The Tsunami and the Discourse of Compassion

The exceptional intensity of the emotions- disbelief, compassion, and global concern- displayed at the Asian Tsunami disaster is a prime example of the discourse of compassion and humanitarianism created and fostered by the political climate and media. Compared with the absence of this type of global concern for the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, in Iraq, in Rwanda, in Palestine, the compassion for more instantaneous “natural” disasters (a misnomer since the impact of such disasters is inextricably linked to the inequalities of empire) as opposed to the more readily preventative devastation of war, militarization and genocide brings to light the degree of indecency and schizophrenia of the colonial consciousness.

Gilbert Achcar has also commented on this depressing contrast in the context of the September 11 attacks when the white world is “thrown into convulsions of distress over the ‘6,000’ victims in the United States, while it can hardly give a thought to Black Africa in its horrible agony.” Achcar describes this phenomenon as a form of what he calls “narcissistic compassion” evoked by disasters striking “people like us.” (1)

Certainly the Tsunami disaster has not struck people “like us” in white America or Europe, but even then, the condescension is apparent. Dropped jaws at the savage sight of brown bodies piled onto each other and mass graves of thousands of young children. One person commented to me that the treatment of the bodies was as disgusting and despicable as the massive death camps of the Holocaust.

And the white world sets the tone of this humanitarian capacity through its domination of corporate media. The media with its images of distant human suffering and distant victims plays the role of giving publicity and inciting compassion and commitment, channelled through appropriately selected international humanitarian organizations.

Political global compassion, we know quite well, is often an ideology of political and social control couched in euphemisms and contradictions of humanitarian intervention. Humanitarian intervention is considered appropriate in the attempts to broaden the reach of so-called democracy. Since the end of the Cold War, interventionist tactics are now couched in the rhetoric of democracy and human rights, instead of Communism and more overt political ideologies, from Kosovo, to Afghanistan, to Iraq. When the US and UK bombed Afghanistan, in order to be perceived as the good Samaritans, they simultaneously dropped over 35,000 food packages over the country (Reuters, Oct 0, 2001). Meanwhile, images of the casualties and humanitarian crisis of Afghanistan and now Iraq (along with Iraq’s history of devastation due to the sanctions) have been unsurprisingly absent from the pubic eye.

But what of humanitarian interventions for natural disasters that appear completely unselfish?  One major trend in marketing is the marketing of global compassion and the sponsorship of humanitarian efforts. In  2001, Colin Powel announced the creation of the Global Developmental Alliance, which now consists of 200 alliances between AID (Agency for International Development) and foundations in the U.S., and corporate donors. According to CNN, Amazon.com, Bill Gates Foundation, General Electric, Time Warner, Pfizer, Coca Cola, Starbucks and Exxon have all dipped into their coffers to support the tsunami relief effort. (2)

The biggest irony of all this is that Starbucks is donating money raised from coffee grown in Indonesia’s plantations and Coca Cola is sending bottled water to South Asia. The re-bottling, re-packaging, and re-corporatizing of our lands, our resources, our dreams, and our futures.

Coffee is the world’s second most globalized commodity –produced in 70 countries by more than 25 million farmers. Starbucks, in particular, has grown at an astounding rate: an average rate of 28 percent in the past five years with its market value reaching almost $15 billion in 2004. Meanwhile, the estimated 25 million coffee farmers exist at the bottom of the poverty scale.  With increasing anti-corporate protests in the 1990’s, Starbucks jumped on the ‘corporate responsibility’ bandwagon with support for fair-trade coffee and organic farming. This still amounted to just 4-5 cents per cup at most for the farmers, compared with a beverage that actually sells for $2-5 and the amount of “fair-trade certified” coffee that Starbucks purchased in 2003 amounted to less than 1% of its bean purchases. (3)

And like other cash crops, the pattern and organization of labour is traced back to colonial relations – for example, the Dutch smuggling Arabica coffee out of Yemen to their colony in Java, the foundation for Indonesia’s entire current coffee industry; the role of French, British, Portuguese, and Japanese trading companies in Africa, Jamaica, Guyana, Brazil, and Asia, and the role of American companies in Colombia, Central America, and Southeast Asia. In the present context, the colonial relationship established by World Bank structural adjustment programs in the attempts to globalize the coffee market has had devastated impacts on coffee growers, such as in Nicaragua which is now well-documented. The privatization of coffee farms and the emphasis on crash crops for an export-led economy led to bitter competition between Third world countries and the eventual collapse of the Association of Coffee Producing Countries, while consumption, processing and marketing remained in the First World. Due to these free market strategies, according to the World Bank’s own estimates, this caused the loss of at least 600,000 jobs in Central America alone, and left more than 700,000 people in the region near starvation; meanwhile foreign debt and loans increased.

Coca Cola has been at the forefront of controversies it cannot afford: the United Steelworkers of America, on behalf of Sinaltrainal, have filed a lawsuit in the United States charging Coca-Cola with complicity in the murder, torture and intimidation of trade union organizers at Coca-Cola bottling facilities in Columbia. In India, communities around Coca-Cola’s bottling plants are experiencing severe water shortages; the groundwater and soil around its bottling plants have been polluted and Coca-Cola products in the Indian market contain extremely high levels of pesticides, including DDT, sometimes higher than 30 times those allowed by US or EU standards. Tests conducted by the BBC found cadmium and lead in the waste, effectively making the waste toxic waste. Coca-Cola stopped the practice of distributing its toxic waste only when ordered to do so by the state government. Millions of dollars of marketing cannot outweigh the increasing public resistance to the company’s practices and the unprecedented victories that have been won.

Earlier this year, the Kerala High Court prevented the Coca-Cola plant in Plachimada village from drawing underground water. This order was issued as the company drew out such an amount of water, that the entire area within a radius of three kilometres has been under severe drought. The pollutants of the company cause so unbearable stink in the water that it is not only unusable for cooking but also awful for bathing. Now, the single largest Coca-Cola bottling plant in India, in Plachimada, Kerala, remains shut down since March 2004.

In the state of Rajasthan, already drought-ridden, over 50 villages are experiencing water shortages as a result of Coca-Cola’s indiscriminate mining of water, and “struggle committees” have been formed in at least 32 villages to confront Coca-Cola’s abuses. The Central Ground Water Board, a government agency, not only confirmed the declining water table as a result of Coca-Cola’s indiscriminate mining of the water; it also faulted Coca-Cola for creating “ecological imbalances”.

Most recently, on November 25, 2004 in Varanasi over one thousand farmers and community members marched to the factories premises, demanding that the factory shut down. The Coca-Cola plant in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh draws out more than 250,000 liters of underground water per day. Due to this, the water level of the area has receded from 25 to 40 feet under the ground and the pollutants have rendered many acres of agricultural fields infertile. The march in Mehdiganj was the end of a 10-day, 250 km march from Ballia, the site of another Coca-Cola bottling facility. “Drinking Coke is like drinking farmer’s blood in India,” said Nandlal Master of Lok Samiti and the National Alliance of People’s Movements, a key organizer of the march and rally.” Armed police met marchers at the bottling facility and over 350 of the marchers were arrested. (4)

So now, it is nothing short of bitter irony and inhumanness that as the media reports that outbreaks of cholera and other diseases due to unsafe drinking water are looming, one of the biggest offenders is donating bottled water to the very people who have fought tooth and nail to bring this culprit to justice and who have maintained their dignity and honour in previously rejecting the company’s charitable donations of blankets, utensils, medicine or even hard cash.

Meanwhile, international humanitarian and charitable organizations that have increasingly come under scrutiny for not only inefficiency, but also due to the larger effects of “international NGO-ization” that actively hinders grassroots development and autonomy, are suddenly propelled to the forefront as saviours for the Third World. Let us be clear that there is no doubt that humanitarian work in order to save lives and provide adequate access to food and shelter is absolutely necessary. But the larger context must never be lost:  international aid and NGO work will largely defuse the anger of those affected by the tsunami. Anger that again the people of the Third world are not important enough to matter; that again, preventative measures (such as early detection measures that exist in the Pacific rim) that could have been taken were considered expendable. (5) The power and anger of the people has again been channelled into victimization to curb any political resistance.

 Compassion has become morally and politically appropriate, as it should be. What is inappropriate is the ability to decide which images are worthy of those emotions. What is inexcusable is when those images are a direct consequence of policies waged by our governments and corporations for which we are culpable, we seem to exhibit compassion-deficient syndrome. Snaizder has written “compassion is nothing more than the narcissistic desire of an exploitative bourgeoisie to feel good about itself.” A global compassion not only for human life, but for human dignity, can never be attained as brown bodies swelter and slave in plantations and die everyday in order to live for $2 a day, as thousands of farmers continue to commit suicide as their livelihoods are stolen, and as women and children walk across the parched Earth to confront batons and armed police guarding the gates of the free-market heavens.   



(1) The Clash of Barbarisms: Sept 11 and the Making of the New World Disorder (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2002) by Gilbert Achcar.
(2) “US companies seen as big donors to tsunami relief”, by Michele Gershberg. 29 Dec 2004
Source: Reuters
(3) See “The Coffee Connection:Globalization’s Long Reach, From Vietnam To Nicaragua To Starbucks” 2004 by James S. Henry
(4) An excellent website on various community campaigns in India against Coca Cola visit http://www.indiaresource.org
(5) Justin Podur’s Killing Train blog on the Tsunami is available at: http://www.killingtrain.com/archives/000324.html#more
(6) Snaizder. “The Sociology of Compassion: A study in the Sociology of Morals” (1998)

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