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COL Tsunami washed over those already drowning in poverty

By Rick Mercier

Aceh. It's pronounced AH-cheh.

We know this now. There it is, the pronunciation of that doomed Indonesian province, on a shelf in the supermarket of our postmodern consciousness, next to the names of reality-show contestants and NFL playoff matchups.

For most of us, Aceh will forever be associated with nature's fickleness and fury. But, as we also know now, the epic disaster that obliterated coastal communities along the Indian Ocean was only partly "natural."

Tens of thousands of lives might have been saved if a tsunami warning system -- such as the one in the Pacific -- and better communications infrastructure existed throughout southern Asia.

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But places like Aceh generally aren't the kind of places that get such things. They are the places where, even in "normal" times, you can find children drinking dirty water, sleeping without the protection of mosquito nets, and dying from preventable diseases without ever having received even the most basic medical attention.

All across the global South, in places with exotic names such as Chittagong, Chimoio and Chiapas, extreme poverty imposes an endless tsunami of needless death on the forgotten ones of this planet.

According to data compiled by the Earth Institute at Columbia University, at least 20,000 people die every day because of the relatively easily preventable effects of extreme poverty. Eight thousand children die each day of malaria, about 5,000 mothers and fathers die of tuberculosis, and thousands more perish as a result of diarrhea, respiratory infections, and other maladies that stalk those weakened by poor nutrition.

If you do the macabre math, you find that in the time since the tsunami struck, more than 300,000 people around the world have died as a consequence of the squalor in which they lived. That's almost twice the number of people claimed by the tsunami.

And that toll is no more inevitable than the one exacted by the sea the day after Christmas. At our current stage of human development, we have the potential to end the misery that kills by the thousands every day.

Indeed, some of the solutions are mind-bogglingly simple -- and cheap. For example: We could spend a couple billion dollars on mosquito nets and medicines and prevent over a million children from dying of malaria, said Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs.

If the wealthy nations of the world came forward with modest increases in development aid, malaria and tuberculosis -- two of the world's biggest scourges -- could be brought to heel. Clean water and decent sanitation could be made available to villages and slums around the world, thus wiping out waterborne illnesses that claim millions of children annually. And women could receive the kind of care during pregnancy and childbirth that would save the lives of hundreds of thousands of mothers every year.

These are investments that an actuary could love, as they would wind up being far less expensive in the long run than the public-health disasters they would avert.

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Unfortunately, the United States' development assistance as a percentage of GDP is the lowest of any industrialized nation. That's true even when you factor in aid from nongovernmental organizations.

This stinginess may surprise many Americans. The Earth Institute reports that when Americans are asked how much of the federal budget is allotted to foreign aid, the median response is 25 percent. That's more than 30 times the actual level.

There is another unpleasant truth that needs to be mentioned in any honest discussion about how money flows between the United States and the global South: Namely, U.S. corporations and banks have been sucking massive amounts of wealth out of poor countries for decades. These riches, which have played a huge part in building up the U.S. economy, far exceed the pittance we return to the global South in the form of aid.

Aceh illustrates this point. The average American might not have known about the Indonesian province until recently, but it long has been near and dear to the hearts of the Mobil Oil (later ExxonMobil) executives ensconced in their corporate offices in Texas and Virginia.

You see, Mobil stumbled upon one of the biggest onshore gas fields in the world in Aceh back in 1971. The field was so lucrative for Mobil, The Wall Street Journal reported, that in the early 1990s it generated nearly a quarter of the corporation's global revenue.

But all that gas extraction did little good for the Acehnese. Only a scant amount of the wealth produced by the gas field ever flowed back to Aceh; the riches overwhelmingly wound up in the hands of Mobil and the corrupt and repressive Indonesian government.

What Aceh got in very large doses was state terror. As separatist rebels gained strength in the province in the late 1980s, the Indonesian military turned to brutal counterinsurgency tactics, killing more than a thousand Acehnese civilians and raping women whose husbands or sons were suspected of guerrilla involvement, human-rights groups say.

Now, ExxonMobil is contributing $5 million to tsunami relief efforts. That's nice, but considering that Mobil and ExxonMobil have siphoned tens of billions of dollars out of Aceh over the years, and that they might be complicit in a reign of terror, should we really applaud the corporation for its generosity?

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Ordinary Americans, on the other hand, have responded to the tsunami in a manner that can make us proud. But our awakened compassion should be joined by an understanding that we can, and must, take steps to end much of the preventable suffering of our brothers and sisters all over the world.

Rick Mercier is a writer and editor for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va. He can be reached at rmercierfreelancestar.com.

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