Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Tsunami Relief - How to help

As other headlines crowd out the disaster in the Bay of Bengal, we can be sure that the need for money continues. The gap between "pledges" and "revenue" is not talked about much, probably because anyone in the know understands that income is best when precious appeals resources are not wasted sounding negative.

From a private family's website, via Evangelical Outpost, here are ten myths of disaster relief that people need to know. The main point is that money, for a lot of reasons, is the best way to help.

From The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog there is a link to the US Senate Page for Senator Mary Landrieu which lists several dozen places from which to choose for making your donation. There are about five dozen places listed. Surely one of these will appeal to nearly everyone.

I have overheard some ignorant remarks about the apparent shortage of help from parts of the world that share cultures more like the damaged areas. I got off a shot or two like that myself a few days ago, before I took time to reflect on what I had said. After thinking about it, I have decided that what we are witnessing is normal. Two ideas come to mind.

First, the US is in the best position to furnish not only the funds, but the resources to insure that the recovery is done as well as possible. We have had practice at this kind of thing for years, we can afford it and because of September, 2001, as a nation we have had a recent reminder of the importance of the mission. Also, my impression of the third world is that "discretionary spending" or "disposable income" are not widely understood concepts.

Second, and this one is more important, we act in accordance with "values" rather than (or in addition to) politics. That doesn't mean that if the politics of the situation bends in our direction we need to be ashamed. In fact, we rather expect that to be the case. I was a student of history, but I never heard the phrase "hearts and minds" used before as a component of military strategy. You can be sure that such an idea was considered treasonable during the Vietnam Conflict, and would have been evidence of a mental disorder had anyone brought it up during the Second World War.

Third, or maybe corrolary to the second, the values of that part of the world are so radically different that most Americans cannot understand why they are not more responsive to those who, from our viewpoint, are "their own people". Well, from my experience, they are not "their own people." I have two personal stories to tell about that idea.

I learned from Koreans about differences that divide people in Asia. Those differences are as impenetrable in Asia as they are everywhere else. My Korean friends informed me that they could identify other Koreans in a mixed crowd of Asians, distinguishing them from Japanese, Chinese and Taiwanese people. If an American had high cheekbones or a flat face it was a compliment to be told that he, or a picture of his sister "looked Korean."

And that is just the racial prejudice part of the picture. Cultural divisions made physical differences pale by comparison. My experience was forty years ago, but as recently as last month I listened to an expert on S-SPAN speaking about North Korea, stating that one of the main problems that stands in the way of resolving the political conflicts that continue in that part of the world is the steadfast unwillingnes of the South Koreans to join any discussions which include Japan and/or China. For the US, this continues to be a serious diplomatic challenge, getting four-way talks underway with a view of reuniting the "two Koreas". From what I had observed first hand, I understood exactly what he was saying. Allies? Riight...

Second story...

In 1970 a horrible disaster, bigger than the one that just occurred, struck what was then East Pakistan, taking out half a million people. At that time I was in college where I knew several foreign students, including one from Pakistan. Like everyone else I was appalled by the scope of the tragedy. As with this disaster, the news went from bad to worse as reports came back. Phrases like "worst of the century" and "biblical proportions" were used, and the word went out for help.

I started a conversation with a man from Pakistan, with "That is a terrible thing that is going on over there. I can't imagine what it must be like." His answer about knocked me down.
"Ah, those Bengalis, they breed like flies. They will be back to normal in no time."
"What?" I said. "What do you mean?" I couldn't believe I had heard right.
"It's the fish. They eat a lot of fish, so they have a lot of kids. That's how they are. Stuff like this happens all the time. They are almost like animals..."
I didn't think about it before, but I realized then that he was from West Pakistan, not East Pakistan. I knew they were separated and had some cultural differences, but I was not prepared for such a cold-blooded reaction from anyone about what was happening to "his own people." I was a history major and had taken both history and politics of South Asia. I let the conversation drop. I knew from experience what I was dealing with, and I knew that nothing I said was going to change a reality bigger than I was able to get my mind around. Later, of course, what had been East Pakistan became Bangladesh.

This is getting to be a long post. I may have lost readers, but I need to get one more point in. Tomorrow's blogging will be off in another direction, I'm sure.

That point is to say something positive about World Vision International. Like most Americans I never heard of them before I got to Korea. While I was there I was able to see first hand that they were there, they were doing the right things, and they were getting results. Orphanages and hospitals were the main evidence I saw of World Vision. I have to say that a couple of well-placed billboard also let people know that they were there. Because several of the consulting staff at Taejon Regional Hospital were Scandinavian, I had the impression that World Vision was a Scandinavian group, but it was founded by an American following the Korean War. It has been around for over fifty years, so I have no reason to think that it anything but one of the world's most impressive, enduring and worthwhile places to send donations.

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