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    I saw this film about some people who lived in a dome

    The spirit of international cooperation hovers, dove-like, over the end of the World Conference on Disaster Reduction (WCDR). Or not:

    An international disaster conference ended over the weekend with participants agreeing on the need to help strengthen developing countries’ ability to deal with disasters, but some critics were already questioning the action plan adopted.

    Not only does the broadly worded document lack achievable numerical targets, but it also largely ignores the input of developing nations, they say.

    “The conference has tended to be about what ideas developed countries had and could do for the affected (tsunami) region,” said a delegate from India. The delegate said that it was important for the affected nations to take a central role, and that “existing systems in those countries be utilized.”

    I wasn’t there, obviously, so I can’t verify the accounts of the delegate from India quoted above, or those from Senegal (drought-stricken) and the Marshall Islands (worried about global warming). However, not much imagination is required to conjure up a picture of first-world delegates–high on their own compassion and the possibilities of fancy, whiz-bang techno-fixes–talking right over people with actual knowledge of the different local circumstances disaster-relief programs are up against in the large and varied “developing world.”

    The recent Sumatra earthquake and tsunami overshadowed everything, naturally. In the weeks since the initial emergency passed, the tsunami has evolved into a heightened version of the usual sexy, telegenic media story: a visually-impressive force of nature, the emotional trauma of sudden loss of friends and family, the occasional unexpected joyous reunion, the noble struggle to return things to normal. It’s the sort of thing that would be rejected as implausible if it were submitted as the script for a fictional made-for-TV movie.

    Am I being cynical here? Well, only partially. I don’t doubt for a second that reporters feel the same compassion as the rest of us, and when they point out that they’re telling the stories of people who have no other public voice, they’re not just rationalizing. But it’s hard to keep covering something like this without falling back on stock disaster-drama clichés and thereby trivializing it.

    The complaints about the WCDR indicate that, sadly but not surprisingly, the same sort of thing is happening among aid agencies. The tsunami provides the perfect opportunity to say, “You see what can happen when you don’t flood us with cash and make sure we have safeguards against everything?” To the best of our knowledge, though, the Indian Ocean disaster was (thankfully) a fluke. It is not representative of the issues facing the third world.

    The problems that most poor countries are dealing with are mundane and un-dramatic. Much of what needs to be done is education, teaching everyday people how to evaluate their own circumstances and adjust their behavior accordingly. Technology is certainly useful in making it easier for developing countries to anticipate, weather, and respond to disasters, but in ways well-heeled do-gooders do not seem to have internalized:

    During the meeting, big players from the developed world-including Japan, the United States, Germany and France-pushed their ideas for a tsunami warning system.

    This did not sit well with some groups from the countries hard-hit by the tsunami. They felt their voices were not being heard when they suggested upgrading systems they already had for warning systems.

    So the countries with non-tsunami problems did not see those problems addressed, and the countries actually hit by the tsunami felt that their knowledge of their own homelands was not taken into account by eager-beaver first-world technocrats. A toast all around, then, for a job well done.

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