Politics creeps back into tsunami aid

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Although the world’s response to the Asian tsunami was, as one experienced aid worker put it, “magnificent”, the threat of politics as usual is beginning to creep back. As the provision of immediate aid gives way to long-term reconstruction, a lot of the old problems which follow disasters are resurfacing.

In a sense, getting help to the victims quickly was the easy bit. It required effort but the unprecedented catastrophe was met by unprecedented generosity.

The calamity even brought the sight of old rivals and former US presidents George Bush senior and Bill Clinton travelling together as American envoys. Their presence demonstrated how President George Bush junior felt that a heightened American response was needed.

But again, their visit was not that hard to carry out.

The business of rebuilding is always far harder and is likely to prove so in this case as well.

The scale of the disaster led to a large-scale response – but the challenges are correspondingly huge.

Shortfall

For a start, the amount of aid on offer is not necessarily going to be enough. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has reported a difference between the $7.7 billion it estimates that India, Indonesia, the Maldives and Sri Lanka need and the commitments received of $3.54 billion.

Such a shortfall is not unusual after disasters.

But the mismatch reported by the ADB shows that familiar phenomena are at work here.

Estimates can often be on the high side as governments and aid organisations go for the maximum they can.

Donors are more cautious and experience has shown that not all the money on offer can always be spent. There are various reasons for this. The capacity of a country to absorb the aid might be limited; conditions are set by donor countries that slow or prevent work; donor frustration emerges after a time when governments even switch the funds to meet other needs.

Political effects

Natural disasters can often shake up governments. In this case, an opposite trend might be evident. The Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra did so well in organising aid that he got re-elected in a landslide.

Neither the Sri Lankan nor the Indonesian governments – nor the insurgent movements they are facing in some of the hardest hit areas – have shown many signs of wanting to seize the moment and reach political settlements.

Indeed, particularly in Sri Lanka, the government and the rebels have had trouble in coming together to agree on the distribution of aid and each side is vying for prestige and influence.

Again, politics as usual is intervening.

EU failure

Another indication of that has been the failure of the European Union to agree on a proposal which would have the effect of lowering tariffs for textile imports from some of the countries badly affected, especially Sri Lanka.

Such systemic reforms have a much greater effect on prosperity than transitory aid.

However, a proposal from the European Commission has been blocked by Italy and France. They feel that the overall plan would open the EU’s doors to too many cheap imports from the Far East generally.

The EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson remarked to the European Parliament: “I regret that, in some cases, member states said explicitly that Europe should put domestic interests above all else.”

There was better news over the freezing of debt payments. But even here, the debt was not written off and Thailand, for one, refused to accept the deal on the grounds that its future credit rating might be lowered and further loans made more expensive.

India seeks help

Another, perhaps more unexpected, return of normality has been the decision by the government of India to seek foreign aid after all.