no idea how much money has been donated for Tsunami victims (the Metro Centre concert alone raised over $105,000) but he knows he’s never seen anything quite like this. “I’ve been doing this kind of work for a long time, and I’m overwhelmed and moved by the number of communities coming together.”
“There’s been an obvious outpouring of support and compassion towards the victims of this disaster,” concurs Cole Webber, an organizer for the Halifax Coalition Against Poverty, who has witnessed a series of fundraisers at his high school, “But I do think it’s sort of backward that people think it’s time to lend a hand now, when in reality, it’s not the first time in the past 20 years that people have been suffering on this scale.”
Webber’s conflicted response resonates with David Morley, executive director of Medecins Sans Frontieres (also known as Doctors Without Borders or MSF). MSF provides emergency aid to victims of armed conflict, epidemics and natural and man-made disasters. Morley knows that millions die every year due to war, disease and famine, and normally has to struggle to get the public to take notice. “Last year we tried to do a campaign on Darfur in Sudan. We did a media campaign, advertising campaign and mail out campaign. We raised $350,000,” said Morley from his home in Toronto. “With the Tsunami, we raised $5 million in two weeks.”
“Humanitarianism is always selective,” explains Laura Suski, an assistant professor in Dalhousie’s department of Sociology and Anthropology. Suski defended her dissertation on the humanitarian impulse of international development in Dec-ember of 2003. She believes the barrage of heart-wrenching media images coupled by the presence of westerners on many of the beaches contributed to the overwhelming response in Canada, “For better or for worse, the presence of tourists broke the distance down, people were thinking, ‘it could have been me.’” Morley agrees, “We’ve all been on beaches. We can relate to that. But we can’t relate to dying of AIDS in a hut in Africa.”
In attempting to explain why 6,500 deaths a day due to AIDS in Africa has not captured the public’s imagination like the Tsunami, Morley adds, “I think for one, AIDS is chronic. It’s harder for people to see it. It’s not the same instantaneous image. I also think it’s a moral issue. Whether people want to admit it or not, we connect AIDS to sex, and sex is somehow bad. With the Tsunami, no one’s to blame, people were caught totally unaware.”
Whether or not the underlying reasons for such generosity in Canada are darker than we’d like to admit, the fact that people felt compelled to give at all is a sign of hope for Suski. “The possibility that someone can act for strangers, that in itself is a radical and promising moment.”
The trick, according to O’Neill, is to seize that moment, and turn the public’s eye to some of the broader issues underlying the crisis. “It’s a challenge for me doing the work that I do, to try to appropriately insert these broader issues of bad development, of unequal development, of political and economic haves and have-nots around the world. What’s happening in our response to the tsunami is it’s still a bit isolated in terms of just helping with this disaster,” he explains. “There are issues of long-term development that need to be dealt with. Also, there are issues in all kinds of areas in the south that need to be addressed which are quite critical and where a lot of people are dying—though not so visibly or in one foul sweep. We have HIV/AIDS, we have the issue of Darfur in the Sudan. But we also have—and this is the most difficult of all—issues of trade and countries being indebted, that cause a lot of very slow and behind-the-scenes misery and death.”
India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia alone paid about $20 billion in debt payments last year, money that could have been spent on education or health programs. G8 countries have recommended a one- year moratorium on debt payments for countries worst hit by the tsunami. But according to O’Neill, that does little to address the long-term burden of payments. Furthermore, the G8 recommendation does nothing for nations crippled by poverty but untouched by the tsunami.
Widespread poverty, says Webber, partly due to unfair trade deals and bad debts, is a root problem in areas where war, natural disasters and disease are killing millions. “In the here and now there are some basic steps that can be taken to alleviate some of the worst kinds of poverty: rich nations need to cancel the debts of poorer nations,” he says. “But I also think the systematic reasons of poverty can’t be addressed unless there’s a real serious change in how the global economy operates. It’s controlled by rich nations and multinational corporations. Economic power has been taken away at a local level.”
The problem of rich countries like Canada somehow being complicit in the suffering of millions, is part of the reason so much of the misery is ignored, believes Suski. “We’re aware of the necessity to respond while at the same time we know we’re somehow involved in the suffering. That creates a conflict.”
That conflict—our wealth relying on others’ lack of it—is nothing new according to Webber. “Years of colonialism and economic imperialism has led to a real collapse of how some countries traditionally created wealth. People have had their ways of providing for themselves and their community taken away from them,” he explains. “I think that’s the case in southeast Asia and Africa because these places have a long history of imperialism and colonialism.”
Despite the unprecedented amount of money raised for victims of the Tsunami in southeast Asia, Webber does not believe it’s an indication of a shifting worldview. “I see an outpouring of generosity towards Tsunami victims as strictly in the parameters of charity. Charity is an accepted form of helping people in our society. I think charity can only go so far. To address systematic problems it’s going to take more than charity, it’s going to take people working in solidarity with people to gain economic power on a local level.”
Morley, who declares himself an optimist, is more hopeful. “When we told people MSF was fully funded for the first stage of Tsunami relief and that we couldn’t guarantee their donations would go to Tsunami victims, people were still giving. There was some kind of shift that happened. The world became more local.”
Whether or not that shift in thinking will stick will depend on our willingness to confront some uncomfortable realities about the uneven distribution of wealth.“We need to deal with what it feels like to be a humanitarian,” says Suski. “There are good feelings and bad feelings. Guilt is not necessarily an unproductive emotion to figure out. Once we start thinking about why we feel bad, I think the structures will reveal themselves. What is encouraging is that people are reflecting on it. That in the end could make the response much more radical.”