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Disaster Relief Politics Complicate South Asia Effort

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Section: International News Geography: South Asia

January 3, 2005

Disaster Relief Politics Complicate South Asia Effort

by Nathan Lepp

As the $2 billion pledged worldwide for disaster relief in South Asia slowly begins to reach those who need it most, political concerns are seen to be playing too large a part in the raising and distribution of resources.

In Sri Lanka, the US is treading carefully in what is traditionally India’s sphere of influence. Washington’s decision to deploy up to 1,500 Marines and an amphibious assault ship to the island has been regarded with some suspicion in New Delhi. India was quick to send its own military to aid in the disaster recovery, including 1,000 personnel, five Navy vessels and six Air Force helicopters.

In the civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil-dominant north, India has supported the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam (LTTE), although it has recently made inroads into restoring its credibility in the south. The US has declared the LTTE a terrorist organization and is unlikely to operate relief efforts in Tamil territory where their presence would not likely be welcomed by rebel forces. The tsunami's effect on Sri Lanka initially prompted both sides in the civil war to state that they would seek to cooperate in the recovery effort, leading to speculation that the disaster may even result in a lasting peace. Organizations like the World Food Programme (WFP), operating in the rebel-held areas, cite significant cooperation and investment on the part of the government, but the Tamil leadership has accused the Sri Lankan government of diverting aid resources and failing to live up to its promises.

Meanwhile, India has politely refused to accept any foreign aid, preferring to coordinate its own relief efforts. NGOs seeking access to the Andaman Islands, where up to 16, 000 people are either dead or missing, have been denied. The ban on foreigners is partly due to the presence of a key military base on Car Nicobar island, as well as fears that the cultural lives of a number of primitive tribes on the island would be compromised.

Political posturing over the relief effort is also evident between the US and the UN. Washington’s decision to set up its own coalition of governments to coordinate relief in the region, rather than working under the umbrella of UN efforts, sparked sharp rebuke from critics. US Secretary of State Colin Powell was quick to downplay the controversy, emphasizing that it was made in the interest of efficiency and expediency based on the experience and expertise of coalition governments within the region and would not mean a refusal to cooperate with the UN in relief efforts.

UN relief coordinator Jan Egeland, after initially calling the US "stingy" for its early failure to come up with larger relief funds, has recently praised US involvement and willingness to coordinate with the UN. While the extent to which these assurances are accurately reflected on the ground remains to be seen, it is clear that the UN and the US -- both of which are suffering from image problems -- are feeling pressure to create some semblance of solidarity through the current relief effort.

Politics is also playing a positive role as governments worldwide are clamouring to turn generosity into political currency. After an initially sluggish response, government contributions to the recovery effort have ballooned in recent days and are likely to increase in the future. While purely humanitarian motivations, spurred on by increasing public pressure to increase contributions from public coffers, are undoubtedly front and centre, building reputation and credibility is also an important consideration not taken lightly by foreign policy decision makers.

Pakistan has donated money to India, its traditional rival, and Japan has made a statement by out-giving the Europeans and Americans. The US has perhaps the greatest potential to build political gains through generosity as it is battling huge international image problems resulting from the war and ongoing occupation in Iraq. But because of widespread perceptions that US action rarely occurs without significant ties to American interests, the administration has a difficult time countering cynicism directed at the massive relief efforts in a predominantly Muslim region. John Mearshimer, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, noted, "We’ve worked very hard over the past four years to create that animosity, and it can’t be undone quickly on one policy and one issue."

While watching the political element of the current aid effort in Asia carefully, observers are consistent in urging that while motivations may not always exclude an element of self-interest on the part of contributors, it is the end result that is most crucial. John Simpson, BBC world affairs editor observed: "It is the politics of the big gesture, and if that sounds unduly cynical, the fact is that big gestures are precisely what is required at times like these."

» BBC: Big pledges yield benefits for donors

» Reuters AlertNet: Sri Lanka tsunami aid becomes geopolitical game

» BBC: Foreign NGOs seek Andamans access

» Reuters UK: Tamils say government scrimping on aid

» Christian Science Monitor: US intensifies its role in relief

» The American Prospect: Donations for Goodwill: $350 million is a lot of money, but it won't restore America's image

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