Democracy and natural disaster

by Chris Bertram on January 2, 2005

Nick Cohen has a very good column in today’s Observer about the way in which natural disasters play very differently depending on whether or not governments are genuinely responsive to their peoples via democratic institutions. There’s much to think about in what he writes. He rightly gives due credit to Amartya Sen for this key insight and excoriates Mao Zedong—who inexplicably still continues to be admired in some quarters—as the vicious Stalinist butcher that he was.

{ 48 comments }

1

cliu 01.02.05 at 11:20 am

It’s chic to be a Maoist — in tiny academic circles where everyone jockeys to be more leftist than thou.

Read about some aspect of it here on my blog — at my former department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature.

2

Darren 01.02.05 at 12:10 pm

“Just as people who dialled 0800 606 0900 are better than people who did not, “

The author of the article seems to think that those who can afford to give are better people than those who can’t afford to give.

3

Darren 01.02.05 at 12:16 pm

“Similarly, the three million who died in the Bengal famine of 1944 to 1945 didn’t starve because food was scarce but because a wartime economic boom had pushed prices beyond the reach of the poor.”

Does anyone have any background links for this event? According to economic logic, if the price of rice (a commodity) goes up in a region more rice (of that commodity) is attracted to that region bringing the price of rice (the commodity) down again. As written in the article the circumstance described didn’t make sense.

4

Bob 01.02.05 at 12:29 pm

Without detracting from Nick Cohen’s strictures about Burma’s authoritarian regime and still less from Amartya Sen’s acute insights into the political causes of famines, it needs to be recognised that public perceptions of public risks from accidents, hazards and natural disasters are routinely arational.

In Britain, we regularly accept without much concern some 3,600 fatalities a year from road traffic accidents but evidently want to invest billions reducing the already small risk of railway accidents. We give generously in aid to help survivors of the earthquake and tsunami disasters in the Indian ocean but pay little attention to the annual death toll of a million from Malaria in sub-Sahara Africa.

Like apocryphal generals fighting the last war, we focus on preventing the last disaster and overlook prospective disasters. A tsunami disaster is predicted for the Atlantic: http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2000/mega_tsunami.shtml

Public authorities have reportedly done nothing about it. The World Health Organisation is very properly concerned about Bird Flu jumping the species barrier again from this: http://www.abc.net.au/news/newsitems/200412/s1274174.htm as a precursor of this: http://www.stanford.edu/group/virus/uda/ But there is little detectable public discussion in Atlantic countries. Why?

5

mc 01.02.05 at 12:37 pm

I agree, it’s an interesting piece – Cohen is almost always worth reading. The question of whether aid agencies should work in countries like Burma and thereby accept the constraints and compromises their governments impose nicely illustrates (among other things) the old debate between consequentialism and its opponents, as well as the related idea of dirty hands. It also shows why such debates don’t have to be mere idle theorising, but can be things which committed and practical people agonise over, in more or less articulated ways, for years.

Like many who are at least tempted by the non-consequentialist position, Cohen takes the opportunity to point out that once you factor in long-term consequences, the gap between consequentialist and non-consequentialist positions might be less than it seems; i.e., that sticking to our (non-consequentialist) principles and regretfully deciding not to help the people of Burma might in fact help them more – collectively, and in the longer term – by hastening the collapse of the regime.

But as usual that doesn’t succeed in completely defusing the question. Looked at another way, if the aid agencies pulled out, that might even seem like playing into the regime’s hands, by leaving the country even more isolated than it is now. A more extreme example is the current situation in Iraq. For many of the aid agencies, pulling out might be the only reasonable thing to do – both from the point of view of the safety of their staff, and maybe from the point of view of long-term consequences. But something about it still seems like giving in – conceding victory to the strategy of deliberately targeting anyone with any connection to the West, including aid workers; and abandoning people in genuine and immediate need.

More widely, I wonder how far people’s positions on these questions – and on the old consequentialist/non-consequentialist debate more generally – are determined by temperament – specifically, the temperamental difference between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ – where journalists, and philosophers, are natural ‘outsiders’; and people who work for NGOs, and civil servants, are ‘insiders’. Insiders tend to see the non-consequentialist approach as a luxury, or even self-indulgent. Outsiders see the consequentialist approach as the stuff of great moral mistakes, inherently vulnerable to bad faith and exploitation.

My own experience certainly conforms to this pattern. A few years ago, I used to teach philosophy, and tended to take the non-consequentialist position both on the general theoretical debate and on many particular issues. Now, after a short spell in the public sector, I tend to take a more consequentialist approach to most issues; including, for example, many which involve some idea of freedom on the non-consequentialist side. (Or, to put it another way, when facing such issues, I am now much more likely to ask – what would be the consequences of this restriction of freedom – and am less sympathetic to the idea that the non-consequentialist value of freedom trumps or silences most arguments for restricting it.)

I haven’t changed my position on the general theoretical debate, I just think my temperament has shifted as a result of being involved with the issues in a different way. I don’t mean to suggest that either the insider or outsider temperament is better. It is necessary for a decent society to have good people in each camp. Outsiders, through not being directly involved, are better placed to function as a society’s conscience. And they are right to worry about the way the insider temperament can lead reasonable people to end up making great mistakes – often by a series of incremental steps. (See, for example, Errol Morris’ recent film about Robert McNamara.) But perhaps a bit more fluidity, or at least dialogue, between the two camps would be a good thing. And outsiders should remember that the idea of functioning as society’s conscience is not one they themselves should often have.

6

mc 01.02.05 at 12:38 pm

I agree, it’s an interesting piece – Cohen is almost always worth reading. The question of whether aid agencies should work in countries like Burma and thereby accept the constraints and compromises their governments impose nicely illustrates (among other things) the old debate between consequentialism and its opponents, as well as the related idea of dirty hands. It also shows why such debates don’t have to be mere idle theorising, but can be things which committed and practical people agonise over, in more or less articulated ways, for years.

Like many who are at least tempted by the non-consequentialist position, Cohen takes the opportunity to point out that once you factor in long-term consequences, the gap between consequentialist and non-consequentialist positions might be less than it seems; i.e., that sticking to our (non-consequentialist) principles and regretfully deciding not to help the people of Burma might in fact help them more – collectively, and in the longer term – by hastening the collapse of the regime.

But as usual that doesn’t succeed in completely defusing the question. Looked at another way, if the aid agencies pulled out, that might even seem like playing into the regime’s hands, by leaving the country even more isolated than it is now. A more extreme example is the current situation in Iraq. For many of the aid agencies, pulling out might be the only reasonable thing to do – both from the point of view of the safety of their staff, and maybe from the point of view of long-term consequences. But something about it still seems like giving in – conceding victory to the strategy of deliberately targeting anyone with any connection to the West, including aid workers; and abandoning people in genuine and immediate need.

More widely, I wonder how far people’s positions on these questions – and on the old consequentialist/non-consequentialist debate more generally – are determined by temperament – specifically, the temperamental difference between ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ – where journalists, and philosophers, are natural ‘outsiders’; and people who work for NGOs, and civil servants, are ‘insiders’. Insiders tend to see the non-consequentialist approach as a luxury, or even self-indulgent. Outsiders see the consequentialist approach as the stuff of great moral mistakes, inherently vulnerable to bad faith and exploitation.

My own experience certainly conforms to this pattern. A few years ago, I used to teach philosophy, and tended to take the non-consequentialist position both on the general theoretical debate and on many particular issues. Now, after a short spell in the public sector, I tend to take a more consequentialist approach to most issues; including, for example, many which involve some idea of freedom on the non-consequentialist side. (Or, to put it another way, when facing such issues, I am now much more likely to ask – what would be the consequences of this restriction of freedom – and am less sympathetic to the idea that the non-consequentialist value of freedom trumps or silences most arguments for restricting it.)

I haven’t changed my position on the general theoretical debate, I just think my temperament has shifted as a result of being involved with the issues in a different way. I don’t mean to suggest that either the insider or outsider temperament is better. It is necessary for a decent society to have good people in each camp. Outsiders, through not being directly involved, are better placed to function as a society’s conscience. And they are right to worry about the way the insider temperament can lead reasonable people to end up making great mistakes – often by a series of incremental steps. (See, for example, Errol Morris’ recent film about Robert McNamara.) But perhaps a bit more fluidity, or at least dialogue, between the two camps would be a good thing. And outsiders should remember that the idea of functioning as society’s conscience is not one they themselves should often have.

7

abb1 01.02.05 at 1:23 pm

Nick Cohen says:
The 30 million who died of starvation in the late 1950s because of Chairman Mao’s insane Great Leap Forward towards industrialisation – the greatest single crime of the twentieth century, incidentally, far worse in terms of lives lost than the First World War or the Nazi death camps – died because they had no way of forcing a Marxist tyranny to change course.

This is way too strong. ‘Insane’ sounds correct, but ‘the greatest single crime of the twentieth century’ is a purely rhetorical device, because to qualify for ‘the greatest crime’ it’d surely require premeditation, which was lacking in the Great Leap. They certianly weren’t trying to starve all those people.

Industrial revolutions caused turmoil and high number of deaths almost everywhere: in the 17th century England – 10% of the population died in the civil wars; in the 19th century US civil war about 2-3% of the population – about the same as in China’s Great Leap.

Politicians (Marxist or not) can’t just ‘change course’, they can only try to make the transition less painful.

8

Andrew Boucher 01.02.05 at 2:00 pm

“Industrial revolutions caused turmoil and high number of deaths almost everywhere: in the 17th century England – 10% of the population died in the civil wars; in the 19th century US civil war about 2-3% of the population – about the same as in China’s Great Leap.”

Is there supposed to be a logical link here? Industrial revolutions are cited at the beginning, yet civil wars are brought in as evidence.

My understanding of history is that the industrial revolution had both positive and negative consequences for public health.

“…because to qualify for ‘the greatest crime’ it’d surely require premeditation…”

Surely? The famine was a drawn-out process; not doing something to stop it once it was underway was, in my book anyway, a crime.

9

dsquared 01.02.05 at 2:57 pm

Hmmmmm, I’m gonna need to do a big post here … I have the highest admiration for Sen, and for Cohen when he’s not banging on about “the Left”, but I really don’t like to see Sen’s work distorted into an all-purpose justification for politicisation of the aid process. The fact is that we had a thirty year experiment with directing our aid toward governments we liked, during the Cold War, and it didn’t work. We then had a controlled experiment after the collapse of the Soviet Union and it still didn’t work; we tied our aid to the Yeltsin government and managed to do away with a fair chunk of the Russian male population. This should alert one straight off the bat to the proposition that it isn’t as simple as Democracy = No Famines.

(I’ve always thought, btw, that this is one of the weaker bits in Sen’s work. It seems to rely on being very careful with your definition of an “effective” democracy, which ends up IMO being defined more or less tautologously, and with your definition of a “famine” so as to avoid unpleasant realities like the starvation of poor Oklahomans in the Dust Bowl)

But my real problem with this whole approach is that it’s the aid policy equivalent of Coase’s “blackboard economics” – the making of sweeping pronouncements that must be true because of general principles, rather than taking the time to find out what actually is true. For example:

1. Whatever the counterfactual Suharto of Nick Cohen’s imagination might have got up to in Aceh province, the real historical Suharto never withheld foreign aid as a weapon against his domestic enemies, despite many opportunities to do so. If that old bastard wanted you dead, he rounded you up at gunpoint and put you in a camp. But the aid agencies had a productive and largely successful involvement with Indonesia for most of Suharto’s reign.

2. The senior mafiosi in Sicily did not operate as kleptocrats. They were extraordinarily corrupt and stole vast amounts from Italian government works on Sicily, but they did not directly impoverish the population.

3. Similarly, the oil-for-food program in Iraq had immediate, measurable and positive effects on the infant mortality rate, something which we’ve been over ad nauseam in the context of the Lancet study.

In general, it is often very dangerous to assume that just because an aid program has a visible corruption problem it is ineffective, or that just because a government is undemocratic that it must be corrupt, or that just because a government is corrupt that any aid program associated with it must be ineffective. Peter Griffith’s excellent book “An Economist’s Tale” (which I’ll try to review here next week) contains an excellet example of a case where the World Bank made a gross overestimate of the extent of smuggling of black market rice in Sierra Leone, encouraging them to believe that it would be a good idea to cut subsidies on imported rice.

10

Barry 01.02.05 at 3:36 pm

Darren, if the price of a comodity goes up in a region, then more of that good will be attracted to that region – in general. However (the sort which can kill): (a) this can take time, during which people can starve; (b) the added transport costs can add more to the price than people at the subsistence level can pay, in which case people can starve.

11

Ray 01.02.05 at 3:39 pm

Mao was certainly a nasty butcher, but I don’t think he was Stalinist.

12

dsquared 01.02.05 at 3:51 pm

In the specific case of Bengal, what happened was that high prices across India attracted rice out of the region into cities where people were prepared to pay even more. The Bengali peasants starved while exporting food, rather like the 19th century Irish.

13

abb1 01.02.05 at 4:39 pm

Is there supposed to be a logical link here? Industrial revolutions are cited at the beginning, yet civil wars are brought in as evidence.

Of course there is a link. Industrialization is a huge transition, millions of people migrating from the countryside to cities and towns, the old socio-economic structure is falling apart with a new different one taking its place. Thus the wars, revolutions, reconstructions; riots, starvation, etc. This is just how it works.

The famine was a drawn-out process; not doing something to stop it once it was underway was, in my book anyway, a crime.

I’ve never heard anyone seriously accusing the central government there of deliberately starving people. Natural disasters played a big role and, of course, mismanagement too. I suppose you can call it ‘crime’, because mismanagement can be a crime, but hardly ‘the greatest single crime of the twentieth century‘.

Here,
look:

Chinese Famine of 1907- Over 24 million perish from starvation

Chinese Famine of 1928-1930- Over 3 million perish in northwest China

Chinese Famine of 1936- 5 million Chinese die in what is called the “New Famine”

Chinese Drought 1941-1942- Over 3 million perish from starvation

Why is the 1959-61 famine suddenly the government’s fault and ‘the greatest crime’ – just because they called themselves Marxists? Come on.

14

Luc 01.02.05 at 4:48 pm

Besides disagreeing with Nick Cohen, what annoys me is his position that the worst hit region, Aceh in Indonesia, shouldn’t receive aid because of the political situation there.

… The Disaster Emergency Committee, [], said that initial relief efforts will be directed at India and Sri Lanka. Not because they are the worst-hit regions but because they have strong civil societies and well-organised local charities which could make sure that the help got to where it was needed. Indonesia and Burma would have to wait because of ‘political problems’.

The Disaster Emergency Committee has got its priorities right because if aid for the victims of the tsunami is stolen in democratic India, there will be a public scandal. If it is stolen by the military in dictatorial Burma, no one will dare point an accusatory finger.

I do hope that the Disaster Emergency Committee made its decision based on logistics, or because they were uninformed about the situation in Aceh, and not on political reasons like those posed by Nick Cohen. A short google search made it look like this policy is no longer in use by the DEC.

I can see absolutely no reason to deny aid to Indonesia.

15

Matt 01.02.05 at 5:06 pm

Dsquared,

The aid to Russia case is an interesting one, since it was supposedly tied to the “democratic” Yeltsin, despite much good evidence that he was able to act democratically, and very much evidence against it (shelling parliment and re-writing the constitution to one’s own benefit isn’t usually a good sign.) And, there were real democratic alternatives- Yavlinsky, for example. But perhaps the most interesting thing about aid there is how much more effective aid that by-passed the government was- such as Soros’s direct aid to Russian scientists and universities. (It’s also not totally clear that the high death rate for Russian males has that much to do w/ the bad use of aid, rather than horrible alcohol abuse, a huge rate of accidnets (related to the first issue) the war in Chechnya, etc. Very few people in Russia starve, though many, mostly the old, don’t get a very good diet.)

16

x 01.02.05 at 5:15 pm

I don’t understand what’s so great about this column. I found it painful to read. Just to pick a couple of bits:

In Burma, meanwhile, many charities have decided that giving aid to Rangoon is like giving EU grants to Sicily or oil-for-food programmes to Saddam’s Iraq: whatever your good intentions, the money always ends up strengthening one mafia or another.

There’s about three or four levels of condescending nonsense there, the absurdity of comparing today’s Sicily, Burma and Saddam’s Iraq. If Saddam’s Iraq had been like Sicily there’d have been no pretext for war to start with. If Burma was like Saddam’s Iraq there would still be a lot more access, diplomatic contact and statistics about the victims. If Sicily was like Burma, then the entire country it is located in wouldn’t have made it into the EU because there’d be no democracy and no regional authorities and no market and no businesses and students to benefit from those grants, but only a militarised mafia running everything and shooting deserters and blocking any contact with outsiders and suppressing all the media. If Burma was like Sicily, then there wouldn’t have been any problems whatsoever in getting the number of casualties and going in to distribute aid. If the relief funds were like EU grants, then they would only be given to businesses or individuals that meet the requirements, not to everyone who’s been affected by the disaster. If EU grants were given out as indiscriminately as disaster relief funds necessarily are, then the EU would collapse. If relief funds were like the oil for food programme, then no aid would be reaching the affected populations at all because there is no oil… And so on and so forth. Ridiculous comparisons between completely unrelated things.

governments which expect to be held to account are better than governments which use all the power of the state to ensure that they are not.

Wow, what an amazing discovery. Yeah, Blair and Brown are still better than the Burmese military, and this needs to be pointed out because otherwise the masses might be mistaken in considering Burma more democratic or maybe even want Mao back because he looks so much cooler than Blair on those Andy Warhol posters.

And somehow the conclusion of all this orgy of obvious platitudes and impossible comparisons is, we should as a matter of principle (?) not even try to assist the population in Burma despite the obstacles from the regime, but should instead wait for a tsunami of democracy to miraculously invest the country?

17

eudoxis 01.02.05 at 5:21 pm

3. Similarly, the oil-for-food program in Iraq had immediate, measurable and positive effects on the infant mortality rate, something which we’ve been over ad nauseam in the context of the Lancet study.

The Lancet study speaks only to the year 2002. All other reports for the years 1997-2001 show an increase in infant mortality rates as well as an increase in disease and malnutrition. One needs to treat 2002 as an anomaly until further studies. At this time any connection to the oil for food program is entirely speculative.

That’s not to say there can’t be a positive trickle down effect from large aid programs in adverse political/environmental conditions, but the impact of such is difficult to measure for the same reason that aid is difficult to get to the people under those conditions. Positive examples of such must be explicitly supported with weight of evidence.

18

x 01.02.05 at 5:26 pm

luc: that’s what I thought too, I very much doubt there have been concious political decisions by any agency to deny aid to any particular region. I get the feeling he’s just trying to take a swipe at those humanitarian organisations that were against the war in Afghanistan and Iraq (see his reference to Christian Aid and Afghanistan) – or should we say, they were not in support of exporting “democracy”. He’s trying to paint it as hypocritical that those agencies were only concerned with delivering food.

19

Walt Pohl 01.02.05 at 5:36 pm

I didn’t understand his point about Aceh at all. He seemed to be endorsing not giving aid to Aceh, even though at this point Suharto is long gone.

20

Chris Bertram 01.02.05 at 7:05 pm

Some comments on comments….

Ray says that Mao wasn’t a Stalinist. Well, socialism in one country + one party state + authoritarian central planning says “Stalinist” to me. But your mileage may vary.

Luc and Walt Pohl say that Nick Cohen argues that Aceh shouldn’t receive aid. No he doesn’t. There’s not a sentence in the article to justify that inference.

“X” says that Cohen is taking a swipe against organisations that opposed the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unlikely, since Cohen himself opposed the war in Afghanistan.

Abb1, peculiarly solicitous of Mao’s reputation asked why the famine of 1959-61 was “suddenly the goverment’s fault.” Maybe because Mao engaged in an insane drive to do things like village-level steel smelting, diverted resources from food production, ignored the warning signs, people were too scared to contradict the Communist Party ….

As for Cohen’s judgement that this was the greatest crime of the 20th century. I agree that overstates it, and the intentions behind the Nazi murders make them worse. That’s no comfort to the dead, of course.

Daniel: I’m looking forward to your post…. I’m not sure why Russia’s increased mortality under Yeltsin is a counterexample to Sen’s view, though (perhaps you’ll flesh it out). Those excess male deaths weren’t due to famine were they?

21

dsquared 01.02.05 at 7:33 pm

I don’t think I have any precise counterexamples to Sen’s view, but I think that this is mainly because he’s followed the David Lewis principle of defining his terms narrowly enough so that there aren’t any. One can note that, for example, despite being part of the United Kingdom and sending MPs to Westminster, Ireland wasn’t a “responsive democracy” in the 1830s. Also that one-party states like Congress-era India count as democracies for these purposes, but dysfunctional multiparty states like Brazil don’t.

But my real problem is with the narrow definition of “famine”. The victims of alcoholism, malnutrition, cold and disease in the Yeltsin era weren’t famine victims, but they’re just as dead as if they had been. In fairness, Sen and Dreze make this point in a lot of their other work (that democracies have other pathologies which can be just as dangerous), but it’s insufficiently emphasised in a lot of the “democracies don’t have famines” literature.

Also our mis-selection of Yeltsin underlines another good reason not to politicise the aid process; governments are often quite bad at picking winners.

22

Chris Bertram 01.02.05 at 7:49 pm

Completely agree Daniel. One thing worth saying is that even in a democracy there are people who don’t count as far as the politicians are concerned. The disastrously high comparative mortality rates of African-Americans, which Sen has highlighted, would, no doubt, have elicited a more concerted political response if they’d been typical of swing voters rather than non-voters or (more or less) guaranteed Democrats.

The Sen thesis perhaps shouldn’t be rendered as democracy=no famines, but rather as saying that where politicians’ continued access to political power depends on protecting some people’s most vital interests, then those people’s most vital interests will be protected. Conversely, where politicians can ignore some people with impunity, there is a very great danger of those people perishing, whether from alcohol, drugs, firearms, poor diet, absolute lack of food, or whatever else endangers them.

23

Josh 01.02.05 at 7:51 pm

“I really don’t like to see Sen’s work distorted into an all-purpose justification for politicisation of the aid process. The fact is that we had a thirty year experiment with directing our aid toward governments we liked, during the Cold War, and it didn’t work.”

Fair enough, but you’re conflating two distinct arguments: a general argument about the value of tying aid to political conditions (what you call the “politicisation of the aid process”), and its more particularistic variation, tying aid to good governance practices.

Aid can be politicised in that it can be doled out according to whether the recipient is “with us or against us” (as was the case in the Cold War, or in the War on Terror, where particularly nasty regimes in Central Asia have done far better than they deserve), or it can be politicised in the variation that Cohen is describing, whereby recipient nations must meet selected good governance criteria, however so defined.

Both methodologies involve politicising aid, but for very different reasons, and with very different effects. Obviously Cohen isn’t advocating a monocausal relationship between democracy and disaster, and Jan Pronk, among others, has written about the dangers of adopting governance criteria has a sine qua non for aid recipients, but it is equally silly to discount regime type altogether as a factor in determining the efficacy of aid. Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection, the albatross of the OECD, serves as a testament to what happens when you don’t take governance measures into account while deciding to whom you’re making out your cheques.

24

abb1 01.02.05 at 8:27 pm

Personally, I think the crime of the century was OJ Simpson stabbing Whatshername and Herfriend to death. The Nazi murders come distant second.

And yes – we, proud Hongweibing will continue writing our Dazibao severely criticizing reactionary paper-tigers like Nick Cohen.

Seriously though, my Chinese friends tell me that Mao is still relatively popular in China. Much more than Stalin in Russia. Mao is different, he is not regarded as a thug and crazy murderer like Stalin, but rather as a revolutionary like, say, Lenin or Trotsky.

As far as elected politcians caring about ‘the people’ – this is mostly wishful thinking I am afraid. One could argue that these politicians have a clear incentive to kill those members of their constituency who are likely to vote against them (and that’s usually about a half). Not to mention that they always tend to use calamities to grab more power and move towards more totalitarian system.

25

David Weman 01.02.05 at 8:45 pm

Yes, but one also shouldn’t conflate structural aid and catastrophic aid. The latter type shouldn’t be tied to good governance.

26

Luc 01.02.05 at 9:02 pm

I’m quite good at misreading, and I certainly don’t know anything about Nick Cohen’s political positions.

But I do know I disagree with someone agreeing with:

Indonesia and Burma would have to wait because of ‘political problems’.

Whether you parse the quoted sentence as denying aid or as a short delay before aid is delivered is debatable. But the political and security problems in Atjeh haven’t changed between yesterday and today, so why would someone be against giving aid on day one, be suddenly for giving aid on day two? On day two it is still less efficient than giving aid to India.

Currently aidstuff is transported with US army helicopters. The expense of that dwarfs any corruption related costs. And I don’t know of any aid organization that refused to operate in Atjeh because of the (real) security risks.

Try reading this and then argue that it is proper for ‘political problems’ to delay aid to Atjeh.

Sometimes choices have to be made. But I doubt anyone giving money to the DEC charities want that decision made based on politics instead of need.

And he asks the question whether politics should influence aid in the context of the current disaster and the situation in Atjeh. And he agrees that it should. And thus that there would be less aid given to Atjeh. Can’t read it in any other way.

27

abb1 01.02.05 at 9:17 pm

Wow – who would have thought the extent to which a nation copes effectively and humanely with the aftermath of a natural disaster would vary as a function of the democratic nature of its government?

I can easily imagine that a well-organized fascist government (like Singapore) would be much more effective than some messy and corrupt democratic government.

28

abb1 01.02.05 at 9:22 pm

This is, btw, why they usually declare a ‘state of emergency’ and suspend all those nice democratic institutions.

29

Chris Bertram 01.02.05 at 9:24 pm

Luc, the sentence you cite is a straight report of what the DEC said. He doesn’t say “The DEC says this and a good thing too.”

Abb1: I’m afraid you’re responding to a person who has been banned from CT due to persistent trolling, including impersonating other commenters. I’ve therefore deleted her comments and IP banned her latest address.

30

dsquared 01.02.05 at 9:26 pm

Luc is quite right here. Cohen is right that most aid agencies have given up on Burma because the government makes it unreasonably difficult to go about distributing it without becoming compromised oneself. However the delay in getting aid to Aceh province has nothing to do with whether Indonesia meets some hypothetical standard of democracy, but is quite simply a result of the fact that neither the Indonesian government nor the rebels are reliably in control of the territory, making it horribly politically different and dangerous.

Deb: If all these things were obvious to you, it’s a shame you didn’t write them down, because you could have won Sen’s Nobel prize!

Josh: I had a big debate with Timothy Burke on this subject in comments to a post entitled “Ideas that sound good but aren’t” – if you click on the little icon by my name above it will come up. In many senses I agree with you, but there is a clear difference between a governance criterion (which is an objective criterion, directly linked to the purpose of the aid) and a “rights-based” criterion (which is nothing like as objective and much more remotely related to the purpose). Cohen doesn’t really give a detailed critique of the case against rights-based aid policy, but his harsh (and IMO entirely unfair) dismissal of the Christian Aid position paper suggests to me that he has once more fallen into the hands of a bunch of unrealistic “realists” with a plausible-sounding argument why you need to kill a lot of innocent people in a country with a nasty government, for their own good. It would not exactly be the first time this had happened …

31

Walt Pohl 01.02.05 at 10:35 pm

Cohen says:

In practice, Christian Aid knows as well as everyone else that politics is everything… Indonesia and Burma would have to wait because of ‘political problems’.

The Indonesia political problem is that the devastated Aceh region is also the site of a dirty war between secessionists and the centre which has been flaring on and off for the last 30 years. If there is any hope for Aceh after the fresh cataclysm of natural disaster, it lies in the replacement of General Suharto’s dictatorship with a democratic government in the late 1990s. Democratic Indonesia’s record in Aceh has hardly been spotless. But if Suharto was still there, it’s easy enough to imagine him using the floods to starve the province into submission.

I can’t figure what he’s saying here, in the context of the whole article. What does Suharto have to do with helping Aceh now? Indonesia is a democracy, which doesn’t prevent it from having “political problems” in Aceh.

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Luc 01.02.05 at 11:55 pm

Since I disagreed with much of what was said in that article I’m not as surprised by the incoherence of that paragraph about Aceh.

The Indonesia political problem is that the devastated Aceh region is also the site of a dirty war between secessionists and the centre which has been flaring on and off for the last 30 years.

Make that more than a 100 years. If interested read the wiki entry with all the ugly details. As many problems around the world this started with a bit of plain old colonialism. “In 1871, however, the British dropped previous opposition to a Dutch invasion of Aceh, possibly to prevent the French from gaining a foothold in the region.”

And I doubt the political problems in Aceh had much to do with the delay of aid. It is the destruction of infrastructure that is preventing aid to reach large parts of Aceh.

My impression is that he talks about Indonesia to justify his opinion about that DEC declaration that Indonesia and Burma will have to wait for aid.

Luc, the sentence you cite is a straight report of what the DEC said. He doesn’t say “The DEC says this and a good thing too.”

But to me it looks like he does. But then I doubt the sentence expresses the opinion of the DEC correctly.

The Sen way of seeing the world can be applied to natural disasters. The Disaster Emergency Committee has got its priorities right because if aid for the victims of the tsunami is stolen in democratic India, there will be a public scandal. If it is stolen by the military in dictatorial Burma, no one will dare point an accusatory finger.

The priorities of the DEC concerned both Burma and Indonesia.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 01.03.05 at 1:38 am

D-squared, I think you dramatically overreach with the Iraq Food-for-Oil case. The corruption levels are unusually high, and the alleged benefits do not appear in most of the years of operation. I’m not sure you want to use it as an example for the proposition: “it is often very dangerous to assume that just because an aid program has a visible corruption problem it is ineffective.”

It could also be looked at from a statistical point of view. If an aid program is corrupt it is also very likely to be ineffective–enough so that fighting corruption in many aid programs might be a worthwhile measure toward making them more effective.

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dsquared 01.03.05 at 2:32 am

Sebastian: Me and Chris Lightfoot went through this in great detail when we were trying to clear up Heiko Gerhauser’s point about the discrepancy between the pre-war infant mortality figure in the Lancet study and the UNICEF infant mortality figure quoted for 2002. (God, there’s a sentence I never thought I’d type when I was working as a nightclub bouncer).

There was a big effect on infant malnutrition in Iraq starting in 1999 when the oil-for-food program started working in earnest. Before 1999, most of the proceeds of the oil-for-food program were taken up in the UN’s fees for administering the scheme plus Kuwaiti war reparations. When it started working as an aid program, it worked, demonstrably. (I note that you don’t actually have any figures to show that the oil-for-food program was “unusually corrupt”; this is hardly surprising unless you are a screen name for Paul Volcker).

I’ll illustrate my other point when I get round to writing a review of the Griffiths book.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 01.03.05 at 8:52 am

Well let us hope it was unusually corrupt. I certainly don’t want to think that your average UN aid program diverts billions of dollars into bribes.

:)

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x 01.03.05 at 11:39 am

Chris, it doesn’t matter that Cohen was against the war(s?), perhaps I worded my comment badly on that, what I’m objecting to is the way he is criticising aid agencies for not discriminating between the different kinds of regimes in they country they operate, in the case of Afghanistan, he is criticising Christian Aid in a way that is extremely unfair to the very nature of aid organisations: …”(Christian Aid) couldn’t bring itself to admit that systems of government can change everything. To Christian Aid it seemed neither here nor there whether Afghanistan was ruled by an elected president or a theocratic tyranny, all that mattered was that the food got through. To link aid to the struggle against the Taliban was to politicise it. To allow Coalition troops to help deliver food and medicine was a blurring ‘of the once distinct line between aid worker and combatant’ which put the lives of genuine charity workers at risk.”

First, he’s arguing for aid agencies to take positions in matters of international policy even when these involve military action (hence my crude sumup as “he’s taking a swipe at those agencies who didn’t support the war”).

Secondly, he’s dismissing the objections to that blurring of the distinction between aid agency and the military, as if those objections could’t possibly have very pragmatic reasons as well as reasons of principle.

To take the case of another aid agency in Afghanistan, Medecins Sans Frontiers, a while ago they had a press release on their site in which they announced they were leaving the area because that blurring, coupled with the increased security risks and resuming of terrorist attacks, had put the lives of their people in danger (5 of their workers were killed) and made it impossible to deliver aid.

Here you go: MSF pulls out of Afghanistan – I quote the relevant part:

bq. The violence directed against humanitarian aid workers has come in a context in which the US backed coalition has consistently sought to use humanitarian aid to build support for its military and political ambitions. MSF denounces the coalition’s attempts to co-opt humanitarian aid and use it to “win hearts and minds”. By doing so, providing aid is no longer seen as an impartial and neutral act, endangering the lives of humanitarian volunteers and jeopardizing the aid to people in need.

(see also a response to a WSJ article)

Why would someone argue for politicisation of aid efforts in view of situations like those _and_ also in non-military disaster scenarios like the current one in South Asia? I agree with the comment made by David Weman on this – I’d understand if he was talking of structural aid, but disaster relief especially cannot be subject to that kind of reasoning.

It’s one thing to observe there may be practical problems and delays to enter certain countries because of a regime, quite another to project political decisions onto all NGO’s who haven’t yet got there (isn’t he doign a bit too much projecting?) – or even argue that that kind of political decisions to deny disaster relief to areas governed by dictatorships _should_ be made and are a good thing.

If I misread, and he’s not saying _any_ of that, then what else is he saying?

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abb1 01.03.05 at 11:48 am

I haven’t heard any allegations about the aid part of the oil-for-food program being corrupt – either unusually or not unusually. Acording to the program’s website:

In the food sector, the nutritional value of the monthly food basket distributed countrywide almost doubled between 1996 and 2002, from about 1,200 to about 2,200 kilocalories per person per day.

And this is just one item out of a long list.

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crocodile hunter 01.03.05 at 2:57 pm

I reckon we all would agree that if you have the misfortune of experiencing a natural disaster, you’re better off if you live in a democracy than if you don’t.

And I reckon we all would agree that if you live in a democracy, you’re better off if you’re rich than if you’re not, in terms of your quality of life post-disaster.

Human tragedies – death from famine, earthquake, floods – are due to a combination of mother nature’s action and father government’s inaction.

I read about a man in Thailand who did not know that receding tide was a strong predictor of impending tsunami.

Governments can be forgiven for not having the resources to install a high tech warning system. They cannot be forgiven for failing to inform its citizens of this simple, potentially life-saving empirical fact.

What percentage of the people who died knew that receding tide = tsunami?

[Moderator’s intervention: Since Dsquare’s comment below is incomprehensible without this comment from banned troll Deb Frisch masquerading as “crocodile hunter” I’m not deleting it. But am deleting the one immediately above — also in the name “crocodile hunter” — which purports to give us advice on how to manage our problem with this troll. Nice try Deb, now find something else to do with your time. CB ]

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dsquared 01.03.05 at 4:18 pm

I reckon we all would agree that if you have the misfortune of experiencing a natural disaster, you’re better off if you live in a democracy than if you don’t.

Depends which democracy. I’d far rather go through a natural disaster in Singapore than in Kenya, for example …

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Mrs Tilton 01.03.05 at 5:40 pm

Nice try Deb, now find something else to do with your time.

For purely selfish reasons, I do wish you hadn’t banned her. One of the things she seems to have found to do with her time, you see, is to bless my own website with her insights. It’s a tough world, and better CT than me, I say.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 01.03.05 at 6:19 pm

“In the food sector, the nutritional value of the monthly food basket distributed countrywide almost doubled between 1996 and 2002, from about 1,200 to about 2,200 kilocalories per person per day.”

Notice anything interesting about the wording of that statistic?

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Antoni Jaume 01.03.05 at 7:40 pm

“[…]
Notice anything interesting about the wording of that statistic?”

No. It looks as typical Bureaucratese English. Care to share your insights?

DSW

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Donald Johnson 01.04.05 at 2:12 am

Dsquared has already mentioned this, but Sen’s point about democracy and famine is commonly misused by other commentators. One of the points Sen makes which is usually ignored is that in the comparison between democratic India and Maoist China, China had the massive famines, but India lost more people to ordinary, non-newsworthy deaths from malnutrition. Add up the bodies and Maoist China has the better record.

Its record would be even better (by 30 million) if Mao hadn’t been an insane lunatic, of course.

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Donald Johnson 01.04.05 at 2:14 am

Dsquared has already mentioned this, but Sen’s point about democracy and famine is commonly misused by other commentators. One of the points Sen makes which is usually ignored is that in the comparison between democratic India and Maoist China, China had the massive famines, but India lost more people to ordinary, non-newsworthy deaths from malnutrition. Add up the bodies and Maoist China has the better record.

Its record would be even better (by 30 million) if Mao hadn’t been an insane lunatic, of course.

I hope this doesn’t double-post. My first attempt seemed to fail.

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eudoxis 01.04.05 at 4:47 am

With a limited amount of aid, a decision to spend more aid to help fewer people in one region versus less aid to help more people in another region is not free of politics. Especially during an acute disaster like the present tsunami, the primary goal of humanitarian efforts is (or ought to be) to help as many people as possible. (Neglecting for the moment the relatively cheap political points scored by some assisting countries.)

Further, I wonder about considering the Iraq Oil for Food program (OFP) as humanitarian aid in any real sense. It was a removal of certain punitive sanctions. The positive effects of the program are not definite. In any case, any effects are hard to tease out of all the other hardships or progresses (Kurds in the North) that were taking place in Iraq.

From the time sanctions were imposed in 1991 until the last real prewar survey in 1999, infant mortality had increased to a rate of over 10.5% and acute malnutrition stood at 9% for children under 5. (Chronic malnutrition improved from 28% in a 1995 survey to 20% in 1999.) The OFP was instituted in 1995 and food delivery started in 1997. At the time of the 1999 survey, conditions had worsened in Iraq, prompting a UN increase the OFP.

Present estimates rely on a nutritional survey done in 2003 (post-invasion) and estimated acute malnutrition at 7.7% (NIAIS, UN) and a mortality survey in 2004 which placed infant mortality at 5.8% (Roberts).

Estimates of infant mortality and malnutrition for the years 2000 and 2002 were done by a forward projection based on pre-2000 data (Garfield) and a recall estimate in 2004 (Roberts- same study as above—the recall period was up to 2.7 years and is less accurate than present day estimates for that reason. Garfield found that anything past 1 year, but especially regarding infant mortality is highly unreliable.). A rosy picture of the state of Iraq emerges from those studies: infant mortality at 3% and acute malnutrition at 4%. There is very little hard data for that time period, however. There were occasional grim reports from Iraq researchers ((Nasheit (clinic exit data), Kyshia) that seem to be much more in line with what we know of those years: a severe drought, Saddam obstruction (a 6 month suspension of oil exports and refusal to use food vouchers), inefficient nutritional delivery (it’s impossible to feed an acutely malnourished infant with a whole grain cereal packet), and severely devastating bombing raids on Iraq infrastructure by the US.

In the end, one wants to believe that some good must have come from the OFP but the net effect may have been no more than the net effect that state gambling proceeds have on education. I suspect that the current malnutrition and infant mortality rates are higher than present estimates, although they may be accurate as reported, given the massive influx of humanitarian aid into Iraq despite the historical devastation combined with the US invasion.

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Bucky 01.04.05 at 7:17 am

In 1962 there were 3.1 billion of us.
In 1999 there were 6 billion.
Now there are over 6.4 billion of us.
In 40 years we doubled the human population of the earth.
In less than 5 years we’ve added 400 million human beings.
It seems odd to keep trying to judge events and systems on a purely numerical basis – by a kills-to-saves ratio, as it were.
Isn’t it that the realistic alternative is too unpleasant and morally taxing?
There’s too many of us now for the way we live, and only a very small beleaguered minority wants to change the way we live radically enough to make the numbers workable.
Everyone else either ignores it; or looks to heaven to fix it; or continues to pretend that saving human lives is always the highest possible moral act, and taking them is always the lowest – the greater number of saved lives bringing aproportionately greater tribute, the greater loss a greater condemnation. Isn’t that kind of atavistic?
But clearly, or at least it seems clear to me, supporting a growth in population to the point of insupportability while living in an increasingly toxic and resource-depleting manner is very likely to cause the extinction of the whole species, or precipitate an extinction scenario; which would trivialize all famines and genocides, and the entire history of war into the bargain. So that that same formula of kills-to-saves becomes a condemnation of the indiscriminate saving of lives.
Because at some imperceptible point the sheer weight of our numbers will destroy us.
Let me stress that it’s how we live that makes those numbers so dangerous.
Somebody told me twenty years ago, when global warming first started being mentioned, that most of the inert mass of the public would resist the idea to the point of absurd denial, and then – lightning-quick, hey presto! – they’d adopt an attitude of “It’s too late to change now anyway.” The salient point being the refusal to change, no matter what.

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x 01.04.05 at 7:51 am

Further, I wonder about considering the Iraq Oil for Food program (OFP) as humanitarian aid in any real sense.

Me too. It’s impossible to draw a comparison between that and disaster relief.

Why did Cohen not bring up the Iranian earthquake of last year instead? Natural disaster, dictatorial regime, humanitarian aid (not a lot, but still, not tied to sanctions). I wonder how he would have addressed it in his argument. (Except I’m still wondering what exactly is argument is).

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Matt McIrvin 01.05.05 at 3:15 pm

Bob, scientists are very much divided on the Cumbre Vieja megatsunami threat; I could be wrong here, but it seems to me that the alarmist position is a minority one. Here’s a very skeptical Tsunami Society page.

mc, you have an interesting point about the insider/outsider division with regard to consequentialism. It reminds me of the periodic scandals concerning charity earmarking. The American Red Cross got in trouble for initially planning to divert funds that they got in the wake of the Sept. 11th attacks. From their perspective, they were doing what was going to do the most good: less aid money was urgently needed than initially thought, because so few people who were hurt in the attacks actually survived, few people were displaced, etc. From fund contributors’ perspective, their charity was being abused.

It was, in a way, a consequentialist/non-consequentialist distinction. Though maybe some reconciliation can be found by thinking long-term: if the ARC diverts funds to purposes other than what contributors intended, that could make those contributors less likely to give more money later (and in fact I’ve seen people unwilling to give money through the American Red Cross for tsunami victims for this reason).

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