Tsunami: A Discourse On Compassion


exceptional intensity of the emotions—disbelief, compassion,
and global concern—displayed at the recent 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, Iraq, Rwanda, and 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. 

Achcar has also commented on this depressing contrast in the context
of the September 11 attacks when the white world was “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.” 

the tsunami disaster has not struck people “like us” in
white America or Europe, but even then, the condescension is apparent.
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 channeled through
appropriately selected international humanitarian organizations. 

global compassion 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 the threat of communism
and more overt political ideologies—from Kosovo to Afghanistan
to Iraq. When the U.S. and UK bombed Afghanistan, in order to be
perceived as good Samaritans, they simultaneously drop- ped over
35,000 food packages in the country. Meanwhile, images of the casualties
and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and now Iraq (along with
Iraq’s history of devastation due to U.S. sanctions) have been
absent from the public eye. 

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

biggest irony of all, is that Starbucks is donating money raised
from coffee grown in Indonesia’s plantations and Coca-Cola
is sending bottled water to South Asia. Coffee is the world’s
second most global commodity—produced in 70 countries. Starbucks,
in particular, has grown at an astounding average rate of 28 percent
in the past 5 years, with its market value reaching almost $15 billion
in 2004. Meanwhile, an estimated 25 million coffee farmers exist
at the bottom of the poverty scale. With increasing anti-corporate
protests in the 1990s, Starbucks jumped on the corporate responsibility
bandwagon with support for fair-trade coffee and organic farming.
This still amounted to just four to five cents per cup at most for
the farmers, compared with a beverage that sells for two to five
dollars. The amount of “fair-trade certified” coffee that
Starbucks purchased in 2003 amounted to less than 1 percent of its
bean purchases.

other cash crops, the pattern and organization of labor can be traced
to colonial relations—for example, the Dutch smuggling of Arabica
coffee out of Yemen to their colony in Java, the foundation for
Indonesia’s current coffee industry; the role of French, British,
Portuguese, and Japanese trading companies in Africa, Jamaica, Guyana,
Brazil, and Asia, and the role of U.S. companies in Colombia, Central
America, and Southeast Asia. In the present context, the colonial
relationship established by World Bank structural adjustment programs
in an attempt to globalize the coffee market has had a devastating
impact on coffee growers, such as in Nicaragua. The privatization
of coffee farms and the emphasis on cash crops for an export-driven
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.  

free market strategies, according to the World Bank’s own estimates,
caused the loss of at least 600,000 jobs in Central America and
left more than 700,000 people in the region near starvation; meanwhile
foreign debt and loans increased. 

has been at the forefront of controversies. The United Steelworkers
of America, on behalf of Sinaltrainal, have filed a lawsuit in the
U.S. charging Coca-Cola with complicity in the murder, torture,
and intimidation of trade union organizers at Coca-Cola bottling
facilities in Colombia. 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 U.S.
or EU standards. Tests conducted by the BBC found cadmium and lead
in the waste, effectively making it toxic. Coca-Cola stopped the
practice of distributing its toxic waste only when ordered to do
so by the state government. 

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, India from drawing underground
water. This order was issued because the company used so much water
that the area within a radius of three kilometers has been under
severe drought. The pollutants the company used caused such an unbearable
stink that the water was not usable for cooking or bathing. Now,
Plachimada, the largest Coca-Cola bottling plant in India, has been
shut down since March 2004. 

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. “Struggle Committees”
have been formed in at least 32 villages to confront Coca-Cola’s
abuses. The Central Ground Water Board, a government agency, confirmed
the declining water table as a result of Coca-Cola’s indiscriminate
mining and also faulted Coca-Cola for creating “ecological

recently, on November 25, 2004 in Varanasi, over 1,000 farmers and
community members marched to the factory, demanding that it be shut
down. (The Varanasi Coca-Cola plant draws more than 250,000 liters
of underground water per day. As a result, the water level has receded
from 25 to 40 feet under the ground and pollutants have rendered
many acres of agricultural fields infertile.) The protest was the
end of a 10-day, 250 kilometer 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 were arrested. 

is a bitter irony that, as the media reports the danger of outbreaks
of cholera and other diseases due to unsafe drinking water, one
of the biggest offenders is donating bottled water to the very people
who fought tooth and nail to bring this culprit to justice and who
have maintained their dignity and honor in previously rejecting
the company’s charitable donations of blankets, utensils, medicine,
and cash. 

international humanitarian and charitable organizations that have
actively hindererd grassroots development and autonomy are suddenly
propelled to the forefront as saviors of the Third World. 

us be clear, 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 preventative measures (such
as early detection) could have been taken. The power and anger of
the people has again been channeled into victimization.

has become morally and politically appropriate, as it should be.
What is inexcusable is when those images of suffering are a direct
consequence of policies waged by our governments and corporations
for which we are culpable, we seem to exhibit compassion-deficient
syndrome. A global compassion not only for human life, but for human
dignity can never be attained when brown bodies swelter and slave
in plantations, trying to live on two dollars a day, as thousands
of farmers continue to commit suicide as their livelihoods are stolen,
and women and children walk across the parched earth to confront
batons and armed police guarding the gates of free market heaven.

Harsha Walia
is a writer and organizer with the No One is Illegal Campaign and
the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy. Her writing
has appeared in several mainstream and progressive publications.