The Times 1999-11-26
Weep for poor Orissa
The West squanders billions in Kosovo, while a life in India is valued at 30 cents


The state of Orissa is the poorest, loveliest, most primitive, least visited in all of India. It runs south of Calcutta down the Bay of Bengal, where lies a greater concentration of poverty than anywhere on earth. Orissa has one of the world's highest rates of infant mortality. It is one of the few places experiencing endemic starvation.

Three weeks ago on the night of October 29, a storm of rare force hit Orissa's long, low coastal belt. A "supercyclone", with winds above 150mph and a 20-ft tidal wave, laid waste the wide delta of the Maharadi River. Some 12 million people were instantly homeless. Casualties will always be unknowable. A single aid team recently returned from Ersama, where they estimated 10,000 corpses were still lying in the open. Thousands more were submerged in paddy fields or washed out to sea. A million people have nowhere to live. The head of the American agency CARE remarked that nowhere in the world had he seen such devastation. Why are we standing idly by?

Orissa's sugar crop has vanished, weeks before harvest. Eighty per cent of its coconut trees have gone along with most of the rest of its trees. Roads, railways, power lines and telecommunications are no more, to an estimated value of $2.3 billion. The local Internet websites offer an horrific commentary on the frantic relief effort. Even the internecine foreign charities have pooled their identities under the Orissa Disaster Mitigation Mission. A carcass disposal team is needed here, a cholera team there, drips, vitamin pills, medicine everywhere. Pleas come in, over and again, for polythene sheeting and blankets as winter commences. Technology can offer a hotline to hell, yet not transmit so much as a woollen blanket. The cyclone ranks as one of the catastrophes of the century. So why do we stand idly by?

I can tell you why. Orissa is far away and boring. The whole ritual of Western humanitarianism, boasted so bravely in Yugoslavia, is a sham, cover for the exploitation of foreign affairs for domestic ends. "Humanitarian intervention" is code for political and military meddling in the internal affairs of sovereign states - and damn the consequences. Show a politician an opportunity to strut the ethical stage, and the thin red line of heroes is up the ramp of a Hercules in hours. But an old-fashioned, low-tech calamity such as Orissa is for wimps. There are no soundbites or bang-bangs in Orissa.

Those who opposed British intervention in former Yugoslavia were chided as "standing idly by". How could we "just do nothing" when Bosnians and Kosovans (if not Serbs) were evicted from their homes and even dying? In vain might we plead that intervention was likely to make matters worse. In vain did we suggest that what began as an aid convoy escort would end up taking sides, even shooting and bombing those to whom it supposedly had brought charity. What began as humanitarian action in Yugoslavia has so far cost $11 billion in warfare alone. A further $60 billion of cost (according to the Economist Intelligence Unit) has been inflicted by the Nato intervention. That does not include the blocking of the Danube. At the end, more people are displaced than at the start. If the Balkans is the outcome of "not standing idly by", God stand up for idleness.

Last week, Mark Littman, QC, argued in a measured pamphlet from the Centre for Policy Studies that Nato's Kosovo intervention was illegal by any standard of international law. If a new world order is to be established, its claim to military authority over pariah states must be supported by law, or the action merely compounds the brigandage. Mr Littman shows Nato treating international law with contempt. His case has yet to be refuted. One attempt, a letter to Tuesday's Times from the Blairite MP Gareth Thomas, claimed that Nato's bombardment of Yugoslavia was legal, lest we "stand idly by in the face of an unfolding humanitarian disaster". That is not law. Russia might say the same as it bombards Grozny.

We stand idly by all the time. We cannot wipe away the tears of the world with a rag. But when we try, we owe the world the dignity of consistency and proportion. The liberal instinct, now boldly released from Cold War bondage, is behaving like a crazed pinball. It bounces from Somalia to Iraq to Burma to Afghanistan to Rwanda to the Congo to Sierra Leone to Yugoslavia to East Timor. It descends from the sky, enriches some, kills others, pollutes, smothers or ignores. Where once we sent charity, we now prefer guns. Guns are the true "nationalisation" of charity. They are macho intervention.

As I write, British and American bombs are still falling on Iraq in what purports to be the cause of "humanitarianism". Was a word ever more abused? Each bombing run costs more than any country's aid to Orissa. We bomb Iraq because nobody in London or Washington can think of anything better to do. To stop might be mildly embarrassing. Like an imperial rajah out hunting, so-called "Centre-Left" governments kill a few darkies each week to show they are not wimps.

We are standing idly by in Orissa. Liberalism, so concerned when white Europeans insist on killing each other, feels Orissa must accept its fate for recklessly living in "God's armpit", the Bay of Bengal. The disasters that afflict its crowded deltas have a Malthusian inevitability. There are too many people on too little land. We are frightfully sorry, but Orissa is a poor, non-white country depressingly far from a TV crew or a carrier task force.

"We cannot stand idly by" is a meaningless guide to foreign policy, as it is to international law or morality. It is the new, cliched slogan of the military-industrial complex and of the panjandrums of international charity. In Kosovo today, Nato military missions are building themselves handsome fortresses, while the Kosovans go unhoused for the winter. Meanwhile, gleaming NGO vehicles jam the Skopje road, coated in logos, as they jostle for attention and funds before the world's media. Nato will soon have supervised the ethnic cleansing of every Serb in the province, a cleansing more complete, and no less brutal, than that previously supervised by Slobodan Milosevic. Nato will then have to guard a racially pure enclave from eventual Serb vengeance, guard it for ever. What was deceitfully presented as an act of humanitarian charity has become a classic of neo-imperialism.

I am not aware of any White House summits or late-night Nato phone calls about Orissa. No fleets were diverted or rapid deployment forces dispatched. The awesomely corrupt local government was given no "final ultimatum" to care for its poor and not steal its food. There were no shuttle relief flights, no ringing denunciation from Robin Cook, no charity rock concert. A modest allocation of aid was announced by the United Nations, and £3 million by Britain, and the water was left lapping round the decomposing corpses. Orissa offers no glamour, no tough-guy scenarios. The only enemy is nature and the only victim humanity.

There is a crude case for "standing idly by" in Orissa. It is that poor agrarian communities can be as traumatised by sudden rushes of aid as they are by natural disaster, witness Ethiopia. For the survivors, the way from catastrophe back to self-sufficiency is not a long one, and is often best travelled without the corrupting hand of foreign aid. But Orissa is far beyond such nuance. The choice for tens of thousands of people this winter is between relief and death from starvation and disease. This year the much-vaunted new world order proposes to have spent $50,000 on every Kosovan and 30 cents on every Orissan. That is the true measure of our "humanity". It is obscene.

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