Seanad debates

Wednesday, 2 February 2005

Tsunami Disaster: Statements.


12:00 pm

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)

We have never received such a salutary and visible reminder that we are guests on this planet as that provided by the tsunami. It demonstrated too that our belief that science and technology can control the forces of nature is an illusion. We survive on this planet because the temperature fluctuates between limits which can support life, and because of other delicate balances.

The positive aspect of globalisation is to show us the scale of the effect when one of those balances goes wrong, even temporarily. It is not to belittle what happened to say this is not the first tsunami but it is probably the first of the global communications era. This has shown in a spectacular way that, despite our foibles about immigration and race issues, we recognise human suffering and respond to it.

I compliment the generosity of the people and the Government, whose response was as good as anyone could have wanted. It shows once again the quality of the people who work in the Department of Foreign Affairs, particularly our ambassador in the region. Those of us who have visited Irish Embassies know the quality of those who represent us abroad. Other European countries, some of which I wish we would emulate in many respects, showed a more limited capacity to understand how to deal with human suffering than our officials.

According to my rough calculation, combining the generosity of the Irish people with the Government's commitment, for the United States to contribute as much proportionately would require a donation of between $7 billion and $10 billion. That is the scale of generosity here. I do not say that as a reproach but this is a small country.

To a degree, the people drove the Government on this issue. I do not wish to engage in a silly argument about the Government but simply remark that it followed public opinion which took this issue to its heart. The Government's heart was in the right place. It was the most positive sign of globalisation I have seen since the term first impinged on my consciousness. These things usually impinge on me ten years later than on everybody else because I am a bit slow.

Several factors emerged from this and require blunt acknowledgment. Whatever its limitations, the United Nations has a central role in activities such as this. Where multiple problems arise in a range of countries no other organisation can take the leading role of persuasion or smoothing over the difficulties. For the chief executive of GOAL to devote considerable time and attention in recent weeks to lambasting the United Nations does no good for any development objective.

The universal remedy of that organisation to every crisis is to send in an army. That has not worked. George Bush Snr. thought he could use the US armed forces in Somalia, for what were at the outset genuine humanitarian reasons. It does not work and the regular chorus "send in an army" whenever there is a crisis is a diversion. The way to deal with such crises is for constructive voluntary organisations, including GOAL, to work in a small scale, piecemeal way with people on the ground.

We need to ensure that the pledges made are real, which they are in Ireland's case, and that they are kept. We do not want the situation that has emerged in countries such as Iran or Honduras where the scale of what was promised is a quantum size greater than that which has been delivered. International vigilance is necessary, not just for this country but for large countries too. Arguably, some major countries, not particularly the United States, were slow and ungenerous in their initial response. Public opinion in these countries drove their governments in a way the Government here, I am happy to say, did not need to be driven, into a scale of response. If they were reluctant to make the promise, we must assume they will be reluctant to keep the promise. However, we must ensure the promise is kept.

The Minister referred to the issue of Ireland's development co-operation. This is a cruelly unfair world, with perhaps 2 billion people living on less than $2 per day. As a parliamentarian from another country pointed out to me, we expect 2 billion people to live on $2 per day while the European Union gives its cows a subsidy of perhaps $6 dollars per day and Japan gives its cows a subsidy of $30 per day. There is significant need in this regard.

Ireland still has credibility, although it had more, as a country that gives untied aid without an underlying political agenda, and which, unlike many of our high-minded Nordic colleagues, does not insist that the money must be spent on products made in Ireland. We are not into tied aid and I hope we never will be because it has been a monumental failure. However, it needs to be stated that what the Irish people wanted, attempted and thought would happen has been betrayed by the Government.

The withdrawal from the pledge was a betrayal, not just of the poor of the world but of the goodness and generosity of the Irish people. The Minister has not helped in this. He has not succeeded in holding a line on overseas development aid, ODA. One unfortunate remark of his in regard to value for money has given all sorts of critics, particularly in the Department of Finance where ODA has never been a priority, yet another reason to procrastinate. It is a pity that a Minister who was responsible for fighting the political battle for this has, perhaps unwittingly, given hostages to fortune to the Department most unfriendly to ODA. That we promised to reach the target when we were looking for the votes of developing countries will have repercussions for Ireland and the perception thereof in other countries. When we got their votes and finished our term on the UN Security Council, we walked away from our promise.

There are good reasons for a White Paper on development because it is a complicated issue and many models of and attempts at development have failed. However, one thing is clear. The only real long-term route to development is trade. On sugar or agriculture generally — I may get into more trouble with my party on this — we can talk all we want about development but if the three biggest economic powers in the world, the United States, the European Union and Japan, are not prepared to do what is necessary to allow free trade in the goods and products in which the developing world has a comparative advantage, all of the talk about aid is essentially hot air. While I would not dismiss the issue of aid, we must bite this bullet sooner or later.

I do not understand why the Government decided to bring so much grief on its head in the context of the target. What motivated the Government not to keep a promise so firmly made in many public fora by everybody connected with it? If these people felt they had to do this, as they obviously did, why was this so? We heard occasional remarks from the Minister about capacity. Every development co-operation NGO I know of accepts there is capacity to absorb any amount of aid this country could generate. If there were not, at a time when the country is rich we could set up a development co-operation fund, similar to the national pensions reserve fund, to be judiciously used when or if needed.

The idea that we would have to wait until there were sufficient numbers of crying needs to reach our target is a betrayal of the 2 billion people who live on less than $2 per day. The Minister should explain why the Government retreated because I do not accept any of the arguments advanced to date. We are not poor. The Government is not short of money. The argument that because we are growing fast it is more difficult to reach the target is the most peculiar and inverted argument I have ever heard. It is as if the reason we cannot build more schools or hospitals is because we have more people. How could it be more difficult to build more hospitals or schools when we are rich rather than poor? The idea that somehow it would be easier to reach the target if we were growing at a slower rate is nonsense.

It would do the Government a great service to drop it and tell us the real reason, namely, the vigorous resistance of the Department of Finance. When we reach the 0.7% target, there will be no going back. It will be a non-return valve through which we will move and the Department will be stuck with the 0.7% target.


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