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The tsunami and the Brandt Report

Mohammed Sofiane Mesbahi
01 February 2005

World public opinion has shifted since the Asian tsunami. People have been so moved by the plight of the people in the devastated areas that they have begun to talk about poverty and injustice in other parts of the world, such as Africa. The time is ripe to re-examine the recommendations of the Brandt Report, writes Mohammed Mesbahi and Dr. Angela Paine.

The response of the world public to the tsunami disaster on the 26th December 2004 was (and continues to be) one of heartfelt empathy and an instinctive desire to help fellow human beings in trouble. Never before have so many people, from so many countries given so much to the victims of a disaster. World governments have been shamed into promising far greater sums of aid than they originally wanted to offer by the sheer magnitude of the public’s generosity. The US initially pledged $15 million but in the end promised $350 million while the UK government felt obliged to raise their pledge to $96 million, still a tiny fraction of the money these governments have so far spent ($148 billion –the US and $11.5 billion - the UK) on the war in Iraq. As George Monbiot says, the UK has spent almost twice as much on the war in Iraq as it spends annually on aid to the third world. The US gives just over $16 billion in foreign aid: less than one ninth of the money it has so far burnt in Iraq.

How many people realise, however, as Devinder Sharma points out, that many of the deaths caused by the Tsunami could have been prevented? The area affected has been hit by tsunamis in the past, with far fewer deaths resulting, because the coastlines of South East Asia were protected by a natural defence system, composed of coral reefs and mangrove forests. Many of the previous tsunamis were tamed by the coral reefs before hitting the coast, where they were absorbed by a dense layer of red mangrove trees. These flexible trees, with long branches growing right down into the sand below the surface of the sea, absorb the shock of tsunamis. Behind the red mangrove trees there is a second layer of black mangrove trees, which are taller and slow down the waves.

Thousands of miles of coastline in South East Asia were densely covered in mangrove forests, protecting the coastline from erosion, absorbing carbon dioxide and providing a breeding ground for crustaceans and fish, on which the local population depended for their livelihood. This was a fragile environment, which ecologists have long recommended should enjoy special protection. In India a Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) was created to protect a 500 meter buffer zone along the coast.

While the belt of mangrove forest still existed, the people of the area lived inland, behind it. In 1960 a tsunami hit the coast of Bangladesh in an area where the mangroves were intact. No-one died. These mangroves were subsequently cut down by the shrimp (prawn) farming industry and in 1991 thousands of people were killed when a tsunami of the same magnitude hit the same region. On Dec 26th 2004, Pichavaram and Muthupet, in South India, who still have their mangrove forests, suffered fewer casualties than the surrounding mangrove-less areas of coast. Mangroves also acted as a barrier, helping people to survive on Nias Island, Indonesia, close to the epicentre of the Dec 26 tsunami. Burma and the Maldives suffered less from the tsunami because the shrimp and tourism industries had not yet destroyed all their mangroves and coral reefs.

Since the 1960s, the mangrove forests of South East Asia have been systematically destroyed to make way for commercial shrimp (prawn) farming and a massive increase in the tourism industry. The aquaculture and tourism industries succeeded in diluting any protective regulations that were in place, until they were able to take over most of the buffer zone. Almost 70% of the region’s mangrove forests have now disappeared.

Since three quarters of South East Asian commercial fish species spend part of their life cycle in the mangrove swamps the loss of these swamps has resulted in declining fish harvests. To compound this situation, the commercial feeds, pesticides, antibiotics and non-organic fertilizers used in intensive shrimp farms have generated huge amounts of pollution, destroying the remaining fish and harming the coral reefs.

As the fish have declined, desperate fishermen resorted to dropping dynamite into the reefs to drive them out. Scientists working for the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) have recently compiled The World Atlas of Coral Reefs, an underwater survey. They found that one third of the world’s coral reefs are in South-east Asia and almost all are under threat. 70% of the world’s coral reefs have already been destroyed. 80% of Indonesia’s reefs are in danger. Dynamite fishing has contributed to the destruction of an ecosystem already under threat from sediment erosion caused by the loss of mangrove forests, shrimp farm pollution and untreated sewage from the tourism industry.

According to Susan Stonich, University professor from California University, international corporations, based in the first world but operating in the third world, produce 99% of farmed shrimp. But almost all of it is eaten in the US, Western Europe and Japan, where consumption has increased by 300% in the last ten years. Today world shrimp production, in an industry worth $9 billion, is almost 800,000 metric tons and 72% of farmed shrimp comes from Asia. Hundreds of nongovernmental organizations have sprung up at local, national and international levels to oppose this destructive aquaculture industry. In 1997 the Industrial Shrimp Action Network (ISA Net) was formed, a global alliance opposed to unsustainable shrimp farming. Aquaculture corporations responded by forming the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA) to counter the claims of the ISA Network. Commercial shrimp farming has displaced local communities, exacerbated conflicts, decreased the quality and quantity of drinking water and decimated the natural fish species on which the local population rely. The population of these areas ended up living right on the coast, without the benefit of their protective mangrove forests. Their coral reefs were by now eroded by pollution, dynamite fishing, tourists (who tread on the reefs) and the rising temperature of the sea.

The reason why the aquaculture and tourism corporations have been allowed to destroy the coastal environment of South East Asia is because the current neoliberal trade system favours corporations over and above all concerns for the environment and the people living in it. Trade liberalisation, through the World Trade Organisation, has enabled corporations to challenge the legislation of the countries they wanted to operate in, legislation that was designed to protect the local environment.

Ecological and human disasters such as the 2004 tsunami will continue to occur as long as the current Global Economic system is allowed to exist in its present form.

Way back in the 1980s Willy Brandt warned that the current global economic system, with its emphasis on profit at all costs, would lead to environmental degradation and worsening poverty in the third world. He said “Important harm to the environment and depletion of scarce resources is occurring in every region of the world, damaging soil, sea and air. The biosphere is our common heritage and must be preserved by cooperation – otherwise life itself could be threatened” (North South, 72 -73.) How prophetic these words sound today.

He set up the Independent Commission on International Development Issues to make an in-depth study of the global economy. His team of advisers included many experts in the field of international policy and economics. Their detailed report came to the conclusion that the developed nations dominated international trade and that this was unbalanced and biased in favour of large corporations based in the West. The Brandt Commission was the first major independent global panel to examine connections between the environment, international trade, international economics and the third world. The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development took Brandt’s proposals regarding the environment seriously enough to hold international conferences in Rio in 1992 and in Kyoto in 1997. However America refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol and corporate power prevented any of the Brandt Report recommendations being put into practice.

The Brandt Reports called for a complete restructuring of the global economy, in order to protect the environment and meet the needs of the world population. Willy Brandt said “We see a world in which poverty and hunger still prevail in many huge regions; in which resources are squandered without consideration of their renewal; in which more armaments are made and sold than ever before; and where a destructive capacity has been accumulated to blow up our planet several times over”. He proposed a Summit of World Leaders, with the backing of a global citizens’ movement, to discuss how to meet the needs of the majority of the world’s people. This would, he recognised, mean reforming the international economy. He proposed a series of measures, including:

  • An emergency aid program to assist countries on the verge of disaster

  • Third world debt forgiveness

  • Fair trade

  • The stabilisation of world currencies

  • A reduction in the arms trade

  • Global responsibility for the environment

  • A major overhaul of the global economic system.

Brandt also recognised that poverty contributes to high birth rates and that overpopulation puts pressure on the environment. This has indeed happened all over the world, including South East Asia.

Two decades later, world leaders had not responded to any of Brandt’s proposals in any meaningful way. They continued to allow an ever increasing export of arms to some of the most repressive regimes, and public apathy towards the plight of the world’s hungry billions continued.

In the 1980s Brandt was calling for preventive action and his proposals were falling on deaf ears. Only now is preventive action beginning to be taken seriously. The World Bank estimates that losses caused by disasters in the 1990s could have been cut by $280 billion if $40 billion had been spent on preventive measures. Whether protection of the environment came into the equation is not clear but surely the preservation of the coastal environment of South East Asia was more important than providing a luxury item of food to the US, Europe and Japan. Brandt also called for coordinated relief programmes for areas where disasters had already occurred.

Only one organisation has the people and the close relationships with governments to make coordinated disaster aid work, the UN’s Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Yet immediately after the tsunami world leaders were in disagreement over coordination of the relief operation. George Bush refused to cooperate with the UN because of his long-running differences with the UN leadership. World opinion eventually forced him to recognise the need for cooperation with the OCHA for the smooth running of the disaster relief.

However the OCHA is far from perfect, partly because it has not been given the support it needs by all the member countries of the UN. Willy Brandt recognised that the UN needed to be restructured to make it democratic and effective and all the UN agencies needed to be reformed to make them more efficient. He called for emergency programs for food, housing and healthcare to be coordinated. He recommended cutting the red tape to ensure that resources reached impoverished people directly, unfiltered through inefficient bureaucracy. He called for national projects, overseen by representatives from developed and developing nations.

He recommended that instead of fighting wars, armies and navies from the developed world could be deployed to bring in the food, resources and technology needed to help poor nations reverse hunger and poverty. This has indeed been happening since the tsunami. Armies and navies have indeed been bringing food, resources and technology to the disaster areas. Ironically, as George Monbiot points out in the Guardian Jan 4, the US marines who have been sent to Sri Lanka to help the rescue operation were, just a few weeks ago, murdering the civilians, smashing the homes and evicting the entire population of the Iraqi city of Falluja.

Since the tsunami world opinion has shifted. People have been so moved by the plight of the people in the devastated areas that they have begun to talk about poverty and injustice in other parts of the world, such as Africa. Some of the poorest people in the world are concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa, where “We have the resources to save millions of lives and raise the basic infrastructure” (Jeffrey Sachs, Kofi Annan’s Special Adviser). Over the past few decades official development assistance to third world countries has been declining and few donor countries now give the internationally-agreed 0.7% of their gross domestic product. Jeffrey Sachs would like to see donor countries increase their aid budget. But in the end it will be popular opinion which pushes governments into rethinking their aid policies. Since the tsunami, people have been increasingly questioning the meanness of their countries’ aid budgets and demanding that more aid is given to third world countries.

Jeffrey Sachs has recently presented the “Global Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals”. The report, developed by 300 economists and researchers, reiterates many of the aims of the Brandt Reports:

  • Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger

  • Achieve universal primary education

  • Promote gender equality and empower women

  • Reduce child mortality

  • Improve maternal health

  • Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases

  • Ensure environmental sustainability

  • Develop a global partnership for development

20,000 poor people die every day from preventable diseases in Africa, partly because their governments are paying $30 million dollars a day in interest to the World Bank, the IMF and the rich world creditor nations. Currently for every one dollar that is given to Africa in aid one and a half dollars goes out to pay the interest on debts.

Third world debt today is $2.6 trillion. Between 1982 and 2003 the poor world has paid $5.4 trillion in interest. This means that the poor world has already paid back the amount it now owes more than twice. Willy Brandt called for total third world debt forgiveness. However the World Bank, the IMF and rich creditor countries were not prepared to forgo the huge amounts of interest they were receiving every year from poor, heavily-indebted countries. But over the past twenty years a groundswell of public protest has gradually been growing, demanding an end to third world debt. After the tsunami the voice of the protesters grew, with public protests, for example in Belfast, where young people marched, demanding the immediate cancellation of the debts of the countries affected. As a result governments have been pressured into giving third world debt some serious thought. Gordon Brown, who initially proposed freezing debt repayments for a year, is now leading the campaign for 100 percent multilateral debt relief for poor countries. The G8 finally announced on the 9 Jan that all Tsunami afflicted countries would have their debt repayments halted.

In the past funding for debt relief has come from the aid budget. It is essential that this does not happen now.

Brandt recommended restructuring the World Trade Organisation to allow proportional representation and decision-making by poor countries of the third world. He wanted to establish a new code of conduct for international corporations, to curb their power and prevent them from carrying out environmentally unsound practices and to improve conditions of the workers. He proposed trade liberalisation and the removal of trade barriers. Unfortunately GATT has done just that, but only in the third world, while maintaining protectionist trade barriers in the first world, where the rich counties spend $300 billion every year in subsidies, subsidies that prevent the poor countries having access to their markets. Brandt wanted to remove these subsidies, which give the rich world an unfair advantage.

Since Brandt’s reports the World Trade Organisation and the Free Trade Agreements have carried out a policy of perpetual trade liberalisation at any price. The result has been disastrous for the third world, which comprises 85% of the world population. Their share of international trade is only 25% because prices for everything that they export, from raw materials to cash crops, have fallen and continue to fall. Legislation designed to promote health and protect the environment in third world countries has been challenged and overruled in the name of trade liberalisation.

The Brandt Reports noted that the abolition of the gold standard had had a disastrous effect on the currencies of third world countries. When the US set up the flexible exchange rate system in 1971 third world currencies began to fluctuate and in most cases to fall in value. This was/is because investors could now buy and sell currencies on the world stock market, thus causing their value to increase or decrease at a moments notice. Rich countries such as the US and the EU were better protected against these currency fluctuations simply because they had larger amounts of money. This has led to rich people in third world countries investing their money in the US in order to protect it from the monetary instability of their own countries. This money has bolstered the US dollar, which otherwise would not be able to withstand the enormous fiscal and trade deficits incurred during the Bush administration.

Brandt wanted to stabilise world currencies and another Nobel Prize-winner, the economist James Tobin, proposed a solution. In 1971 he suggested that a tax of less than 0.5% on all foreign currency exchange transactions would deter currency speculation. Support is growing for the Tobin tax, which would reduce the volatility of exchange rates and raise much needed revenue to pay for sustainable human development.

Brandt was concerned about the huge waste of resources involved in military spending. Arms sales to poor countries contribute to conflict, increase their burden of debt and further impoverish them. According to Clare Short’s recent White Paper, 24 of the 40 poorest countries in the world, mostly in Africa, have recently suffered and continue to suffer armed conflict. The Brandt Reports recommended the conversion of arms production into civilian production, reducing arms exports, making the whole arms export business transparent and taxing the arms trade.

Since the Brandt Reports sales of armaments have increased massively, with the US and the UK two of the largest producers and exporters. In 1999 Britain was exporting about £4 billion worth of armaments per annum. The UK has a government agency especially dedicated to the promotion of arms export: the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO).

The British Government, which actively encourages the sale of arms to poor countries, has recently granted arms export licences to a number of countries with repressive regimes.

British tax payers subsidise the armament industry to the tune of approximately £200 million per annum. The reason why governments subsidise corporations who export weapons is because the public allow them to. Tax payers’ money benefits arms exporters, who do inestimable harm to the third world countries who buy the arms. These countries are spending money they can ill afford on armaments, instead of investing in services. The Campaign against the Arms Trade recommends putting a stop to subsidies to arms manufacturers and exporters. Now, more than ever before, the madness of making and exporting arms should be exposed. According to estimates from the World Bank, world poverty could be relieved by spending approximately one tenth of the world’s annual military budget.

Not everything in the Brandt Reports is relevant today but significant portions of it are more relevant than ever: those parts that refer to the necessity to cancel third world debt, reduce arms trading and to put in place and enforce international legislation to protect the environment. The world was not ready for these proposals in the 1980s but it is ready now. A huge groundswell of public opinion is calling for debt cancellation, a reduction in arms trading and a halt to the destruction of the environment. The Brandt Reports have been updated by James Quilligan. see: www.brandt21forum.info

Nobel Prize winner, Willy Brandt had high hopes when he and his team of experts compiled their detailed reports. They had spent years researching world poverty and the best way to alleviate it. Brandt’s far reaching vision predicted many of the human and ecological disasters that have (and continue to) occurred since the 1980s, as a result of neoliberal economic policies. His reports laid out an alternative system of global governance, based on the principle of sharing: sharing the world’s resources and sharing responsibility for the environment. He proposed that every member of the human race had a right to food, water, shelter, clothing, education and healthcare. Only when every human being’s basic needs have been fulfilled will the world’s population stabilise. Social sustainability is the prerequisite for environmental sustainability.

Perhaps world leaders could be persuaded to re-examine both the original reports and their updated version and to come together to discuss how to implement some of the recommendations. World opinion is calling for a more equitable and just world in which everyone has the right to food, water, shelter, clothing, education and healthcare; where the power of corporations is curbed in favour of human rights and the environment; where governments are shamed into putting a stop to arms exports and where the money currently squandered in wars is spent on raising the standard of living of the world’s poor.

Image credit: All rights reserved by Cl@udi!, flickr creative commons

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