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Lessons from other side of world

Alan Braunholtz

The week after Christmas, the Vail Valley’s most hectic period of the year, is not the easiest time for distant news stories to gain traction. Add in a rare snowstorm dumping feet of much missed powder, and our tenuous grip on the realities of a world outside a valley built on the pursuit of hedonistic pleasures slips even further.The largest earthquake in 40 years and subsequent tsunami easily overcame all our distractions. The scope of the disaster unfolded with each morning paper. Death tolls grew in geometric steps as the worse the devastation the slower the leak of information. The destruction in Sri Lanka seemed bad until the reports from Sumatra arrived days later. Photos, film and finally the stories of individual tragedies and survival attached people to the statistics, putting the size of this disaster into a somber and spectacular perspective. Suddenly, frustration at waiting in an overcrowded lift line or trouble finding a parking space became ridiculously petty.Governments tend to assume that when a large disaster strikes, the local people can’t cope, social responsibility breaks down and disorder reigns. This is a great excuse for governments that love the control-and-command, top-down approach, not trusting the locals to help themselves in times of danger. Just look at our Homeland Security Act and its dismissal of public help, for an example.Reports from Indonesia show that the locals, left alone without almost any aid for the first few days, acted with greater social responsibility and generosity than normal, setting up makeshift refugee camps, offering shelter, food and starting the cleanup. Hopefully, now that outside aid is arriving those “in charge” will realize the power of this sense of community and allow them information and materials instead of trying to solve “it” only with bureaucracy and superior technology. Of course, in a province already threatened by a rebel separatist movement, the central government may not want to relinquish any images of power and control, hence the demands that no foreign troops carry guns and the restrictions on the travel of foreign aid employees.Earthquakes are truly blameless with no one to point fingers at. Not climate change, not pollution, not political or economic games and without any blame to assign, the world could all focus on trying to help. Across the world, governments and individuals have responded to the images of destruction and hunger. Generosity is a difficult thing to gauge. How much is enough? “He’d give you the shirt off his back” is one of the biggest compliments we can pay anyone and something to aspire to.I’m hoping this awareness generated by the tsunami will cross over into the world’s other less publicized but steadily ongoing tragedies. Worldwide hunger is a daily disaster with an estimated 10 million people dying from starvation and malnutrition a year. I’m guessing everything else goes out the window when you and your family are faced with hunger. Nothing else matters.It’s easy to feel helpless here. What can we do? Sensationalized corruption and waste stories abound about an occasional aid agency and are sometimes used as excuses not to send hard-earned cash. OK, but what else are you doing? Consumer choice is a strong tool and by choosing fair trade products and asking about the corporate ethics (labor practices, sustainable, organic, etc.) behind the products you buy we can make a huge difference without even giving to charity.Money is the easiest and perhaps most efficient way to help. My very limited snow sport enthusiast skill sets aren’t really that useful in Indonesia right now, but some of the money I earn here is, if I bother to send it. While government aid gets everyone to chip in a little (taxes well spent!), it’s rarely enough and with private non-governmental organizations I get to choose the charity to support. Their philosophy can match mine, whether it’s Band-Aid relief or long-term economic help.Heifer International had an inspiring story on National Public Radio the other day. They gave a family in Uganda a goat. The goat’s cheese and milk not only helped feed them but also paid for their daughter to go to school. Now she’s at a college in the USA learning a skill to take back to her country, and all because of a goat. They also gave a kid from their goat to another family in the village to continue the chain. All this for less than the cost of a ski jacket! Which is the better value for money for feeling a happy fulfilling life?Still, the recent disaster may have some long-term positive effects on how the world does business. The wealthy Western nations have already agreed to suspend interest payments on the stricken countries’ international debts. Perhaps they’ll start thinking about forgiving them. At the moment Indonesia’s external debts are about twice its GNP. This is a crippling burden which takes away from much needed infrastructure and is a huge pressure for unsustainable logging and other resource extraction. Forgiving debt means we’d be giving up some control of their natural resources. But since many of these debts originated in weapons purchased by corrupt dictators to keep their population in line, it would be a nice gesture to the population at a time like this.The initial pulling together of the separatist Tamils and the government in Sri Lanka looks to have disappeared behind the usual political posturing, so it may be too much to hope that the U.N. and the U.S. can gain from this disaster. The U.N. may realize the realities of U.S. wealth, generosity, military size, efficiency and its ability to help in aid efforts and perhaps lead to a less antagonistic relationship. The U.S. could see that the U.N. is the only world body capable of being seen as neutral, with wide acceptance and worth supporting primarily for the sake of making the world a more livable place. The U.S. would gain indirectly from this: We’re part of the world, too.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily.Vail, Colorado


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