Key to Confronting Disaster — Look Busy

Watching the video and reading the stories coming out of Asia and Africa of the recent tsunami’s has been a bit surreal. It was hard enough to comprehend a single terrorist attack killing almost 3,000 people. Death on the scale of hundreds of thousands of people in a weekend is far beyond what I can comprehend. The death toll keeps increasing like some sort of one-sided sporting event.

One of the few visible touchstones of life-as-usual has been the media’s response and criticism — namely that the way to confront disasters is to simply look busy.

First it was Bush who was accused of being heartless for not rushing back to Washington, DC where he would have done who knows what? Maybe given teary-eyed speeches about feeling the pain of Indonesians?

Now the media turned the same sort of criticism to Kofi Annan (emphasis added)

Q: Mr. Secretary, picking up on Richard’s question, I think a lot of people are asking exactly why you waited three days on vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, before you decided to fly back to New York in the face of this extraordinary crisis. Could you give us a full explanation of your thinking on that? Secondly, what kind of signal does that 72-hour delay send to the nations to which you are now appealing for greater help?

SG: First of all, there was action. It wasn’t inaction. We live in a world where you can operate from wherever you are. You know the world we live in now. You don’t have to be physically here to be dealing with the leaders and the Governments I have been dealing with. You don’t have to be physically here to be discussing with some of the agencies that we have done.

I came back here because we have reached a level that I wanted to have meetings with all the people that I have met with today. So, we have taken action. And I don’t have to be sitting in my office to take action. I think the same goes for you in your profession.

Annan is absolutely right — haven’t these idiot reporters heard of cell phones, fax machines, the Internet, video conferencing and dozens of other technologies which allow someone like Annan or Bush to conduct their business pretty much anywhere in the world? Getting on a plane and flying somewhere is just a frigging waste of time and money.

But this is what the media wants — regardless of the actual situation, make sure you look like you’re doing something. This goes back decades. For example, the New York Times in an editorial today calls for the United States to drastically increase foreign aid to the developing world to tackle issues like hunger.

But the countries that need the aid the most are also the countries that are the most corrupt and are unable to provide accountability for foreign aid. The United States and other countries and institutions spent decades throwing billions of dollars at developing countries with almost nothing to show for it today except perhaps for hundreds of millions squirreled away in private bank accounts by corrupt government officials.

That criticism, however, is beside the point. After all when the U.S. or the World Bank gives $100 million to tackle some problem, it looks busy, and the media are experts at rewarding style over substance.

The underlying problems that afflict developing countries where, say, hunger is still a major problem, are not the sort of problems that foreign aid can fix. And its silly to throw all that money away just to tell the media “we’re doing something.”


Secretary-General Kofi Annan and UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland at press conference on Asian Tsunami disaster. December 30, 2004.

Real-World New Year’s Resolutions. Editorial, New York Times, December 31, 2004.

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