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Tsunami Response…”Above Politics”?

January 2005

I am transitioning out of my role as Executive Director of Grassroots International, but won’t do so without one parting entry in this Grassroots Journal.

Moving out of this role after six years was bound to be a challenge, but leaving three days after the “big waves” swept through South and Southeast Asia has been particularly difficult. I am, therefore, very happy that my compañero(a)s at Grassroots have seen fit to respond to the tsunami disaster in a way that is very consistent with the organization’s overall mission of supporting the ability of local organizations and social movements to change the lives of their people. Grassroots won’t be flying in water purification equipment or food aid, but it will be providing modest resources to key farmer organizations trying to pull themselves and their fellow survivors out of the mud…and to construct something new in the aftermath of this terrible disaster. I hope you’ll see fit to support GRI in that effort. [The campaign is now closed.]

As the scale of the tsunami disaster began to be known, the international response was quite dramatic. The fact that this was a “pure” a natural disaster that seemed almost “above politics” distinguished it from other present and looming disasters and probably influenced public response. Very quickly, however, global and local political dynamics began to condition the international response. The U.S. included a large military component in its response, very clearly trying to rehabilitate its image in the eyes of global public opinion. While the longstanding conflicts in Sri Lanka and Aceh seemed to be put aside in the first few days after the disaster, those conflicts have re-emerged as local governments have immediately taken steps that may restrict humanitarian access to civilian populations in areas where local insurgents have popular influence and support.

Against this backdrop, there have been repeated references to the “Anarchy of Altruism,” or the lack of coordination of a decentralized and chaotic aid response. Having been in the midst of such anarchy on a couple of occasions, I certainly understand its limitations. I also understand the limitations of a response controlled by a local government like that in Indonesia, which will always design its strategy around a very specific set of political objectives (counterinsurgency, in this case). Ideally, the UN would provide such coordination, but its capacity to undertake such coordination is severely limited and it, too, must be deferential to local government sensitivities (note Kofi Anan’s decision not to visit areas under the control of the Tamil Tigers during his recent visit to Sri Lanka). In this context, there exists a productive tension between UN and local government coordination and a certain amount of creative chaos.

As always, a response on this scale takes place in a geopolitical context that should not slip from view. In this regard, I point you to three efforts to introduce that context into the debate about this humanitarian response:

– U.S. writer Mark Engler introduces the issue of debt cancellation for the countries most affected by the tsunami disaster
-Refugees International asks us to remind the Bush administration that U.S. response to the Asian tsunami should not become the pretext for a withdrawal from or failure to provide funds for other humanitarian missions
-writing in The New Statesman, John Pilger draws our attention to “The Other Tsunami” (subscription required) that, while no less destructive that the one that just occurred in Asia, gets much less attention.

Almost exactly one year ago, GRI inaugurated the Grassroots Journal in response to the worsening crisis in Haiti. Since that time, it has become a vehicle for thousands of people to access information about GRI’s programs and the context in which they place. I thank you for your interest in this unique journal and hope that you will continue to use it to make a difference in the world.

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