Why Be Stingy?

Posted on Thursday, January 06 at 06:05 by Reverend Blair

There has been discussion as to whether the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) should have been sent sooner. Hmmm...let’s consider this. A shortage of potable water and DART has some Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Units. (ROWPU) A need for medical care and DART has a medical unit. It seems pretty simple but when you ask Bill Graham, it’s not. According to CBC, “On Wednesday, Graham reiterated that they must look at whether sending DART is appropriate, whether the affected countries need it, and whether it's worth moving the unit, which would cost $15 million to $20 million.

"We do not send it without first ascertaining whether or not it's going to be useful on the ground and whether the countries can absorb it and use it," he said, adding that no country has yet requested the DART.”

The DART is now being sent to Sri Lanka, but there is no reason why arrangements could not have gotten underway sooner. Even if the destination wasn’t finalized until the situation became clearer, having the people and the transport ready to go would have saved valuable time.

It also isn’t reasonable to expect countries in the midst of a massive crisis to request something that is deployed so seldom that few even realize that it exists. It is even less reasonable to expect them to come begging. I can’t speak for Bill Graham and Paul Martin, but my parents taught me that you offer help to those that need it, then give help if they accept the offer. No strings, no equivocating. You don’t stand around waiting for them to ask while calculating costs versus benefits in your head.

Canada’s response to this disaster was slow and both money and physical aid seem to have been given only grudgingly. That we’ve now upped the money to $80 million and are finally deploying the DART is good, but it took more than a week and there are apparently no mechanisms or guidelines in place to decide when and how much aid should be given in emergency situations.

Canada is, at this point in history, not equipped to deal with emergencies of any magnitude. This is at a time in the world’s history where there are more people at risk of being devastated by natural disasters because, as our population grows we have more people living along coastlines, in mountainous areas with volcanic activity and in areas prone to earthquake. These areas are spread throughout the world, including the wealthy nations of the north and west, yet contingency plans and mechanisms for putting these things into place are haphazard at best.

The wealthy move to or vacation in such areas because they like the view or can practice pastimes not available to them in other areas. The poor move to such areas to earn a living, whether that is through tourism and acting as servants to the rich, or fishing, or because it is the cheapest place they can live. They have very little choice in the matter.

This migration to potentially vulnerable areas leaves us more and more open to large-scale disasters. Scientists, as anybody who has watched the disaster shows on Discovery and The Learning Channel can testify to, have been warning of the impact of this increased vulnerability for years. It has also been noticed by the United Nations. Kofi Annan has been trying to get the message out for years and a major UN report was released about a year ago detailing the challenges that lay ahead, what we were doing right, and what areas we were failing in.

The biggest area we are failing in is aid contributions. That sounds petty considering the massive outpouring of aid going to Asia right now, but the truth is that the wealthy countries of the north and west give next to nothing when our immense wealth is taken into consideration. The United Nations goal is for wealthy countries to contribute 0.7% of Gross Domestic Product. Not a huge amount of our national income and very much an investment in the future. Countries that receive sufficient aid are less likely to breed terrorists or engage in civil wars, more likely to become trade partners, and as the aid leads to sustainable economies, they will become contributors to aid programs instead of recipients. Those are the very real goals and benefits of humanitarian aid, yet Canada gave only 0.26% of GDP and was lagging behind even that low number before the tsunami struck. Whether the additional aid we are giving to victims of the tsunami will bring us up to 2003 levels is questionable.

I would propose that Canada meet the 0.7% of GDP for yearly aid to the UN so it can be applied to ongoing programs and use 0.3% to establish a civilian aid agency to deal with emergency situations, bringing our total up to a full 1% of GDP. The benefits would outweigh the costs in the long run.

The non-emergency portion of the aid package could sustain the civilian agency for long-term aid of the type that south-east Asia is going to require for the next few years, as well as providing food and cash through existing programs. The 0.3% of our GDP reserved for emergencies would be available to send aid and aid workers for emergency disaster relief. The establishment of such an agency would free up our military, including the DART, to concentrate on peacekeeping operations and aid missions where a military presence was required.

A civilian aid agency would give us the opportunity to train people in a variety of portable skills that are valuable in a variety of professions, as well as serving as a place to gain experience for those who wish to move on to working for NGOs. As an expression of soft power few things are as powerful as providing aid to those who need it. Aid, in all forms, encourages trade, cooperation on international issues ranging from human rights to the environment, and an overall spirit of goodwill and cooperation. The less tangible benefits such as reduced terrorism and fewer conflicts may be difficult to quantify, but many who study world affairs have made the connection between help for developing nations equalling a lower incidence of such violence on several occasions.

Canada can once again become a world leader if we put the resources into a civilian aid agency and increase our overall spending on aid. Such actions tend to encourage other nations to follow suit, so it could greatly benefit the world over and above what we contribute. Canada is a wealthy nation, we can afford to help others. There is no need to be stingy.

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