Saturday, March 05, 2005

A Conference on the Tsunami at Columbia's SIPA

On Friday I went to a conference at Columbia on the seismic, social, and political impact of the Tsunami at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University. The schedule can be found here.

I missed the morning panel on the seismic impact of the Tsunami. However, I did come across this article at the Guardian, which discusses it.

Afshan Khan, of UNICEF, gave the keynote address, highlighting her organization's efforts to assist children affected by the Tsunami. She made the point that in many of the affected areas, there were severe problems in terms of security and quality of life even before the Tsunami. One example is the water supply, which was talked about as a concern after the Tsunami wave left salt in fresh water sources. In many places in Southeast Asia, there were severe problems in the water supply even before the Tsunami.

Another issue much talked about in the coverage of the Tsunami was the danger that recently-orphaned children might be abducted by child-traffickers. Khan argued that this isn't as big a problem as has been reported, largely because many of the children who lost parents are being looked after by extended family. Moreover, there were significant problems in the trafficking of children all throughout Southeast Asia before the Tsunami as well.

Vector-borne diseases. One of the morning speakers alluded to the relief that many aid workers have felt that the explosion in diseases like malaria, cholera, and Denge fever, which the WHO had predicted soon after the Tsunami hit, have not materialized. With malaria, the Tsunami actually helped to slow the disease, as mosquitoes can't breed in brackish water. (See this link at Tsunami Help)

Khan added that here, as with water and child protection, there are actually opportunities to "leverage up" the quality of living in the wake of the Tsunami. That is to say, the influx of aid money and the current attention on the above problems can be an opportunity to raise standards to a level above where they were before the tsunami. Khan gave examples on how this might work with regard to fighting vector-born diseases (she mentioned the increased use of bed-nets). But she didn't say much about how this "leverage up" strategy might work in terms of fighting child-trafficking in particular.

Another speaker whose presentation I found interesting was Anne Marie Murphy, of Seton Hall University (no home page, but she's quoted here). She talked about how the domestic political situation in Indonesia has affected their government's response. The Indonesians have set a three-month deadline for NGO aid workers, as well as groups such as the UNHCR, to leave Aceh. (See the Jakarta Post)

She also explained some of the particulars of the conflict between the Indonesian government and the rebels in Aceh province. The rebel fighters (the "Free Aceh Movement" or "GAM") started an insurgency in 1976. After Suharto's government fell in 1998, the GAM and the TNI had come close to signing a peace deal; a senior general had even gone to the province to apologize for earlier military-sponsored atrocities in the region. In the Indonesian media, there was quite a bit of sympathy for the Acehnese. But the progress of that peace was derailed by the events in East Timor in 1999. Following the failure of the referendum-strategy, the government was reluctant to make any compromises with a separatist movement that might lead to any further secessions. In 2003, the fragile peace collapsed, and the government again declared martial law. Things were as bad as ever when the Tsunami hit in December, but the two sides signed a provisional truce in the wake of the disaster. (The truce is now in danger of falling apart again, as this report shows.)

Corruption in the Indonesian military. According to Murphy, there are some elements in the Indonesian military that would like to see the conflict continue. According to her information, only 30% of the military's budget comes from the state. The rest comes from "military businesses" and illict activities like smugggling. The generals have a free hand in "military operations areas" like Aceh, and therefore they have an interest in keeping the conflict going. Indonesia is one of the most corrupt (or to put it in a more friendly way, "least official") economies in the world, and this is going to be a huge problem for brokering a more stable social and political environment in Aceh, irrespective of the progress of Tsunami relief and rehabilitation.

On the same panel, I was interested in what Sreenath Sreenivasan had to say about the Indian government's hesitation about receiving aid at a time when it wants to establish itself as a regional power. Sreenivasan pointed out that the Indian military played a major role in providing assistance in the immediate aftermath of the Tsunami. An Indian navy hospital was in Sri Lanka within a few hours of the Tsunami, delivering medicines. In contrast, the U.S.S. Duluth didn't arrive in Sri Lanka until January 10. When the U.S. Navy came, however, they made sure the cameras were rolling... Perhaps India has to do more PR internationally to ensure that its good works are noted by the international media.

Sreenivasan lamented that the "self-sufficiency" of South Asia as a region isn't widely recognized. He alluded to this article in the Globalist, by Ashutosh Sheshablaya, on the "Great Indian Absence" from the relief story.

Finally, Sreenivasan pointed out that in international disasters, there is often a gap between the amount of money that is donated, and the amount of money that can actually be spent, due to human and organizational limitations. After the devastating Hurricane in 1998 ("Hurrican Mitch"), US $1 billion was pledged, but only $200 million spent. After the earthquake in Iran in 2003, again, $1 billion was pledged, but this time only $20 million spent! An unprecedented $4 billion has been pledged for the Tsunami relief effort. It is an open question whether it will be humanly possible for all that money to be used quickly.

As a side note, Sreenivasan mentioned that he had recently met with the Sri Lankan parents of "Baby 81". The parents of the baby and the baby himself (Abhilash) were recently brought to the U.S. by the Good Morning America TV show as a "symbol of hope." Sreenivasan's wife had served as a translator, and he was able to talk with the parents and get their side of the story. Apparently, the father, who lost his barbershop business in Sri Lanka, had borrowed a lot of money to rebuild his shop. He had accepted the American offer to visit the U.S. partly because he wanted to try and raise money to pay back the debt. The amount he owes: $600.

And just a few small comments on the media panel. The question the panel was asking -- did the mainstream media do a good job covering the Tsunami? -- seems to me to be somewhat unanswerable, at least as long as the role of the media in covering disasters remains a little unclear. Should the media be merely reporting events dispassionately, or should it use the dissemination of information to raise awareness with an explicitly moral, humanitarian aim? The other unanswerable question is whether readers should dictate the shape and scope of the news, or whether that responsibility lies with editors and journalists. The journalists on the panel argued that the limitations in the western media's coverage of the Tsunami (one thinks of the inordinate coverage of the supermodel who was stuck in a tree in Phuket) are a function of the audience.

Suleman Din, one of the panelists, is a journalist for the Newark Star-Ledger, who normally covers the "desi NJ" beat. But after the Tsunami he was sent to Sri Lanka, where he filed a series of groundbreaking reports. The Star-Ledger's archives require payment, but I came across a couple of his Tsunami pieces here, and here.


Ms. World said...

Thanks so much for the report on the conference! You have the makings of a good reporter ;) I especially appreciate the links to articles by Sulemin Din, whose wife is one of my closest friends! Amardeep, you rock!

8:50 AM  
Anand said...

I had heard of the press conference, but unfortunately could not make it. Our group attended something very interesting on Tsunami, organized by Vikas Khanna, a young restaurateur in Manhattan. This was to discuss his project called "Beyond Tsunami" For setting up/upgrading of “Village Information Centres” (VICs) for receiving/disseminating Tsunami Early Warnings ; training in Community preparedness for multi-hazard (including tsunami) risks in the coastal Indian States through integrated engagement of the Government, Civil society and the Community” --to be presented to the National Institute for Disaster Management (NIDM), New Delhi and the Disaster Management Cell of the Anna Institute of Management (AIM), Chennai.

Vikas Khanna has been working constantly for Tsunami Relief. This is what I admire about him - He says lets make it happen.

11:44 PM  

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