Sunday, 24 November 2013

Thurs 14th - Phnom Penh - NGO-land - Typhoon Haiyan

The night bus from Siem Reap was murder. It departed an hour late, and got later through the night. At 04.30 we stopped and I heard the unwelcome sound of the hood being popped and a box of tools clanking. The driver valiantly racked and torqued the engine, dropping spanners and cursing while we all pretended to sleep, convincing myself that my knowledge of Cambodian language and bus mechanics was less than useful. It's no wonder the buses breakdown regularly and the drivers can fix them, because the roads are shoddy, full of deep crater like holes. The previous day I had cycled five miles down a really smooth highway in pouring rain in search of one of the remoter of Angkors temples, and was dismayed to find the road suddenly stopping in the middle of a field, a muddy track marking its potential furtherance. Remembering the Pobutang incident from last month, I u-turned and visited the museum instead to dry off.

This is the bus after the long night, you may determine through the jungle of exhausted limbs, and hanging blankets, that it's a fitted with two reclined seat/beds abreast, with lower and upper levels, on either side of a narrow aisle. My seat number 23A didn't exist, so I eshewed the ceiling/nose intimacy of the upper level, and settled down in the windowless lower next to a Cambodian teenager who promptly nuzzled up to my shoulder and started snoring through his hoody, neglecting to switch-off his fake Dre Beats that at least gave me a good working knowledge of Cambodian hip-hop until his batteries finally died around 3am. I gave him a shove every once in a while, just for good measure, but he remained resolutely in the land of his gun-toting, bitch-nailing, crack-smokin brothers on the mean streets of south-central LA or PP. 

Disembarking into the sweaty heat of the Phnom Penh morning, I dodged the tuktuk touts and yomped north, witnessing a builders' lorry unwittingly dismantle some bamboo scaffolding and very nearly toppling the guy working on it. Health and safety officers didn't make an appearance. 

My hostel was Eighty8 on 88th street. It had a swimming pool, and cats, and Khmer girls on reception who thought I was very amusing, I didn't figure out why, it could have been the enormous bags under my eyes. It was good at least to see some smiling faces.

And monkeys patrolling the artificial jungle of telephone wires.

The history of Cambodia, in particular Phnom Penh is no laughing matter though. This country tore itself apart between 1975 and 1979, through mass murder and induced famine. It was already, and remains riddled with American land mines and ordnance that somehow drifted over the border during the Vietnam war. There's a museum dedicated to land-mines here, but I didn't have the time to visit it.

In the late seventies Cambodia, for many of us, was a byword for famine. I remember watching Blue Peter as a five or six year old as they appealed for donations to help the crisis. I don't recall hearing anything about a genocide though. I wonder if that was because we children were shielded from such matters, or whether the situation wasn't readily apparent to the western press at the time. Since then though international aid workers have made Cambodia their home. Non-Governmental Organisations are ubiquitous in the country. Western development agencies compete and collaborate to rehabilitate the traumatised population and shattered economy. More recently the city is gaining favour with expat sunseekers who are finding Bangkok too expensive. There's a couple of English language newspapers, one is called The Phnom Penh Post, and reading it gives a clear sense of a firmly embedded anglophone community. As with any area busied by NGO workers, there's also a fair amount of navel gazing; self-analysing for best practise, minimum harm, and ethical policy and issues surrounding intervention. 

That's all well and good, but in the back of a tuk-tuk returning from the Choeung Ek centre, driving through one of the very poorest parts of town, I was passed by a short convoy of big SUVs, lead by a bright yellow Hummer, with a VIP placard on the dashboard, followed by swish new Lexus, ploughing through the locals on their scooters. It wasn't military, it didn't look governmental, or private (there is an increasingly wealthy elite here), could it have really been an NGO group? The area that this convoy was driving through is somewhat notorious here for its vast Steung Mean Chey landfill site that until two years ago received all the city's trash. The children and adults that spent their days scavenging through the rotting filth for anything of worth, are the poorest of the poor, open to exploitation and vulnerable to gang violence. I'm wondering how they perceive that huge gas-guzzling vehicle. They must be aware that the intentions are benign, ostensibly at least, and hopefully they have received some valuable benefits, maybe clean drinking water, or medicines or access to education. (It's likely that these kinds of questions are a luxury and the preserve of those who don't have to worry about where the next meal is coming from). But from where I was, it smelled like imperialism. A humvee, is hardly the most cultually sensitive means of transporting your crew through town, shoddy roads or not. We're here to help! Get out of the way! 

Since super-typhoon Haiyan swept away large parts of the Philippines a couple of weeks ago, I've become a little more aware of the aid community and the politics of disaster relief. I strongly considered heading to the islands a couple of weeks earlier than planned to get involved and do what I could to help those desperately in need. There was certainly no way I could countenance the idea of chilling with a cocktail on a Palawan beach, while a hundred miles north, bodies were still lying unburied by the side of the road. I was willing, and I was able. I'm reasonably strong and healthy and can wield a chainsaw - surely that would have been useful in getting the supply lines opened? But of course, I need to eat and I need somewhere to sleep, I am a demand on scarce resources. Best leave it to the professionals, I was told. And so I did. 

The professionals arrived from all over the world. Small experienced outfits from the UK, local medics from the Philippine Red Cross, public volunteers from Singapore and Japan, tourists already on the islands. Big money too from foreign governments and public appeals, (only China was less generous, weakly, citing their own Haiyan damage). And then the enormous USS George Washington, already in the area rocked up and deployed it's mammoth resources to get the aid to isolated communities on tiny islands. This huge and timely effort has clearly saved a lot of lives, and alleviated terrible suffering.

Yet while the total number of dead (5000 and rising) is not necessarily a good yard stick to determine ongoing distress and risk, is it fair to say that Haiyan has thus far received a disproportionately high amount of attention? I dont think so, I'm not downplaying the scale of this awful tragedy, particularly while it is still very much ongoing*, quite the opposite. Yet consider the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 that left nearly 50 times as many people dead. Or closer to the west, the Haiti earthquake of 2010 that killed a similarly vast number. Did they receive 50 times as much aid?  If not, why not? Could the superlative, unprecedented power of the wind that kindled the world's imagination? The strongest typhoon ever to make landfall. Everyone loves a record breaker. At the other end of the scale who has heard of Typhoons Odette, Paolo and Santi, that all hit the Philippines in 2013, each killing more than fifty people and displacing thousands - They barely made an appearance in the British press. I guess there's such a thing as compassion fatigue, and it would appear there is a ceiling to people's generosity. But there is also a news agenda, and a political one too. Which editors determine the schedule of the nightly news, and which stories get the finite column inches? Politically, some have already referred to, the wielding of 'soft power', a conspicuous and acceptable deployment of military might for the benefit of a grateful and now indebted nation. Making friends in peace time for reasons that may not be entirely humanitatian, nothing wrong with that, but we should not let it go unnoticed. 

With global water levels rising, weather patterns shifting and climate changing, these 'natural disasters' and 'acts of god' are on the increase. Who decides who gets the publicity that brings the aid, who does not? Its not all decided by the UN and UNICEF, it's a strategic decision to win the hearts and minds of certain developing and needy nations. 

*Meanwhile, reports out of Tacloban nearly three weeks after Yolanda swept through, continue to describe horrific scenes of total destruction and utter bedlam. Donate here:

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.