Tsunami: just what the west needed

The tsunami was a TV event. Spectacular pictures came into our living rooms, and in the aftermath we talked about them in the same manner, if not the same tone, that we would our favourite soap opera. It was, to coin a phrase, great drama from the BBC.

And it was this visibility that drew us into such a massive response. Not since 9/11 have TV pictures so devastatingly told the story of a catastrophe, and as Amit Roy has suggested, the tsunami has now replaced 9/11 as ‘short hand for the new horror’.

While this media coverage has prompted us into mass altruism (including the elderly donating their entire pensions), is it not alarming that the desperate state of affairs in Africa is somewhat undermined because it is not such a TV friendly issue? Starvation and poverty are ongoing, comparatively mundane problems, less suited to our often glossy, sensationalist media world.

One-off, unworldly events like 9/11 and the tsunami are eye-catching, and to this we respond, to the detriment of what is peripheral.

But in our collective sub-conscious, perhaps Africa is at the core of our reason for giving.

The tsunami was an event we as westerners can feel relatively blameless for - we can’t help the weather. But perhaps we are in indirect, but well documented ways, responsible for Africa’s problems (and perhaps this stops us facing the issue). Is our huge contribution to tsunami relief our misguided attempt to make up for previous ignorance of far-away issues?

Maybe. But there is another explanation for the west’s huge contribution.

It is a shame the late Edward Said is not with us to comment on the reaction to the tsunami, for we have seen his ideas in Orientalism move into the 21st Century.

He wrote that throughout the 20th Century, the west formed its culture and identity (‘British and French cultural enterprise’, as Said put it) by incorporating and adopting an array of ‘oriental’ aspects. Such things as the spice trade, colonial armies and administrators, philosophies and wisdoms adapted for European consumption, and of course the Biblical texts and lands served to inform the west’s idea of itself.

Now, in 2005, it is the Orient’s (and I mean ‘Orient’ in the sense of any eastern ‘other’) suffering that is strengthening our identity. We can now stand up as the strong, wealthy, generous party as opposed to the helpless, stricken damsel the Orient has become in the tsunami’s wake. Asia’s need confirms our capacities.

We can also be rather satisfied with the fact western aid has been quicker and more substantial than the Arab world’s (although Kuwait’s donation, for example, is per person over 40 times that of the USA), and it is a diplomatic bonus and indeed a ‘great opportunity’ as Condoleeza Rice remarks, that the US can assist Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim population.

Rice’s words, though said in good faith, prove true the words of Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Centre, based in Dubai: ‘the issue of donating to the tsunami disaster has, unfortunately, been politicised’.