Aid makes us feel good, but how about real commitment?

Daniel Flitton

Ignoring suffering is impossible, so is thinking there is a quick fix.

BORDERS between countries are often inconvenient — ask any tourist trying to negotiate minefields associated with passports and visas. But for some people, closed borders are literally matters of life and death. After the ravaging impact of cyclone Nargis in Burma last week, the world is again confronted with a dilemma. Just how much respect does a political line on the map actually deserve?

The argument is about responsibility, or rather, its limits. When massive numbers of people suffer in another country, beyond the boundary of our control, does the world community have a moral obligation to act in response to tragedy? And what happens if local authorities resist outside help?

Knowing the dismal record of Burma’s military rulers, a chorus of capitals across the globe — from Washington to Paris and Canberra — has pleaded with the regime to throw open the borders to foreign assistance.

The signs are far from encouraging. Barely a trickle of aid has made it through and some food shipments have been hijacked by the regime for the generals to put a personal stamp on aid distribution.

The junta is famously paranoid. Over the coming months, it’s safe to expect those aid groups able to negotiate a role in the recovery effort will complain that their work is being hampered by official interference. The regime may even abruptly demand the outsiders leave, especially if any private Western organisation is seen to be doing its government’s bidding.

Such a move would hardly be without precedent. The principle of a country’s sovereign independence is still fiercely guarded in many areas where the memory of colonial rule is barely a generation past. Soon after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Indonesia’s leaders demanded all foreign military forces leave Aceh inside three months. India stubbornly refused any international assistance at all.

Yet in Burma, the need for dramatic action seems clear. An accurate count may never be settled, but speculation puts

the death toll at 100,000 or more, with another 2 million forced from their homes. Most reports agree the destruction and loss of life amounts to a humanitarian catastrophe. Disease could spread in the aftermath, and there are reports of looting amid the chaos.

So should international military intervention be on the table? This issue is complicated. The conundrum it creates is the reason there has so far been a lukewarm response to suggestions the UN invoke the so-called “responsibility to protect” principle.

Stripped down to basics, this concept is an acknowledgement that while the globe may be divided into separate political territories, the right to protection from mass human suffering is universal. Of course, there are many caveats — responses are determined on “a case-by-case basis” and only “should peaceful means be inadequate” and when “national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations”.

The generals in Burma are not protecting the population, but the rest of the world needs to step carefully before assuming that responsibility entirely for itself. The need for action seems clear. How to achieve the best outcome is not.

The international community makes a lot of noise when faced with humanitarian disaster, but does not have a good record of long-term commitment to the aftermath. Too often we act out of instinct, rather than with purpose. A series of enormous and expensive military interventions into humanitarian crises during the 1990s left a number of countries no better and sometimes, sadly, worse than before.

Soldiers make poor aid workers, for starters. Delivering bread at the end of a bayonet may seem an easy solution — but the hungry person tends to focus on the gun and foreign forces are often as quickly resented as welcomed.

After disasters such as in Burma, we are confronted with two emotions — wanting to help, and feel better about ourselves for contributing. In the rush, it is too easily forgotten that locals, not outsiders, are best able to decide their priorities in the long term.

Borders are created around a territory because there are limits to what can be responsibly governed. If the world accepts responsibility for Burma’s people, it must be done knowing and willing to accept the long-term costs this entails. There are limits to our capacity for charity. No doubt, in a world richer than ever before in history, we are a long way from reaching those limits. But it is foolish, perhaps even harmful in terms of creating false expectations, to stumble on believing as a society that we can respond to every outrage.

Big international emergency efforts are still a relatively new idea in human history. The modern aid organisations too readily promote slick and stylised slogans to elicit donations, promising solutions that are often accepted uncritically. As a world community, more thinking needs to be done about what can realistically be achieved before the next calamity strikes — natural or man-made.

To ignore people’s suffering behind a foreign border is all too easy. So is throwing a few quick bucks at the problem and then pretending our responsibility is fulfilled.

The much harder challenge is figuring out exactly how to best help — and maybe admitting there are borders around what can be achieved, hard though that may be.

Daniel Flitton is diplomatic editor.

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Filed under Aid, Development, International Aid

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