American Culture

The Trouble with Paradise, or why Pakistan Sucks: Redux

Anti-west riot cancelled due to floodIn 2007 I wrote about the asymmetry of “caring”; of how the Indonesian tsunami of that year had unleashed the biggest charity response in history while the Pakistani floods had left people unmoved. Three years later Pakistan has flooded again and The Huffingonton Post makes an impassioned plea as to why we should care, but it is plain we don’t. It isn’t because they’re Muslims, as Radio Netherlands seems to believe. In 2007 Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, was also the beneficiary of an astonishing amount of charity after the tsunami. I’ll restate my original article:

Many years of grizzled travelling will give you a cavalier attitude to roadside cuisine and a thick skin to the casual xenophobia which occasionally greets the weary traveller.

Most tourists have trouble-free experiences, meeting people grateful for their presence and aware that their daily bread (or chapatti) depends on it. But that isn’t true everywhere.

Thomas Friedman coined the McDonald’s Theory of Conflict Resolution to explain why he thought nations that shared a common fast-food culture wouldn’t go to war. But then Friedman enjoys artery-clogging burgers while I enjoy independent travel.

Tourism is the largest employer and most valuable industry in the world. And so I present the Tourism Theory of Conflict Resolution, or – more simply – the Trouble with Paradise.

The Trouble With Paradise (my ebook) is dedicated to the idea that travel is not about sitting on idyllic beaches sipping banana daiquiris. That funny smudge on the horizon might be a tsunami.

Seriously, though, who are you going to give money to come a terrible disaster? Iran after an earthquake in Bam that levelled a city and buried half-a-million people? Or Thailand and Indonesia where you had such a fantastic experience two years ago while there on vacation?

The tsunami which so devastated parts of South East Asia happened around the same time as the earthquake in Iran. Aid agencies are still somewhat embarrassed at how much money they got to deal with the tsunami. Billions of dollars was needlessly wasted.

No-one talks about Bam.

And now we have Pakistan awash in water and begging the west for money to help clean up the mess. Oh, wait, that was the 2007 story. This is the 2010 story. I’m willing to bet that, apart from the UN, the response will be minimal. Perhaps, if the television images get really bad, and nothing much else comes along to distract you, some people will give. But nowhere near the epic proportions of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

There is a trade-off in the community of nations. If you choose to go it alone – if you choose to shun the world – then you are truly alone.

In 2007 we saw rioting in Pakistan as people protested the knighting of Sir Salman Rushdie who once wrote a book that esoterically referred to a disputed section of the Koran. British and, to keep things even, American flags were liberally burned.

Pakistan is a country infamous for the murder of Daniel Pearl, a US journalist. For their detonation of a nuclear weapon in contravention of international agreements. A country that keeps a troubled and messy relationship with international terrorists such as al Qaeda.

This isn’t a country that western tourists are rushing off to include on their itineraries along with Vienna, Milan and Paris.

Hugo Chavez, in Venezuela, is in the process of cutting his country off from the rest of the world. His regular pronouncements on the inequity of the west project from every channel and newspaper. As long as the oil flows he can afford what he likes. But it won’t always flow.

And this is the trouble with paradise: it isn’t sufficient that your land be beautiful; it isn’t sufficient that you be in need; you must, in every way, be conscious of the humanity of others.

Otherwise they are frightened of you and cannot see your humanity in your time of need.

As in relationships between people so in the politics within the community of nations we call Earth.

8 replies »

  1. What an interesting observation. However, I am not sure that’s all of it. Bangladesh, which is Pakistan without the bad behavior, floods frequently in terrible ways. At one time they were the cause du jour and got help, and since nada. Clearly some victims are more likable than others. There’s a lot more people willing to risk their life to save endangered whales than endangered scorpions. But I dont think Haiti is all that likable. I think you may also be underestimating the randomness of the news cycle. If a disaster happens to hit during a slow news day and a suitable time period after the last tragedy, we all jump on board. But if it happens on a busy news day, or right on the heels of another disaster, it doesnt get the same attention. I always think it’s interesting that the greatest fire in history occured the same day as the Chicago fire, and no one has ever heard of it. Bad luck for Peshtigo.

  2. Yes, all of that, but Haiti also had “pretty” Hollywood stars swanning over and raising awareness. I don’t think Sean Penn is going to champion Pakistan? Or John Travolta is going to lead a league of Scientologists to Bangladesh any time soon?

    And countries where the disaster is a “surprise” are also likely to be helped.

    Pakistan is both unlikable and the disaster is – as I point out – one of an all-too-common variety.

  3. I agree with Sam. It’s an interesting observation that is obviously plausible. But news cycle sensibilities … and the role of gatekeeper idiosyncracies, let alone the traditional definition of news … play a role as well.

    I remember (with hindsight) my days as a newspaper wire editor in the ’70s. I can recall, at news budget meetings, saying something like this: “Floods in Bangladesh kill thousands? Put it inside as a two-graf brief.”

    I’m curious, though: What role would thousands of cell phone cameras (assuming ‘net access and electricity) play in highlighting the flooding in Pakistan? I remember what happened in the Iranian protests. Lots of play. But do Americans really differentiate between Iran and Pakistan? After all, Iran held hostages for 444 days.

  4. I think it’s odd actually that we havent seen more footage of Pakistan. The ubiquity of cameras, both private and public, is fundamentally changing our lives.

    And Gavin raises two more interesting points–the novelty of the disaster, e.g., a tsunami or an eathquake inherently feels more special than a run of the mill flood, and plane connections. It’s easier for Angelina to get to Haiti than it is Pakistan, and easier for TMZ to follow her. Gav–I think you need to do a disaster scorecard. 🙂

  5. Two thoughts. (1) Do people actually know that Indonesia is a predominantly Muslim country? (2) As I recall, most of the press coverage of he tsunami was centered on the beaches, which is where all the tourists tend to congregate–so we saw lots of coverage, and heard lots and lots of interviews, with American, British and Swedish survivors. But I don’t remember a lot of interviews with actual Indonesians.

  6. Do people actually know that Indonesia isn’t a nickname for India? I doubt it. Until I spent a few years in Java I had not idea it was the one of the most populous nations on on earth.

  7. Well, wufnik, that’s basically my point. Indonesia hasn’t gone out of its way to be unlikeable or noticed. People are more than willing to give aid even to those they know nothing about.

    It’s those they’ve heard of under unpleasant and threatening circumstances they reject.

    Sam, interesting idea for a scorecard? I imagine something like the nice maps of economic or social freedoms but with international perceptions of net donor countries?

    Call it the “Donor Perceptions Index” or something? If it were easy to get a sense of where individual (as compared to institutional) donor money goes I’d say we could create this quite quickly.

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