The Coming Tsunamis
An astounding $4 billion in aid have been pledged by nations around the world to help victims, with private charity expected to be in the billions as well. On the national level, two respected leaders, former presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, are using their national influence to lead the relief effort. Even in the Harvard community, groups of concerned Harvard students have been spending winter break and reading period doing everything they can to help.
But this great aid effort should not be so extraordinary. Every day, tragedies that are slightly smaller in magnitude occur, largely unnoticed, and do not garner this type of massive aid effort.
Chief among these tragedies is hunger. According to the United Nations and other non-profit groups, 24,000 people, including about 16,500 children under the age of five, die every day from hunger. That is one child every seven seconds. In terms of deaths, the tsunami death toll, which now stands at about 150,000, is comparable to just a week of world hunger. In the most undernourished countries, one of seven children will not reach the age of five, and the average life expectancy is 38 years as opposed to 70 in the developed world. All in all, 850 million people go hungry each day, and that number is growing by 5 million each year.
But according to the World Bank, aid to developing countries by developed countries has fallen 20 percent since 1990. Developed countries, including the United States, are only giving 0.2 percent of their gross domestic product in international aid, far short of the 0.7 percent pledge that the UN estimates would halve world hunger by 2015.
Then there is the problem of poverty. In 2001, the World Bank estimated that one billion people in the developing world live on less than one dollar per day, while 2.7 billion live on less than two dollars per day. Next time you look at that frighteningly large number on your term bill, think about the fact that one year’s worth of Harvard tuition is more money than a billion people will likely see in a lifetime.
Outside the developing world, crises like global warming that demand a worldwide response are not getting the attention or action they deserve. The tsunami highlighted how many people, particularly in the third world, live in low-lying areas near the ocean. The rise in sea levels caused by global warming threatens to flood these low-lying areas around the world permanently, causing massive dislocations of people and unimaginable loss of property. And that is just one of the dire consequences of global warming. In the long run, the gradual heating of the planet will change weather patterns and increase mortality due to the spread of tropical diseases.
Global warming is an impending catastrophe that has the potential to far exceed the scope of last week’s tsunami. Scientists are in almost complete agreement about these ramifications, although they may disagree about its causes. Fortunately, global warming, like hunger and poverty, is a crisis that we can help to avert. The United States and China let out the bulk of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. A government effort to reduce the release of pollutants domestically and to make a bilateral reduction treaty with China would go far to improve the global situation. Even if the current political climate in the U.S. makes it unlikely that we will sign on to the comprehensive, multinational Kyoto Accords, politicians in Washington must find other ways to stem this growing threat. The alternative is that we wring every bit of short-term profit out of American industry while likely sacrificing its long-term health and the health of this planet. If we do not act, fifty years from now we will look back on our train wreck of an environment and wonder why we didn’t step on the brakes when we had the chance.
These are just a few of the most urgent tragedies that are occurring every day around the world. Unfortunately, they are being championed by a mere handful of philanthropists and academics. Because these problems are chronic, difficult to fix and not spectacular disasters like the tsunami, they do not get the worldwide attention that they deserve.
Instead of looking at the tsunami disaster as something we would like to forget, we must look at it as an opportunity to help the world. The tsunami has opened our eyes to the crises and tragedies that are occurring around the world, and particularly in developing countries, that we have ignored. We must not forget the lessons of the tsunami by making sure that the global outpouring of aid is just the beginning of a greater awareness about the need for philanthropy, both by governments and private citizens.
Adam M. Guren ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.