Tuesday, November 20, 2007

‘Brothers so sorely tired’

The Red Cross and the Red Crescent estimate that 900,000 Bangladeshi families are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance and that between 5,000 and 10,000 people were killed by Cyclone Sidr last week (at this writing, the official death toll stands at above 3,000). On Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI appealed for international solidarity and to “help these brothers so sorely tired.” Given the severity of the situation, one would think that Dhaka is hardly in a position to turn down assistance from anyone who offers.

And yet, that is just what it did.

It is true that numerous countries, including the US, Japan, China, Canada, Kuwait, Germany and the EU, have already either sent aid or have promised to do so, and some, like Saudi Arabia, have made well-publicized offers of not insubstantial amounts of money for relief assistance, while the Islamic Conference has called on its 57-member body to send urgent aid. All must have been welcomed with open arms by Bangladeshi authorities.

Taiwan, too, has offered aid, via its representative office in Dhaka, but Bangladeshi authorities have refused to acknowledge the offer, giving as a reason the fact that the two countries do not have official diplomatic ties — the usual euphemism for one’s reluctance to deal with Taiwan because of the likelihood that doing so would anger the backdoor bully Beijing (China has pledged US$1 million in emergency assistance to Bangladesh).

Although this time round Taiwan’s offer came via Taiwan International Health Action, a governmental organization under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, rather than through NGOs — thus making accepting the offer a little more complicated — one would think that in a time of great need such as now, capitals would put politics aside and genuinely focus on the needs of their people. Sadly, this doesn’t seem to be the case and a wealthy country in a good position to offer immediate help when it is needed most — now, when lives can be saved — is being told to stay home.

History has taught us that pledges of humanitarian aid following a natural catastrophe rarely translate into the full sum promised, and oftentimes the bureaucratic process adds layers of red tape — and precious days — to the actual delivery of aid on the ground. In other words, the millions of dollars that countries have pledged in recent days will not all end up where they are needed, and some of that help will arrive late. As such, there is no such a thing as too much on offer, and all help should be welcome.

I’m pretty sure Bangladeshis wouldn’t mind Taiwanese money, blankets or food and would probably even risk Beijing’s "wrath" when everything around them has been turned into a devastation zone, or “a valley of death,” as one relief worker put it, with water-borne diseases and the promise of more deaths lurking just on the horizon.

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