The Tsunami of Aid

A recent World Bank report on the tsunami gives us reason to be vigilant to the forces of corporate globalization using aid as a pretext to advance their agenda.

The tsunami that occurred in December 2004 was clearly one of the deadliest natural disasters the world has seen in recent times. Resulting in over 300,000 deaths, hundreds of thousands more displaced, and massive infrastructure destruction, there is no doubt that concerted and long-term attention needs to be paid to the rebuilding of the affected communities. However, as many could have predicted, the disaster has also given rise to deep concerns about the role that corporate globalization and hegemony will play under the warm, fuzzy, non-controversial title of “development aid.”

Recent articles on and articles in many newspapers show how a huge percentage of the ‘aid’ that is given by donor countries comes with strings attached. Much of foreign government aid is tied to using expensive materials or contractors from the donor country. The vast devastation across huge areas of several countries now provides a clean slate, so to speak, for corporations and multilateral institutions to rush in and create the capitalist paradise of their dreams. As always, the most disenfranchised, who are worst hit by these tragedies due to their already precarious existence, are never a part of the planning of reconstruction efforts. The obvious human rights violations of these communities that result from these relief and rehabilitation efforts are rendered invisible.

The disaster offers the excuse of relocating entire communities to make place for tourist havens; creating free trade zones to exploit the cheap labor of those who have no alternatives; and replacing traditional, community-based livelihoods with export-oriented initiatives that cut out the communities. An example is the push to replace the traditional small-scale fishing practices of many affected communities with mechanized trawling operations that take a source of cheap protein out of the reach of the poor, export it for cash profits and deplete the fishing stocks. It is difficult to argue against what is cloaked as “modernization” and “more efficient development” in the light of the scale of the disaster and the supposed generosity of the donor countries and the world financial institutions.

The only solutions put forward to assist in the rebuilding of the economies and infrastructure of the affected communities are based in the market-oriented models generated by globalization. Supachai Panitchpakdi, head of the WTO said “Obvious possible areas which occur to me and no doubt others will be market access and some restraint in use of trade remedies” as actions that countries could take to help. Concerns about sustainable and participatory development, equitable access to resources and human rights form no part of the equation.

An example of the potential dangers involved can be found in the recent World Bank Damage and Needs Assessment Report for Sri Lanka and India. Some of the following has been culled verbatim:

From the Sri Lanka report:

Hundreds of private firms ranging from international sports conglomerates (such as the International Cricket Council), to global firms (including Daihatsu Motor Company, Dow Chemical, Nestle Corporation, Microsoft, Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC), Vodafone, Coca Cola, Shell Corporation, Exxon, and News Corporation) have donated millions of dollars to assist Sri Lanka with its recovery activities. The media reports that some companies have established a network to coordinate their response to the disaster throughout the Asia region.

While one can hope that this generosity springs from a genuine desire to help, it would be good for watchdog initiatives in the regions impacted by these efforts to keep on their toes.

Another item in all World Bank project cycles is cause for concern as well—resettlement plans due to forced displacement, has almost always resulted in human rights abuses in any Bank project. The Sri Lanka report states:

Relocation involves a number of issues—Government land acquisition of the private land in the no construction zones, compensation for limitations on land use rights (e.g., cultivation but not construction), and resettlement on vacant Government land with an adequate level of public services.

Unless the affected communities are integrally involved in this step, relocation and resettlement will have huge implications on the livelihoods of affected families. Factors to be considered include, in addition to comprehensive consultations and development of a resettlement plan and compensation framework, ethnic/religious and other socio-economic factors to avoid exacerbating already grave conditions on the ground.

In addition, these initiatives that are put in place as a way to bring relief and rehabilitation to victims is quite often used to create the lifting of import restrictions by developing countries as well as the creation of free trade zones. The report states:

Preliminary estimates of financing needs for reconstruction are estimated at around $1.5 billion (about 7 percent of GDP). Rebuilding activities will require a substantial increase in imports in the next two to three years, resulting in a widening of the trade balance. According to preliminary official estimates, relief and reconstruction needs will lead to an increase in merchandise imports in 2005 by around $700 million.

The excerpt below from the Sri Lanka report shows the vast potential for private sector companies to benefit greatly, and for corruption at the local government level at the cost of affected people who will be forced to relocate:

(I)t is apparent that in select locations, it will not be advisable to reconstruct affected housing in situ and people will need to be relocated. In such cases, the guiding principles will be to, as far as possible, keep affected communities intact while at the same time providing for individual families and or subsets of the community to opt out of such initiatives. As part of the recovery process, units of local government will be assisted to develop and mainstream consultative and inclusive recovery strategies including local area redevelopment plans.

An excerpt from the India report under the sub-section Hazard Risk Vulnerabilities states:

There is a need for reconstruction to therefore go beyond the focus on the immediate and short-term consequences of the tsunami and the immediately affected area, in order to ensure appropriate incorporation of hazard risk management principles over the medium term. The reinforcing and crosscutting hazard risk management actions are designed to increase resilience in terms of infrastructure, housing, coastal protection and environmental management social and livelihood strengthening and economic performance and competitiveness.

Again, if the affected communities are truly integrated into the planning, this can work, but as we have seen time and again, the approach is to do things “for” the affected and not “with” them, with the benefits accruing to the elite and corporations.

The following statement again from the same sub-section of the India report raises critical questions about the replacement of local fishing habits i.e., beach-based fishing that provides for the long-term sustenance of the fisher folk with port-based fishing which is primarily a ‘cash crop’ style of fishing used for companies to export products that only the rich consume while further impoverishing the local fisher folk.

Transport, processing activities and port upgrading over the short and medium term could provide a useful base for longer term development of such service activity which supports new employment opportunities.

For more information on this please see the following: an interview in SAMAR Magazine with Thomas Kocherry, Coordinator of the World Forum of Fishworkers and Fishharvesters and Coordinator of National Alliance of People's Movements in India and a paper titled “Exploring the Possibilities of Counterhegemonic Globalisation of the Fishworkers’ Movement in India and its Global Interactions” by Gabriele Dietrich and Nalini Nayak.

It is also interesting to note that in the India report, there are repeated references to the fact that the tsunami has not made a dent on the Indian economy or the GDP, even in the states/union territories that were the hardest hit (Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Pondicherry and Andhra Pradesh). The point is also continuously made that the regions that were worst hit were undeveloped and very poor and were thus not contributing much to the Indian or respective state’s economy in any case.

In the India report, the chapter on Fisheries, which was the most adversely affected sector, mainly concentrated on two aspects—Shrimp Culture and Small Scale Aquaculture. There was little attention paid to the traditional forms of fishing that have served local fisher folk as a source of livelihood and sustenance. A quote from the sub-section on Recovery Strategy displays the fact that this disaster is being seen as an opportunity to replace the traditional fishing with mechanized fishing and aquaculture designed to aid exports and private firms at the cost of the local fisher folk:

Replacing mechanized boats with new ones of the same design will certainly accelerate overexploitation and increase conflicts with the traditional sector. New activities related to deep sea fishing and aquaculture could be promoted instead, with boats and gear designed to tap resources in deeper waters and to reduce operational expenses while being less damaging to the resource.

A suggestion at the beginning can potentially prove very harmful for the fisher-folk if implemented:

The sudden elimination of a large operational fleet is rare in the fishing industry. But the disaster presents an opportunity to redesign the capture fisheries industry in a better and more sustainable way—and, in fact, to address the concerns raised by the 10th Five Year Plan.

India’s 10th Five Year Plan essentially expresses the need to “advocate better regulation measures…and to diversify fisheries and aquaculture and upgrade the traditional fishing sector with new boat designs for offshore fishing…”

A brief look at the proposed short-term activities more or less confirms this, these include:

  • Look at alternatives to reorganize the fisheries sector with special attention on the protection of the resource base for future generations. This should be completed before disbursing funds for larger boats.
  • Evaluate the legal and regulatory implications of the alternative scenarios in relation to fishing rights, access, monitoring, control and surveillance.
  • Address issues related to the registration and control of the operation of boats and the marine capture sector in general, including satellite tracking of boat operations.
  • Evaluate the possibilities offered by new boat designs to tap resources in deeper waters or to replace trawler operations in a more efficient and sustainable way.
  • Discuss with fishing associations schemes to buy boat owners out of the sector and invest in compensations in other activities.

The report also contains an oxymoron or two: “Training programs on more sustainable exploitation of the resource and complementary income generation activities will have a major role.”

To return to the Sri Lanka report—something to note is the mention of Export Credit Agencies:

“Recognizing the challenges exposed by the recent tsunami, Sri Lanka should develop a risk management approach, based on the principles that: Risk transfer mechanisms should be considered to mitigate the financial impact of disasters on the economy and future development activities.”

Arundathi Roy in Power Politics has very eloquently described these “risk transfer mechanisms”:

Export Credit Agencies insure private companies operating in foreign countries against commercial and political risks… if a situation does arise in which the ECA has to pay its client, its own government pays the ECA and recovers its money by adding it to the bilateral debt owed by the importing country. (So the real guarantors are actually, once again, the Third World poor)… The quadrangular private company-ECA-government-government formation neatly circumvents political accountability… The attraction of the ECAs (for both governments and private companies) is that they are secretive and don't bother with tedious details like human rights violations and environmental guidelines…

However, there is reason to hope—organizations and peoples’ movements on the ground in the affected areas are at the barricades fighting this second, man-made tsunami. They need the support of progressive communities everywhere in their struggle.

A number of movements and agencies have been at the forefront of the fight against corporate globalization directly or indirectly for many years now. These include the Movement for National Land and Agricultural Reform (MONLAR) in Sri Lanka, Kerala Swathanthra Malsya Thozhilay Federation or Fishworkers Union in Kerala, Federation of Consumer Organisations Tamilnadu (FEDCOT) in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu, Peoples Health Movement (PHM) in Bangalore, the National Association of Peoples Movements (NAPM) in India, Peoples Union for Civil Liberties, among many others. It is imperative that as progressives, we support in any way possible these movements and organizations, as well as others like them. One of the key points to remember is that sustainable alternatives to the capitalist model are available and that is exactly what these movements strive for.

One way to help the efforts on the ground is by monitoring the pages of the World Bank (follow up on the excerpts given above is necessary) and other multilateral institutions, as well as by monitoring the actions of corporations and issuing alerts when questionable activities are identified. The Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia has conceptualized a project along these lines. A preliminary result has been collaborating with the India Resource Center on the Anti-Coke campaign. While this is not directly tsunami-related it does address the issue of challenging the corporate globalization model.

We ask everyone reading this to think of ways in which they might be able to support these peoples’ movements and organizations. Even simple fundraising can be critical as many of these movements work with shoestring budgets. It is, however, important to do something, and to do it soon—the corporations and multilateral institutions have already beaten us to it.

For more information and contact details for organizations as well as to discuss how you might be able to help, please email Sriram at:


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