Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The Memory Hole

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and his relief coordinator Jan Egeland delivered an advance blast against future welshers in a story reported by Evelyn Leopold:

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and emergency relief co-ordinator Jan Egeland expressed their gratitude for the promises of help from 45 nations.  But both said said they were concerned that some of the money would not be handed over. "If we go by past history, yes, I do have concern," Mr Annan said. "We've got over $US2 billion, but it is quite likely that at the end of the day we will not receive all of it." Mr Annan cited shortfalls in aid promised after an earthquake in Bam, Iran, in December 2003, where the money received fell short of pledges....

But he noted the $US2 billion pledged for Asia was equal to all the emergency appeals last year for other nations, such as Sudan's Darfur region and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Egeland said a "tsunami" took place each month in thousands of preventable deaths from disease and hunger. "The rich world should be able to foot the bill for feeding all the children in the world," he said. "It's one day's worth of military spending.

The story is chiefly interesting for the insight it provides into the thinking of the top United Nations leadership. It is a curious case of selective vision, which is blind to the expensive nuclear arms program of the mullahs but alert to shortcomings by the outside world to feed earthquake victims in Bam. It ignores the abject failure of the United Nations in Sudan and the Congo; shows no interest in or even awareness of its root causes yet focuses on the 'stinginess' which causes a "tsunami of preventable deaths from hunger and disease" each month. It bemoans the fact that the rich do not feed "all the children of the world", as if all of a sudden it had ceased to become the responsibility of the societies in which they lived. These regrets are all uttered in the context of a demand for more money. Not just more money now, but for the money they fear they will be cheated out of in the future. Of course, the funding and the feeding must be passed through that most morally authoritative and legitimate organization, the United Nations -- through their fingers.

An interesting contrast is provided by two private charity organizations, the Australian branch of Medecins Sans Frontieres and the Australian branch of World Vision. (Hat tip: Arthur Chrenkoff)

"The Australian branch of aid agency Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF, Doctors without Borders) has become possibly the first in the world to ask donors to stop pledging money to its tsunami appeal. The local MSF branch paused its appeal after reaching its $1 million [US$ 0.77 million] target in just three days. It decided it would be breaching its ethical code to collect money if it could not be used for its designated purpose."

Another Australian charity, World Vision, has rejected a $500,000 donation (US$ 380,000) from Clubs New South Wales, because the funds "were raised from revenue from gambling and alcohol." It's a free market of charities out there, however, and the donations has now been snapped up by Care Australia.

Annan prepared for his trip to Asia to promise victims that help was on the way. He called it "a message of hope".

"So I urge all of you to be generous in your contributions. Together, we will work to rebuild the lives, livelihoods and communities devastated by this catastrophe. "Together, we will send a message of hope." UN emergency relief co-ordinator Jan Egeland said: "I have never seen such an outpouring of international assistance in any natural disaster, ever. "We are now counting new pledges by the hour."

Annan had acted earlier to streamline UN operations  by appointing the man in charge of tsunami relief, Mark Malloch Brown, as his new chief of staff. One of Brown's main tasks as new chief of staff will be to manage the media.

After a year of scandal that sullied the UN's image, Secretary General Kofi Annan announced a management shake-up with a new chief-of-staff who will play a key role in managing the media. Annan promised the suprise move, announced unusually while the United Nations is trying to cope with the massive tsunami relief effort, would not take away from vital, round-the-clock work going on in devastated Asia. "This is the first in a series of changes," Annan said as he presented Mark Malloch Brown, currently head of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), as his new chief of staff effective on January 19.

With what UN officials say is a reconstruction effort in affected Asian countries that could require hundreds of billions of dollars, Annan said Malloch Brown would stay on as UNDP chief for the time being. He said he would "make sure" that the appointment does not have a "negative impact" on the crucial relief effort. But Malloch Brown made clear that he had been asked by Annan to take on a media role at a time when the United Nations has been buffeted by staff unrest and scandal that led some US politicians to call for Annan's resignation. "A modern, global public organisation of this kind has to understand that there are many news cycles a day, that to get your message out requires ... a vigorous, rapid response," Malloch Brown said.

This is an extremely cunning move on the part of Annan, who will now make tsunami victims the public face of the United Nations, even at the cost of making the operating manager of the UN relief effort a pitchman for Secretary General. We are solemnly assured that attending to the "many news cycles a day" will have little impact on the practical management of relief delivery. It may reflect an belief that the perception of reality rather than reality itself which determines the success of a bureaucracy. It certainly works for Burma.

In the aftermath of the tsunami the government in Rangoon sealed off parts of its coastline, fuelling concerns that thousands more people died in the disaster than it - to the disgust of many ordinary Burmese - has so far been prepared to acknowledge. Other fishermen spoke of the terrible loss of life farther up the coast at Kra Buri, 50 miles north of the border with Thailand. "Many, many homes were ripped away by the big wave," said one fisherman. "The government is lying, lying very much, when it says just a few people were killed." While aid workers believe that Burma escaped the carnage that was visited on Indonesia, where about 100,000 people are feared to have lost their lives, they say the death toll is certain to be higher than Burmese officials have admitted. "It is in the thousands," estimated one foreign diplomat.

Nothing happened in Burma. Nothing at all. The waves stopped at the border with Thailand. The idea that the management of truth may be important than the truth itself recalls the conversation between O'Brien and Winston Smith in Room 101 about the nature of reality.

" I am taking trouble with you, Winston ", he said, " because you are worth trouble. You know perfectly well what is the matter with you. ...You are mentally deranged. You suffer from a defective memory. You are unable to remember real events and you persuade yourself that you remember other events which never happened. Fortunately it is curable....Now we will take an example. ... Some years ago you had a very serious delusion indeed. You believed that three men, three one-time Party members ... were not guilty of the crimes they were charged with. You believed that you had seen unmistakable documentary evidence proving that their confessions were false. There was a certain photograph about which you had a hallucination. You believed that you had actually held it in your hands. It was a photograph something like this. "

An oblong slip of newspaper had appeared between O'Brien's fingers. For perhaps five seconds it was within the angle of Winston's vision. It was a photograph, and there was no question of its identity. It was THE photograph. It was another copy of the photograph of Jones, Aaronson, and Rutherford at the party function in New York, which he had chanced upon eleven years ago and promptly destroyed. For only an instant it was before his eyes, then it was out of sight again. But he had seen it, unquestionably he had seen it ! He made a desperate, agonizing effort to wrench the top half of his body free. It was impossible to move so much as a centimetre in any direction. For the moment he had even forgotten the dial. All he wanted was to hold the photograph in his fingers again, or at least to see it.

" It exists ! " he cried.

" No ", said O'Brien.

He stepped across the room. There was a memory hole in the opposite wall. O'Brien lifted the grating. Unseen, the frail slip of paper was whirling away on the current of warm air ; it was vanishing in a flash of flame. O'Brien turned away from the wall.

" Ashes ", he said. " Not even identifiable ashes. Dust. It does not exist. It never existed. "

" But it did exist! It does exist! It exists in memory. I remember it. You remember it. "

" I do not remember it ", said O'Brien.

The United Nations has always been good. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia.