Tuesday, November 19, 2013, 07:35
Milking political points from tragedies
By Stephen Vines

Large-scale human tragedies and political posturing are, lamentably rather closely connected. This has been seen yet again in the wake of the devastating Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines earlier this month.

Alongside the horror of a mounting death toll and understandable alarm over the dire economic impact of so much destruction, there was a great deal of talk about who were the political and diplomatic losers.

Milking political points from tragediesNations that responded quickly and generously with assistance were said to have been winners in the diplomatic game. Those that did not were criticized for missing a chance to exercise “soft power.”

Sadly, for those of us who are residents in Hong Kong, the government of the Special Administration Region went one step further in turning a natural disaster into a political tragedy. It took the extraordinary decision to announce, just one day after the typhoon struck, that it was pursuing its madcap intention to impose sanctions on the Philippines as retaliation for the shooting and bungled rescue of Hong Kong tourists during a 2010 hostage fiasco. Even if Hong Kong has grounds for dissatisfaction with the way that the Philippine government handled this affair, common decency and commonsense should have dictated that pursuing sanctions in the face of a disaster was inexcusable.

Most of the world will not have noticed this piece of idiocy because the focus is, rightly, on aid to the Philippines. But note how it comes. Every delivery of materials is shrouded in the flags of the nations supplying this aid. Government leaders rush before the television cameras to tell the world how much they are doing by way of relief efforts and, almost invariably, take the opportunity to underline their nation’s commitment to humanitarian assistance.

It may be argued that a massive event of this kind can hardly have anything other than political repercussions and this cannot be denied. No one is naive enough to suggest that even the biggest natural disasters are simply a matter of nature and individual human response. This may have been the case when communications were sparse and communities had no choice but to be self-reliant. However, those days are long gone and this has both positive and negatives consequences.

On the plus side, the development of society means that the human impulse to show solidarity and provide assistance to those in trouble can be fulfilled on a much more widespread basis. Moreover, bigger and more impressive resources can be mobilized.

However, on the negative side, some of the so-called natural disasters, such as the widespread fires recently in Australia and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, are largely the result of human activity that has wider impact because technology and the growing size of concentrated communities means that what were small disasters quickly become much bigger and more dangerous.

Added to this is the way that disaster relief has become a matter of political dividend. Calculating how much relief to offer and how it should be offered is very often based on considerations of this political dividend.

Yet, I don’t think it is wildly optimistic or even naive to say that most people have generous instincts and will willingly give money to those in distress. In other words, human decency is far from being extinct. Indeed, some of the most generous people I have ever met have been those with least to give.

The problems with these generous impulses arise at the political level where nothing comes without a price tag in some form or other.

The author is a former newspaper editor who now runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist, writer and broadcaster.