Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Something better

It's easy to assume that we live now in a world of unparalleled dangers. The USSR may have collapsed, but to replace the threat of nuclear war between The USA and The Soviet Union we now have a nuclear North Korea, India, Pakistan and possibly Iran as well as a increasingly undemocratic Russia. Terrorism was the theme of the first decade of the 21st century, with terrorist attacks begetting wars begetting further terrorism.

Perhaps this plays on the ease with which our species jumps to negativity and fear. Your author hopes that amongst the destruction yet again wrought on Haiti we can take a more positive message: there is such thing as an international community.

Haiti's history is in itself depressing, but the position it found itself in when the earthquake struck was of order maintained by the United Nations Stabilisation Mission. Before the 12th January there were already peace keepers of many countries (including 125 Chinese, not a country that has always been happy to involve itself in such actions). This mission hasn't been without controversy, but let us not forget the response shown to this earthquake (and the 2004 tsunami that came before).

In 1923 an earthquake almost destroyed Tokyo. Over 100,000 died. Foreign aid did not arrive. Information was almost non-existent. Koreans, falsely accused of all manner of unpleasantness, were sought, beaten and killed.

In 1976, in Tangshan in China an earthquake killed 200,000 people. China refused to accept foreign aid. The rest of the world had nothing but reports which played down the incident to go on.

Then, in 1988, in Spitak in Armenia an earthquake struck, estimated in the end to have lead to 25,000 deaths. Armenia was part of the Soviet Union. Was this to be Tangshan all over again, with the borders closed and denials issued? Not this time. Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the USSR, asked for international assistance which quickly flooded in. The memorial in Washington DC from the people of Armenia shows the success.

Not a word of this downplays the tragedy of Haiti. It does demonstrate that the world has changed. Firemen from Britain, a field hospital from Israel, a search and rescue team from Iceland, $1m from Botswana, C-130 Hercules from Brazil. In addition, and perhaps more vital, non-governmental organisations are there and there fast. The Disasters Emergency Committee (an umbrella organisation for UK charities) was up and running fast, raising £25m in a week. $35m has been donated to the Canadian Red Cross.

Information is available. Aid distribution has had many problems, but the availability of images and reports so quickly after the earthquake have encouraged people to give, have allowed people to stay in touch, and have even allowed trapped citizens to be rescued by sending a text.

Haiti will be a mess for years to come. Its people have been battered time after time, and the lives of hundreds of thousands are dependent now on international generosity and logistical savvy. Now though, when a disaster occurs, the world does largely respond as one, and millions of people are better off for it. Never has the onlooker in another country had more of a chance to save a disaster's victims.

If you would like to donate to Médecins Sans Frontières' appeal then please click a country here: UK USA Canada

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