Western response to the tsunami catastrophe - the magnificent generosity of everyday folks, the widespread sense that we are all creatures of the same planet and need to care for one another - has left me both heart-warmed and mind-saddened.
Part of me wants to form an anti-defamation league on behalf of nature, which the media is referring to as if it were a terrorist instead of a beneficent force. Part of me wonders when the white man's burden will cease to define how Western humanitarians think about aid to the colonized South.
The massive wave that destroyed so many lives has also brought in its wake new scrutiny of the West's falling foreign aid budgets. For example, Canada's has dived from .45 per cent of our GNP in 1992 to .26 per cent in 2003. But the call for a jump in aid (not to be confused with relief) generated by this disaster makes me very nervous. It doesn't often make it into the sound bites these days, but people in the colonized South don't need aid. They need rights and fair trade and freedom from the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Mulling over these mixed feelings, I meet with Meyer Brownstone, the octogenarian dean of global anti-hunger and development policy, former chair of Oxfam Canada and Oxfam International, and recipient of Canada's Pearson Prize for his lifetime efforts on behalf of peace and development.
He's calling for a rethink of what's behind the tragedy and what needs to be done to move on wisely.
For Brownstone, the much-touted "inevitable" waves of economic progress are as much to blame for the results of the tsunami as the original earthquake.
Like other supposedly "natural" disasters that seem to plague the Third World - mudslides after torrential rains in Central America or drought and desertification in Africa - there's a human-made element, he says.
Brownstone managed a project in badly hit Sulawesi Island off the coast of Indonesia during the 1990s, when coastal mangrove forests still served as a windbreak that protected coral reefs, thereby doubly cushioning the force of battering storm waves. Those mangrove forests, habitat over millennia for fishing beds that supported small coastal villages, have since all been dynamited and bulldozed to make way for shrimp farms built by Japanese investors.
The world's addiction to cheap shrimp "destroyed nature's protective barrier," Brownstone says. Environmentalists warned against this for at least a decade, and some staff at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization referred to the shrimp industry as a "rape-and-run job." But the World Bank funded it, leading Indian food analyst Devinder Sharma reports.
The same story of destruction by factory shrimp farmers was repeated in most areas hammered by the unbroken force of the tsunami. Thailand lost half its mangroves over the last quarter-century, reports University of Wyoming professor Edward Barbier, a leading writer on economics and resource development. First, the poor lost the traditional fishing grounds that were their livelihood. Then they lost their lives, he says.
Imperialism is a beach, and around Tamil Nadu on India's coast, where many lives were lost, hotel and casino operators ignored environmentalists' warnings and destroyed protective shoreline cover. "When the dead have been cremated or buried," writes Indian peace activist J. Sri Raman, "it will be time to tell the people that environmentalism is not elitism."
The land use planning axiom in most of the Third World, where the poor are forced to live on the beach, plays to the tune of "to them that hath shall be given, and from them that hath not, lo, even that shall be taken away."
The process is laid out in gruesome detail in the just-released report from the University of Manchester, The Chronic Poverty Report, 2004-05. As many as 420 million people around the world - and as many as 190 million people in the area hit by the tsunami - live in chronic poverty and in what the study calls "spatial traps.'
These are worthless lands along river banks and flood plains, on tiny islands, beside deserts or up steep mountain slopes - precisely the areas most vulnerable to and least protected from hurricanes, floods, heat waves and earthquakes. Their lives are tsunamis waiting to happen.
The chronically poor - many of them forced into cities by the economic tsunami of massively subsidized First World farm products crashing onto the shores of the unsubsidized Third World after the free trade deals of the 1990s - may be half the world's urban population by 2020. The fact that those still in the countryside are forced to live in exposed and dangerous places is also a development crisis, since they've been pushed off their traditional lands to make way for cattle, miners and loggers.
What guidelines for donors does Brownstone suggest? "Tied aid," the in-kind donation of manufactured and farm goods from the donor country - the norm in Canada and the U.S. - is a no-no, he says. (The feds are considering dropping the requirement that most of our food aid come from Canuck farms. It's a reg that infuriates relief groups here that don't want to squander donations on huge freight costs for shipping food to Asia.)
And "military humanitarianism," such as the expensive transport of Canada's DART, is "nonsense" and "late-entry symbolism," he says. The military has expertise in pacification, not development, and spends money on travel that should go to credible and frugal NGOs already on the ground.
Once the need for emergency aid has passed, I can't help thinking the industrial North can best help by staying out of the way. The notion of restoring foreign aid to 1990 levels, or back to levels associated with the Marshall Plan after the second world war, is simply wrong-headed.
What's the use of handing over aid to governments that are basket cases? Individuals need democratic rights and support for civil society so that their leaders can no longer degrade aid by turning it into a process whereby "the poor in the rich counties give to the rich of the poor countries."
Governments in the colonized South, as elsewhere, need to regain the economic sovereignty taken away by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and World Trade Organization. They need to be able to shape their own tariff policies and stop the European and American food invasion (Canada is better in this regard), a consequence of the lack of trade barriers.
Poor nations need to be encouraged to stop importing heavily subsidized food for their middle classes. (Europeans subsidize cows to the tune of $2 a day - greater than the average $1 a day many Third World people live on.)
If people want to help in a personal way, once the immediate relief needs are met, they should stop eating imported shrimp and beef. And donate to groups such as Via Campesina that are dedicated to self-reliance for farmers and fisherfolk. Their concept of disaster relief contrasts with top-down government inefficiency by encouraging the growth of grassroots civil society, enabling marginalized people to start taking control of their lives.
And if we want our government to do something, then we should insist that money slated for George Bush's missiles-in-space go to satellite warning systems for future ecological upsets.