Hurricane Stan, Darfur, Niger and the Forgotten Victims of Disaster

Hurricane Wilma hits Yucatan at 1:15 ET Friday October 21

Relief workers in Guatemala rescue victims of mudslides caused by Hurricane Stan

In this, the year when Time’s Person of the Year absolutely must be Mother Nature, we have seen astonishing outpourings of support to the victims of the Pacific Tsunami and (except for the US government) to the victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Belatedly, again due to national government incompetence, we can expect significant aid to get through in the end to the victims of the Kashmir earthquake. We can expect the same for Hurricane Wilma.

But in the meantime, this year has produced a lot of natural and man-made disasters for which the victims have been largely left to their own resources. Whole villages in Guatemala were buried in mud and have simply been abandoned because of Hurricane Stan. Even if rescue efforts could be fruitful at this late date, the ground is so impassible that relief workers are prohibited from entering some areas. The official death toll is around 800, probably significantly higher than the toll from Katrina, but there has been almost no coverage of this horrific disaster, and it is likely that actual human losses, including those in the buried villages, actually number in the thousands. The bulk of foreign aid for this disaster has come (!) from Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands. 

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, the genocide in Darfur continues unabated, with lots of hand-wringing from countries whose media have covered the event, but precious little action. The Janjaweed warlord militias in Darfur have been so emboldened by the impotence of the world to stop their atrocities that they are now attacking the troops of the corrupt and racist Sudanese government that put them in power in the first place (sound familiar)?

The situation in Niger (the second poorest country in the world, where Saddam was purportedly trying to get uranium) is even worse, and the famine that has ruined that country has received almost no relief (Sweden again tops the list). Today 2.5 million people are on the brink of starvation. The drought and locust infestation, the worst in 15 years, has wiped out the crops on the already exhausted soils of this quickly desertifying nation (only 15% of the country remains arable, and that percentage is dropping each year). Malaria is endemic.

In East Africa, sub-Saharan West Africa, and several Central American and Caribbean countries, the situation is not much better. Many countries are being ravaged by HIV/AIDS, suffer thousands of deaths needlessly from preventable diseases for which they cannot afford the medicines, or are being torn apart by civil wars and insurrections, some of them decades old.

Why is it that we (a) cover some disasters in the media and not others, and (b) send aid to help with some disasters and not others?

I would suggest that there are a number of factors that lead to this decision. Most of them are unfair:

  • Novelty: The media cover new diseases (SARS) and completely ignore old ones that cause far more deaths (regular influenza). We generally only fear, and care to remedy, the diseases we hear about in the media.
  • Proximity: Generally the closer a disaster to us, the more we care about it. But in the global village, proximity is psychological more than physical. The London bombings were psychologically closer to us than the Guatemala mudslides. We can get to London in 6 hours, but most of us don’t even know where Guatemala is.
  • Visibility: A disease or disaster that kills spectacularly, visually, invokes more concern that kills more stealthily, invisibly, one person at a time, even if the total toll of the stealthy killer is greater.
  • Cultural Connection: We can relate to and therefore care more about people when our neighbours were once their neighbours. That explains in part why events in the Mideast are of concern to North Americans, and, more recently, why North Americans as a whole care about the earthquake deaths in Kashmir, but not about the deaths in Darfur or Niger.
  • Deemed Preventability: There is an overwhelming Western presumption and prejudice that famines and wars are preventable if the people would only modernize (i.e. Westernize) their economic and political systems. In other words, these disasters are “their own fault”. There is also a vicious cycle prejudice that says there is no point sending relief to people in countries with high birth rates, because “by keeping them alive we’re just encouraging and enabling them to have more babies, which will in turn cause more famine and war”. So “why bother”?
  • Economic Interest: If the victims of a disaster (natural or man-made) are major trading partners or have scarce resources, we’re obviously willing to invest more to protect that interest.

Score each of the disasters mentioned above by these six criteria and you have a pretty accurate predictive model. Except for the novelty criterion, we can’t really blame the media. They generally respond to rather than drive public opinion in these matters. South Asian immigrants make up a substantial percentage of new Canadians, and were that not the case, the Canadian media would not have given nearly as much coverage to the Kashmir earthquake as they did. That coverage in turn embarrassed the Canadian government, and the Canadian banks and major charities, into providing and campaigning for a lot more disaster relief for the earthquake than would have happened if the identical earthquake had happened, say, in Central Asia or Africa or even mainland China. And a lot more than would have been the case a generation ago before that South Asian immigration grew into a torrent.

This is why I don’t believe that governments should shrug off to individual taxpayers their responsibility to do their fair share to invest to prevent and relieve such disasters. Governments (aside from the bias of economic interest) are in a better position to objectively assess the relative need for aid and investment of the over 100 countries that suffered some kind of natural or man-made disaster in the last year, than we, with our individual prejudices, are. Many “not my bother’s keeper”-spouting individuals, in fact, don’t believe we have any responsibility to help the victims of disasters elsewhere, even elsewhere in their own country. That’s why so many Americans were actually embarrassed at the amount of relief promised and given to the victims of Katrina by governments of other nations — if the shoe were on the other foot (if you’ll pardon the mangled metaphor) they wouldn’t lift a finger.

I think governments that rely on their citizens to act to help those unfortunate through no fault of their own, and waffle and hedge and procrastinate (or put political conditions on their aid!) are a disgrace to humanity. The fact that some in such callous, skinflint governments claim to be deeply religious is more galling.

Maybe I should consider moving to Sweden.

[Just as an interesting aside, the CBC’s research on the Hurricane Stan death toll indicated that the areas that had a local, community-based emergency plan fared much, much better than those that foolishly left it up to “higher authorities”. El Salvador in particular has inexpensive local warning and evacuation processes, which is probably why its death toll from Stan was so low. One more indication that, in government, business and just about everything else, small is beautiful, and big is clumsy and arrogant.]

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3 Responses to Hurricane Stan, Darfur, Niger and the Forgotten Victims of Disaster

  1. Sven Cahling says:

    Just outside Stockholm, 600 000 CAD: couple of hours north, 100 000 CAD:

  2. Evan Lyn says:

    Dear Dave – Your above analysis of media coverage of disasters is pretty insightful. Dividing the reasons into Proximity, Novelty, Economic Interest, etc. makes it very clear. I am impressed by the work, energy, and passion you have put into this blog – especially since your purpose is to help save the world. I think you’re doing a great job with your site. It’s quite inspiring.When I first came across your blog a couple weeks ago, I was glad to discover that there were other individuals whose purpose was to save the world. (I know they are out there, but I am having difficulty finding them.) Some people think saving the world is an admirable, noble goal, but I believe it’s the most rational thing to do. My own personal take is in my essay the heart of justice and also changing the world = changing the self. I come from a philosophical/”spiritual” perspective. I’d be very interested in your reaction. By the way, congratulations on your daughter’s wedding!Best of luck on your endeavors, as well as with your upcoming book.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Heh…thanks Sven, I’ll certainly keep it in mind. I notice they both have ‘guest-houses’ on the property. For in-laws?Evan: Thank you for the link to your very thoughtful essays.

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