Monday, October 10, 2005

Those wacky black people: The Human Development Report released the same time Katrina hits....

I’m not really happy about this, but I’m going to have to raise a really serious issue here. It was just yesterday that I was steam cleaning my beret and smoking a cigarette (that was a French joke, get it?) when the name Amartya Sen popped into my head. I don’t remember my stream of consciousness, but it went something like --> beret --> cigarette --> smoke --> Katrina --> oh CRAP! American democracy is in flames!

I promise I’m not prone to overreactions like this, but I just can’t shake this itching feeling that something’s very, very wrong. Wait! All of you who are thinking, that’s not anything new, please just wait. To me, this might just be an example of how horribly wrong things are.

The Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen popped into my head because one of the arguments—if not the argument—in his book Development as Freedom, which is essentially that famines don’t happen in democratic countries. Now, I know we don’t have a famine in the US right now, and I’m not saying that we’re not a democracy (that’s a topic for another article). My focus is on Sen’s reason for why democracies don’t experience famines: accountability.

Sen points out how in countries like South Korea, Japan, Singapore, and Botswana over a period of about fifteen years there was an actual decrease in food production—a 58 percent decrease in the case of Singapore—yet there was no visible sign of increased hunger within those countries over that time. Next, he describes both Sudan and Burkina Faso’s increase in food production—a 29.4 percent increase for the latter—while both countries experienced significant mounting of hunger within their populations (176). A couple of pages later in another similar example he says, “Had the governments [of these countries] not failed to undertake timely action, they would have been under severe criticism and pressure from the opposition and would have gotten plenty of flak from newspapers” (179)

I hope this is becoming a little bit clearer. The key to efficient government—one which is constantly pressured in order to meet the needs of it’s population—is accountability. Yet, fast-forward about a month after Katrina—you know that disaster where the dispossessed pony judge blew his second chance and, seemingly, Bush’s mandate for putting his buddies in positions that aren’t “Ambassador to Monaco”—and Bush goes and nominates Harriet Miers. In spite of this, many people still consider criticism of governement policies to be "anti-American."

Let me clarify one point, people are going to think I'm exaggerating, and I'm not. I honestly believe that if we let our officials continue to wiggle-waggle all the time without being accountable, we will be in trouble. I don't think a lot of Americans realize just how much the outside world is watching, but they are. The Katrina coverage here in Europe was extensive. I heard an English reporter and a Dutch reporter both questioning, "How can this happen in the United States?" I saw images on the nightly news in France of hords of blacks living on a debris strewn stretch of highway, and the reporter said, "You see these images, and not knowing it's America, you would think it's Liberia."

When I thought about Sen the first time, I put down my beret and did a google search "Amartya Sen Katrina," and I'll be damned if I didn't find an article by Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, author of Globalization and Its Discontents. He said:
The world has been horrified at America’s response to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans. Four years after the terrorist attacks of September 2001, and with billions of dollars allegedly spent on “preparedness” for another emergency, America has shown the world that it was not prepared—even for an event that came with ample warning.

The difference between the tsunami in Asia last December and what is coming to be called the black tsunami in America—because it brought so much devastation to the poor, mostly black, people of Louisiana—is striking. The Asian disaster showed the ability of those affected to overcome long-standing rifts, as Aceh rebels put down their arms in common cause with the rest of Indonesia. By contrast, the disaster in New Orleans—and elsewhere along America’s Gulf Coast—exposed and aggravated such rifts.


I was in Thailand right after the tsunami, and I saw that country’s impressive response. The Thais flew consular and embassy officials to the affected areas, aware of the sense of helplessness among those stranded far from home. America kept foreign officials from coming to the aid of their nationals in New Orleans—embarrassed, perhaps, at what they would see.

America loses all credibility in the world when it doesn't practice what it preaches.

Here lies, dying, the poor, measly point of this article. Americans have to demand accountability from our government officials, because there is nothing to keep us from suffering the same fate as any other third world country…speaking of third world countries, did you know that in 1990 a black man in Harlem had less of a chance of living past 40 than men in Bangladesh? It’s true. More so, did you know that, ominously, the time that Katrina hit, the UN released it’s Human Development Report, in which the difference between races in the United States was one of the highlights, if that’s what you can call it? America ranks 10th on the HDR.

I hope more people are starting to see that this can be helped, and should be. As one analysis of Sen's work in regards to Katrina puts it:
However, contra Sen’s caution, his remarks are celebrated as proof from authority that liberal democracy can prevent all disasters. In extremis, the argument is even heard that a free press and an informed citizenry make technical early warning systems redundant. Transferred to the economic sphere, international assistance analysts have investigated how a private insurance market could supplement and even supplant state provision of famine relief and other emergency logistics. The default option becomes blithely optimistic neglect. What need for mass evacuation plans when most people have cars, can buy bus tickets, and are kept informed by commercial television news?

I’ll finish this rant here, but I'm going to give y'all some delicious links before I go:

The UN Human Developement Report

The World's report on the HDR

A terribly interesting flash program of the HDR results for all you ADHD people like me


Post a Comment

<< Home