When the House of Commons returns on Monday, I expect a statement from the Government about the UK’s response to the Indonesian earthquake. I have been impressed by Hilary Benn’s handling of the crisis over the past ten days – although following the Government’s financial contribution to the disaster fund has been a bit like watching an e-Bay auction. I suspect the Government may have initially underestimated with generosity of the public’s response, and has been struggling to keep up with it. Certainly I have been struck by the large number of local initiatives here in North Hampshire, such as the one by the local Rotary Club helping with water supplies, and by the generosity of so many constituents.
International organisations don’t appear to have performed so well. The reason why we support and subscribe to the UN is to enable prompt collective action to be taken when it is needed – action that would be more effective than if countries had acted individually and unilaterally. But for an organisation established to cope with disasters, it always seems to be taken by surprise when one happens; and then it moves at the pace of the slowest. It may be that, after 50 years, it is time to subject it to a fundamental and critical review to see if it can perform better.
One change over that half century has been the impact of technology. Much of it has been beneficial. I have no doubt that the virtually instantaneous transmission of pictures from the stricken areas helped prompt the generous response from the public. That response has been swiftly converted into cash via websites and internet banks. Technology also facilitated the electronic transmission of photographs of the missing to assist in the recognition of the casualties; and it enabled survivors to make instant contact via text messages with their relatives on the far side of the world.
But could not technology have been more effectively harnessed, and is this not one of the lessons for the future? Technology which tells us when to raise the Thames Barrier because of the risk of a surge did not warn holidaymakers that a 60 foot tidal wave was on its way. Can we not make better use of seismology and modern communications to reduce casualties? Could technology not have helped with identifying the casualties? Rescue workers tried to take photographs of those who were killed before burying them, but this is an imperfect and traumatic process for rescuers and family. A hair taken from the head might have enable them to be identified, had the technology and databases been available. Could not satellite mobile phones have been dropped to the communities that were cut off, so they could communicate their needs more effectively? Technology has been well developed where there is a clear commercial market; it has been less well developed for humanitarian purposes.
Last month, two astronauts aboard an international space station had to cut back on meat and potatoes, and make do with candy, until 440 pounds of food arrived on Christmas Day. The trip from Kazakhstan to the fast-moving space station in the stratosphere took two days. The next day, the tsunami struck. Ten days later, we still could not get food a few miles from an Indonesian airport to starving survivors. Yes, we must do better next time.