Proof of a shift in global attitudes would be the imposition of fair trade

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The Independent Online

Almost two weeks have passed since the tsunami devastated the islands and coastlines of the Indian Ocean. In that time, £2.2bn has been pledged by the world's governments to help those countries most severely affected.

Almost two weeks have passed since the tsunami devastated the islands and coastlines of the Indian Ocean. In that time, £2.2bn has been pledged by the world's governments to help those countries most severely affected. An aid relief operation, unprecedented in scale, has been established to stop the spread of disease. And the official death toll has continued to rise. Yesterday the Indonesian government discovered almost 5,000 more bodies, taking the number believed to have perished in this catastrophe above 150,000.

Confirmation also came yesterday of the number of Britons believed to have been killed. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, told a news conference in Thailand that 440 are either dead or presumed dead, with a further 2,000 still missing. The Asian tsunami has now inflicted the greatest toll on British lives in a single incident since the end of the Second World War.

Our government has been criticised for lagging behind other nations in releasing casualty figures. Until yesterday, the Foreign Office had refused to put a figure on the number of Britons presumed dead. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with waiting for the facts to emerge before making an announcement. Speculation does nothing to help anxious relatives and, indeed, has the potential to make the situation worse. The most important task for British officials in the region in the immediate wake of the disaster was to identify bodies and to assist those left bereaved or injured. In this, they seem to have performed competently on the whole, despite the chaotic circumstances.

What would be unforgivable, however, is for the release of figures for the British dead to have been delayed to avoid embarrassing a Prime Minister, who returned from holiday only on Monday. There is, as yet, only suspicion that this may have been the case, fuelled by Mr Blair's unusual failure to demonstrate publicly his leadership at a time of national mourning and crisis. Indeed, there is little he can do now to shake the impression that he has been strangely disengaged over the past fortnight. It is hard to avoid wondering if this has anything to do with his decision to quit his job before the end of another term.

Much attention has, rightly, been given this week to the provision of emergency aid. Pressure has also been exerted on donor governments to ensure that promised reconstruction funds are delivered. But in the longer term, developed nations have an even greater responsibility - and not just to the stricken nations of south Asia, but also to Africa, which risks being forgotten. America and Europe must start to lift all restrictions on free trade. Although aid is crucial, deprived nations will escape poverty only if they are allowed to sell the products of their labour on equal terms. The squalid truth at the heart of our world trading system is that export barriers are often four times higher for developing countries than for rich countries. These barriers cost poor nations some $100bn a year - twice what they receive in aid.

Many have detected a shift in global attitudes as a result of this terrible disaster. People across the world have demonstrated the communality of mankind with their support for the victims of the tsunami. Now is the time for governments in the developed world, including Britain, to translate all their fine words into action. They must face down the inevitable squeals of protest from domestic producers and start to make trade fair.

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