Humanity must show it defies the destruction

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When we expressed our optimism for 2005 in this space last week we could not have known how cruelly nature would mock our words. The disaster that struck the coasts of the Indian Ocean last Sunday was a bleak reminder of the precariousness and preciousness of life. Friday night's celebration of the New Year was, therefore, more muted than usual. The word "reveller", which mostly survives in the English language only in newspapers at this time of year, seems more endangered than ever.

When we expressed our optimism for 2005 in this space last week we could not have known how cruelly nature would mock our words. The disaster that struck the coasts of the Indian Ocean last Sunday was a bleak reminder of the precariousness and preciousness of life. Friday night's celebration of the New Year was, therefore, more muted than usual. The word "reveller", which mostly survives in the English language only in newspapers at this time of year, seems more endangered than ever.

In the face of such appalling destruction, there is something in the human psyche that looks for crumbs of comfort. For all the grief and loss, it is conceivable that some good might emerge from adversity. As successive waves of bad news spread out across the world, they were at least answered by reflected waves of sympathy and generosity, a reminder of the real meaning of "humanity". Notwithstanding reports of confusion and waste, many peoples of rich nations, ours among them, have understood that money given to disaster relief is likely to reach its intended target.

It would be naive to imagine that one catastrophe - for once, the word is apposite - could adjust the power relationship between the rich and the developing worlds. But there are hopeful signs. The levelling of rich tourists and their poor providers in the resorts of Thailand and Sri Lanka may strengthen an understanding on both sides that they need each other. The interest of European publics in the fate of their fellow citizens has not been to the exclusion of local people. And there seems to be recognition that one of the ways to help people in the affected areas, as Tony Wheeler argues in our pages today, is for tourists to continue to go there.

There may be some comfort, too, to be drawn from the way in which the globalised media has prompted quicker and more generous help than might have been forthcoming before.

We should guard against naivety, however, in assuming this new co-operative spirit will overcome differences. The ceasefire between government and separatists in Aceh is welcome, as is the cessation of hostilities between the army and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, but neither is likely to last. American engagement in the region is important but probably transient. It was hoped after the earthquake in Bam, Iran, in 2003, for example, that international aid, including from the US, would encourage the US to engage with Iran's government. Neither George Bush nor the theocrats of Tehran have lived up to those hopes. In the present case, President Bush's announcement of yet another "coalition" - not including his First Friend Tony Blair and cutting across both the United Nations and the G8 - only advertises his suspicion of multilateral institutions. Yet the Bush administration was then prompted, largely by the pressure of world and US opinion, to increase its aid tenfold and to pay lip service at least to the role of the UN.

That pressure is an affirmation of the human spirit, as is the response from individual and corporate donors. It is not just money that the victims need, of course, but without it little is possible, and the principles of sustainable development - which is the next phase after the priorities of disaster relief are met - are better understood than they used to be. Charity used to be disparaged by the liberal left, and it certainly needs to be accompanied by government action. But as a way of mobilising resources and raising awareness, appeals to conscience do work, as Live Aid proved 20 years ago, and the revival of Band Aid proved this Christmas. As Bob Geldof said of victims of famine and civil war in Africa, what those communities hit by the tsunami need is money. Let us give it to them.

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