A couple of days later I read that Oxfam had paid the best part of a million bucks to Sri Lankan customs officials for the privilege of having 25 four-wheel-drive vehicles allowed into the country to get aid out to remote villages on washed-out roads hit by the Boxing Day tsunami. The Indian-made Mahindras stood idle on the dock in Colombo for a month as Oxfam’s representatives were buried under a tsunami of paperwork. Aside from the ‘tax’, they were charged £2,750 ‘demurrage’ for every day the vehicles sat in port.
This was merely the latest instalment in what’s becoming a vast ongoing Tsunami Tshakedown Of The Day retrospective — you can usually find it at the foot of page 37 in your daily paper, if at all. Fourteen Unicef ambulances sent to Indonesia spent two months sitting on the dock of the bay wasting time, as the late Otis Redding so shrewdly anticipated. Eight 20ft containers of Diageo drinking water shipped via the Red Cross arrived at the Indonesian port of Medan in January and are still there, because the Indonesian Red Cross lost the paperwork. Five hundred containers, representing one quarter of all aid sent to Sri Lanka since the tsunami hit on 26 December, are still sitting in port in Colombo, unclaimed or unprocessed. At Medan 1,500 containers of aid are still sitting on the dock.
The tsunami may have been unprecedented, but what followed was business as usual — the sloth and corruption of government, the feebleness of the brand-name NGOs, the compassion-exhibitionism of the transnational jet set. If we lived in a world where ‘it’s what you do that defines you’, we’d be heaping praise on the US and Australian militaries who in the immediate hours after the tsunami struck dispatched their forces to save lives, distribute food, restore water and power and communications.
Instead, a fellow Quebecker of my acquaintance sneered, ‘Can you believe those Americans? A humanitarian disaster strikes and they send an aircraft carrier!’ Er, well, yes. Because for large-scale humanitarian operations it helps to have a big boat handy. It seemed unlikely to me that even your average European politician would utter anything so fatuous in public, but Clare Short came close. The sight of Washington co-ordinating its disaster relief efforts with Australia, India and Japan outside the approved transnational structures was too much for her. ‘This initiative from America to set up four countries claiming to co-ordinate sounds like yet another attempt to undermine the UN,’ she told the BBC. ‘Only really the UN can do that job. It is the only body that has the moral authority.’
Whether or not it has ‘moral’ authority, the UN certainly can’t do the job. It becomes clearer every week that Western telly viewers threw far more money at tsunami relief than was required and that much of it has been siphoned off by wily customs inspectors and their ilk. If you really wanted to make an effective donation to a humanitarian organisation, you’d send your cheque to the Pentagon or the Royal Australian Navy.
But that would be in a world where we’re defined by ‘what we do’. Instead, on tsunami aid, what matters is what we feel inside, and when it comes to showing what we feel inside on the outside we can only do it through the proper channels — by sending a donation to the Indonesian Customs Inspectors’ Retirement Fund, or by demanding our government double/triple/quadruple/whatever its contribution to the ‘relief effort’, which means a man in a UN office in New York, who’ll hold a press conference announcing they’re sending someone to the region to conduct an ‘assessment’ of the ‘situation’, just as soon as the USAF emergency team have flown in and restored room service to the five-star hotel. The tsunami farrago would be a scandal but, like Western aid piling up on the docks in Indonesia, right now we’ve got more UN scandals than we need — Oil-for-Food, Darfur, child prostitution rings at UN peacekeeping missions.
The passionate hostility of Miss Short and co to action — to getting things done — is remarkable, but understandable. Getting things done requires ships and transport planes and the like, and most Western countries lack the will to maintain armed forces capable of long-range projection. So, when disaster strikes, they can mail a cheque and hold a press conference and form a post-modern ‘Task Force’ which doesn’t have any forces and doesn’t perform any tasks. In extreme circumstances, they can stage an all-star pop concert. And, because this is all most of the Western world is now capable of, ‘taking action’ means little more than taking the approved forms of inaction.
There's much more, and it's most excellent.