For now, our money should do the talking

January 21, 2005

Historians' responses to the Asian tsunami can wait, says Maria Misra

I am from time to time asked by the media to comment on some story or event on which I'm thought to have expertise. Changes in the Indian Cabinet, the place of imperialism in the school curriculum and the proper fate of the Koh-i-Noor diamond (a priceless Indian gem plundered by the British) have been recent examples. While I'm sometimes happy to respond, often I'm reluctant, unwilling to be cornered within the artificially polarising forum of the radio debate and forced to assume the role of either Punch or Judy. And, more important, I am hesitant to acquire the reputation of a lightweight but omnipresent opinioniser.

In the case of the Asian disaster, reluctance to be drawn into media punditry has other causes. A request for my views on the tsunami has prompted some reflection on what purpose or value my specialised knowledge as a historian could possibly bring to bear on the matter. Usually I am asked to look at previous examples of some newsworthy event and to draw "lessons". There have been many incidents in the region that might offer fruitful comparisons, from the Krakatoa volcano to the catastrophic flooding of Bangladesh in 1970. One might also allude to disasters of a more man-made variety, especially famines, and the impact of the relief efforts that ensued.

But in this case it seems inappropriate to offer examples from the past, precisely because they are so unedifying. They reveal that aid and disaster relief have always been complex and highly politicised issues. Disasters were often exploited internally to advance domestic political agendas - as happened with relief efforts during India's partition. Often aid has not reached the promised recipients, funnelled instead into military adventurism or private bank accounts. Relief efforts have long been intertwined with the machinations of international politics, where giving and receiving relief are seen as signs, respectively, of international power and weakness. Today's undignified jostling for the charitable laurels is not the first example of competitive philanthropy between countries, corporations and "statesmen". India's refusal of assistance shows how difficult it is to play the role of humble recipient. Indian politicians are determined that nothing should impede the country's bid for a permanent seat at the international top table: the United Nations Security Council.

Such a jaded historical perspective seems likely only to hasten the inevitable onset of apathy and demoralise people further. And one would not want to offer alibis to those who would already prefer to do nothing. It seems that now is the moment for a more emotional and less analytical response. This is not, however, to deny the importance of academic interventions in the media. Clearly a more objectifying and critical gaze has its place, and there is a need to set the impact of these events in a broader context.

Already economists are beginning to reflect on the impact of the International Monetary Fund "restructuring" policies on the ability of South East Asian economies to respond to natural disasters. Aid experts will doubtless want to look more closely at the relationship between international aid, international debt and persistent North-South inequalities. By raising these broader issues, economists and development specialists are perhaps guilty of "using" the tsunami as a vehicle for their broader agendas. But this is surely defensible: academic interventions can bring a dimension to the debate that catchphrases (such as "Make Poverty History"), however well intended, cannot.

This may be the moment for economists and political scientists to take the floor. For historians, offering cash not comment seems the right response, at least for now.

Maria Misra is a lecturer in modern history at Oxford University.

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