Leading Article: Our moral duty to help those hit by disaster

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The Independent Culture
THAT WILL teach the international meteorologists to give hurricanes fluffy names. How much of the slowness of the world's response to the disaster in Central America can be explained by the friendly and cartoonish images conjured by Hurricane Mitch? Only when we learn that this is the worst natural disaster since the cyclone that tore through Bangladesh in 1991, killing 140,000; when we read of the stench of human bodies, of flooding of biblical proportions; does the horror really begin to break through. When we pause to consider the implications of the destruction of crops, homes and roads in the already poor nations of Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador, there is a danger that the size of the task of rescue and reconstruction seems hopeless. That feeling must be resisted, which is why The Independent has launched an appeal for funds on behalf of the Disasters Emergency Committee, representing 15 charities, in the hope of channelling the proven generosity of our readers (see page 2).

Of course, the most immediate need in Central America is not financial but logistical, a matter of burying the dead and getting food, clean water and basic medical supplies to remote places, many of which are quickly accessible only by helicopter. This is the sort of thing British Army engineers are trained to do, and it is a small rebuke to our Government's response that French troops seem to have been readied first.

But money will be needed, too, not just for short-term disaster relief but for long-term rebuilding. One of the many paradoxes of Clare Short, magnificent though she is in many ways, is that she seems to be opposed simultaneously to short-term aid, with a hint of the old socialist scorn towards "charity", and to cancelling long-term debt, which she unwisely described yesterday as "an irrelevance" to the business of "pulling people out of mud".

The more quickly resources can be pledged to Central America, the more effectively disaster relief can be planned, and the more hopeful the transition to reconstruction. And for the governments of Honduras and Nicaragua, paying pounds 1.3m every day in debt interest to Western governments, the World Bank and the IMF, any day relieved of this burden means huge sums available for building homes and bridges. Both countries are eligible for debt reduction under an initiative much trumpeted at the Group of Seven summit of leading nations in Birmingham this summer. But not until 2002 at the earliest, and then the reductions would be small. Of course, this process cannot be accelerated in time to make a difference to a Honduran village that needs a helicopter today, but the catastrophe should surely lend greater urgency.

But Ms Short is an admirable politician, and a good Secretary of State for International Development, a job in which she transparently believes. She has reversed the decline in Britain's aid budget and continued the shift in emphasis within it from corn to seed corn. It is only her passion to make sure that aid goes to the neediest, and that it reinforces independence rather than dependency, that she gets into trouble over the people of Monserrat "wanting golden elephants next" and debt relief being "irrelevant".

The world's rich countries have not merely a moral obligation but an imperative of self-interest to help. Effective aid - aid that helps people provide for themselves - is never a one-way transaction. Indeed, it must be a better long-term investment in trade and security than bribing corrupt leaders to buy weapons.

Please help, not simply as an act of individual charity, but as an expression of our collective responsibility in the world, inseparable from our collective self-interest.