Saturday, January 01, 2005

New Year Reflections On Catastrophe

Goodbye to 2004.

Here in Malaysia the coming of the new year was marked by a sombre mood of reflection on the events of the last week. All official celebrations were cancelled out of respect for Asia and Africa's dead and the ongoing relief efforts. At midnight the city was eerily quiet. And this is how it should be.

Neither is this a time for cynicism or conspiracy. The survivors - especially in devastated Aceh where half a million people are without basic shelter - need our unconditional help. So far the donations of millions of people have been extraordinary. Of course we can carp about the logistical nightmares and incompetence of some authorities. Of course we can question the niggardly response of some governments. And of course we can sneer at the preening behaviour of Malaysia's nouveau riche billionaires as they parade their cheques for public consumption.
It is important to make sure that pledges a fully realised. It is important to push governments to be more generous, not just now but if the long-term as well. And the less said about the "beauty parade" of wannabe donors the better.

But the generosity of ordinary people reminds us - as Susan Sontag did - that people far away are not inured to the suffering of others. There is a genuine solidarity of humankind.

The Times has a helpful chart of official pledges of help. It cites this from the prime minister of tiny, impoverished East Timor which has promised £26,000: "As neighbours and friends we cannot stand by and do nothing. This is our way of saying we are here as your friends when you are in need". Above all, this is a moving acknowledgement of the common destiny of all of us - not only at a time of great loss but at all times.

To all comrades and friends I want to wish you all the best in 2005 - and for building a better world that we all have to share.


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