The Inequality of Suffering

Global apartheid connects the tragedies of Hurricane Katrina and the Asian tsunami.

By Basav Sen Mar 21, 2006

In all of the reflection and analysis about Hurricane Katrina, one connection has not been made enough: the striking parallels with the tsunami from 2004, and the lessons to be learned from them. The thread that weaves New Orleans and the Gulf Coast with Indonesia and Sri Lanka is systematic inequality that privileges the profits of a few over the dignity and the lives of many, a system that many have termed “global apartheid.”

In Harm’s Way

It’s well known that a disproportionate number of the victims of Hurricane Katrina were poor and of color. Similarly, in the countries devastated by the December 2004 tsunami, the vast majority of those who died or lost most or all of their meager possessions were poor. They were subsistence fisherfolk, peasants, indigenous peoples and (in India) Dalits, i.e., the people at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. While a disaster itself is often natural, there is nothing natural about the demographics of the likeliest victims.

In a privatized model of evacuation, such as that used in the U.S., the government issues a warning to leave the expected target area of a disaster, and then it is up to people to evacuate the best they can. In the prevailing ideology of “small government,” the state does not see itself as having a responsibility to move people out of harm’s way quickly using public resources. The fact that the poor were left to their own devices in a flooding city by a government that did not think it had a responsibility to evacuate them is a direct consequence of this ideology.

Cut to Aceh, Indonesia, the region hardest hit by the tsunami. It was “natural” that Aceh was close to the epicenter of the earthquake that triggered the tsunami. It was not natural, though, that Aceh had 40 percent child malnutrition rates prior to the tsunami. Because the victims were so desperately poor to begin with, the economic impact of the tsunami on their lives was that much worse. Aceh also was the site of a prolonged civil war, which was used by the repressive Indonesian military as an excuse to restrict and control the flow of assistance to the victims, greatly exacerbating the impact of the disaster.

The lesson from both Louisiana and Aceh is that not all human lives are treated equally, as a matter of conscious policy. The same inequalities of suffering are also very much in evidence in Guatemala after the hurricane and mudslides, and Pakistan after the earthquake.

Drowning in a Bathtub

Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform likes to say that government should be shrunk until it is small enough to drown in a bathtub. The problem is that when government is small enough to drown in a bathtub, poor people drown in flood waters. The Bush Administration’s tax cuts are very targeted—a full 40 percent of the cuts benefit the top 1 percent of income earners. They bleed the federal government of $1.6 trillion in revenues over 10 years and undermine the capacity of the government to fund basic emergency preparedness. A government that could afford to give huge tax breaks to the wealthy did not have the funds to repair levees in spite of requests from the Army Corps of Engineers, and did not have the resources to plan adequately for a disaster that had been identified in 2001 as one of the likeliest to hit the United States. This was not merely poor planning or incompetence, it was a conscious choice. When cutting taxes for the super-rich, politicians knew that they were putting on the chopping block a host of programs that could literally save poor people’s lives.

In South and Southeast Asia as well, the financial capacity of governments to respond to the tsunami was undermined by budgetary choices. One thing can be said in defense of these governments, though—they were not entirely free to make the required allocations for disaster preparedness. Their hands were tied by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the system of international debt. According to the joint OECD-IMF-World Bank statistics, the combined external debt of the nine countries most affected by the tsunami is $157 billion, about 50 percent of which is owed to the World Bank, IMF and ADB.

This debt represents a tremendous drain on resources needed for providing basic services at normal times, let alone during a disaster. Indonesia paid $7 billion in debt service in 2004 and expects to pay another

$8 billion in 2005. This compares poorly with the $2 billion in tsunami relief assistance for Indonesia, much of which is in the form of loans that need to be paid back with interest. Even before the tsunami hit, the Indonesian government was unable to meet its constitutional obligations for providing education, health and other services because of the drain of debt repayment.

Once again, this is a conscious choice—the creditors know well the consequences of prioritizing debt repayment over social spending but choose to demand repayment. It is more important to the powers-that-be that wealthy creditors get repaid than that millions of poor Indonesian children are educated or that millions of poor Africans get access to life-saving medication. This is not merely a policy choice but also a value judgment based on race and class, about whose economic interests are important and whose lives are expendable.

Illegitimate Legacies

Similar to the history of Jim Crow in the Gulf Coast, the tsunami-affected countries have histories that have hampered the reconstruction process. The brutal Suharto dictatorship in Indonesia received about $150 billion in loans from creditors. According to Transparency International, 20 to 30 percent of these funds were stolen by Suharto and his cronies. Yet, the people of Indonesia today are paying interest on the stolen money with cuts in their social services. Aside from the injustice of it, the payment of this debt affects millions of poor people on a daily basis, particularly in the post-tsunami context, when every dollar paid for debt service is one dollar less for rebuilding devastated lives.

The legacy of debt in Indonesia and elsewhere represents the continuation of deep-rooted historical inequalities dating back to colonialism. If a wealthy Northern country were asked to pay an illegitimate debt, they would refuse, but in the global power structure today, some have the power to refuse, and some don’t. Global apartheid treats different peoples as well as different nations unequally.

Reconstruction Rackets

The greatest danger in the post-Katrina reconstruction process lies in the disaster being used to build a glittering New Orleans—without its original inhabitants. HUD Secretary Alfonso Jackson has predicted to the Houston Chronicle that the rebuilt city will be only 35 to 40 percent Black (as compared to the pre-hurricane proportion of 67 percent). The destruction of the city provides the perfect clean slate to those who would rebuild it as a source of private profit.

Again the parallels with the tsunami are instructive. One of the first responses of the Sri Lankan government to the disaster was to set up a 10-member Task Force to Rebuild the Nation (TAFREN), which included eight business CEOs and Directors, four of whom represented the hotels, tourism, shipping and construction industries. Within 10 days of being constituted, TAFREN made its initial recommendations, reportedly without visiting the affected areas.

The TAFREN recommendations follow the familiar pattern of using public (often borrowed) funds to build infrastructure for export-oriented industries owned by (often foreign) private investors. The investors make their profits, despoil the environment and create a few exploitative jobs at dismal wages. The poor pay the interest on the loans, through cuts in public services to pay for debt servicing.

The plan calls for investing $400 million in housing, with only 20 percent going to rebuild houses for poor fishing communities (whose houses make up 70 percent of all houses destroyed in the tsunami). The remainder is allocated to building luxury gated communities. Of the $200 million for the fishing sector, only 30 percent is for replacing boats and nets of artisanal fishers who lost everything in the tsunami, while the rest is for building ports for large-scale commercial fishing. Business interests represented on TAFREN are obviously slated to reap some of the construction contracts.

Barely four days after the tsunami, the government of Sri Lanka revived the discredited idea of water privatization, which the World Bank and ADB had been attempting to force on Sri Lanka for years.

Other reconstruction proposals in Sri Lanka supported by the government, TAFREN, the World Bank and ADB call for clearing the coasts of fishing communities (ostensibly for their own safety) and handing over prime coastal land to the tourism and commercial fishing industries. Developers are prescribing more of the same unsustainable practices that destroyed coastal wetlands and exacerbated the disaster in the first place.

Global Apartheid Is Local, Too

The parallels between Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami show that there is a global system that values the profits of a few over the dignity and the lives of the many, and that is structurally incapable of treating all human lives equally. The few who profit as a consequence of this system are always wealthy, often white and usually from North America, Europe or Japan. The many who suffer and die are always poor and overwhelmingly of color, but they could be from anywhere. They are often from Africa, Latin America, Asia or the Caribbean. But they can very well be from New Orleans, Southeast Washington, D.C. or the Navajo Reservation.

This is a starting point for a vision and analysis of organizing in the U.S. that is at the same time locally grounded, and aware of the global context in which it operates. It provides a basis for dismantling the needless barriers between social movements in the U.S. working on struggles at home (for example, against gentrification in urban communities, or for farmworkers’ rights, or against the criminalization of youth of color), with movements against corporate globalization and war, the twin evils spawned by our foreign policy.