This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Questions &Answers

Published: February 24, 2005

Claude E. Welch Jr. is SUNY Distinguished Service Professor and director of the Program in International and Comparative Law in the Department of Political Science, College of Arts and Sciences.

I understand you were in India during the tsunami. What was that like?
My wife, Jeannette Ludwig (associate professor, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures), and I were in India over break, doing research on Dalits ("Untouchables"). Following lunch on Dec. 26, we walked up to the breakwater in Fort Cochin, where hundreds of people, perhaps a thousand or more, were gathered, looking out to sea. At a self-styled "tourist information center," we learned of the tsunami, where one person even showed us the video he had taken of the wave—probably not much more than a meter high there, but sufficiently strong to wreck some of the famed fishing nets and drown a few hundred people elsewhere on the west coast. We had left Chennai just 24 hours before the massive wave hit there. The hotel where we stayed suffered damage to its basement restaurant. When we returned to the east coast, we saw many temporary refugee camps: people were frightened, not wishing to return to their coastal villages lest another tsunami strike. The damage—physical, psychological—was enormous.

India did not seek international assistance after the tsunami hit. Why was that?
India has a long, proud tradition of self-sufficiency. Perhaps it draws from Gandhi's emphasis on weaving one's own cloth, rather than using imports, or the major role the state took in economic planning and industrial development for the initial decades of independence. More important, India is a very large country with multiple resources (technological, administrative and organizational, medical). Tamil Nadu and, to a much less extent, Kerala were essentially the only of India's 28 states, plus the Andaman and Nicobar islands, to be affected. Proportionally, the scope of damage was far, far below that sustained in Banda Aceh (the westernmost part of Indonesia) and Sri Lanka.

What is the role of the United Nations in events such as the tsunami? Where do national and international NGOs fit in?
The UN has several specialized agencies with long experience, notably the High Commission for Refugees, the World Health Organization, the UN Development Program or the International Migration Organization. Some degree of cooperation has emerged between them and NGOs. All efforts have been hampered, however, by bureaucratic turf battles, by price wars (international reporters for a while cornered helicopters in tsunami-ravaged areas, slowing the flow of food and medicine) and the like.

Is it imperative to have an organization such as the UN coordinate relief efforts in cases like the tsunami that have such far-reaching, global implications?
With a disaster of this magnitude, an immense variety of groups want to "get into the act." Aid givers, whether governments or organizations, will trip over themselves, often sending the wrong sorts of aid or not directing it to places of greatest need. However, coordination is voluntary and must be guided by local efforts and knowledge to obtain maximum efficiency.

How well do you think the UN has handled tsunami-relief efforts?
Together with other donors—be they governments or private organizations outside India—the UN must depend on local efforts and knowledge to serve the neediest best, as I just noted. It's too early to tell about the overall effectiveness of the UN's efforts, but recall that three steps—relief, recovery and reconstruction—follow in sequence. The task is not one of months, but of years. Indeed, special assistance will be needed for perhaps a decade, given the scale of the disaster and the political issues involved in such areas as Banda Aceh and parts of Sri Lanka, where significant insurgencies have raged for several years.

What is the significance of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan naming Bill Clinton his special envoy for tsunami-affected countries?
Obviously, the former president is a man of great energy, political dexterity and good will. If he stays with the task over the long haul, he will be able to raise awareness and funds for needed long-term reconstruction projects. Clinton brings quick international recognition and may be able to jawbone public and private sources for additional assistance. On the other hand, his relationships with Jan Egeland, the UN's chief coordinator, remain to be worked out clearly.

What have we learned from this disaster?
First, the need to use global positioning system (GPS) and other warning systems similar to those around the Pacific (for example, simple sirens mounted in village squares) to alert communities around the Indian Ocean of impending danger. Second, the continued importance of fundamental research on plate tectonics, in which we at UB, through our globally recognized earthquake center, play a basic role. Third, recognition that private support by Americans for tsunami relief has been major: people abroad hear only about government contributions, but little or nothing about the outpouring of other funds coming from individuals and through charitable and religious groups. Fourth, and specifically for the U.S. government, the need for us to be much more sensitive in offering aid: to have started with a ridiculously low figure of $15 million meant an immense amount of bad publicity that our subsequent government generosity—up to $950 million may be allocated—cannot overcome. Finally, the importance of adding to our store of knowledge about ready response and using local knowledge at first, as people move through relief toward recovery and reconstruction.

What question do you wish I had asked, and how would you have answered it?
How was aid distributed to affected communities? Unfortunately, numerous examples exist of long-standing discrimination against the Dalits in India, meaning their communities came last, or certainly very low, in the allocation of assistance. Caste discrimination represents a fundamental human rights issue that India must address seriously. Dalits have tried to deal with this in collective and individual ways (e.g., religious conversion, movement to cities), but habits of thought established over thousands of years cannot be rapidly changed.