Friday, January 15, 2010

Musings on Haiti and the need for an international perspective

I know that we all share a sense of horror at the scale of the destruction that has struck Haiti. I haven't attempted to blog about it because I haven't really had anything to say  beyond words expressed elsewhere.

Neil Whitfield pointed me to this blog which gives a picture of the immediate impact on the UN itself. I had no idea just how big the UN presence on Haiti was. This blog from Haiti gives another perspective, this time from the viewpoint of a Christian missionary family.

In writing about the Sumatran quake, I focused on the Australian response and on organisational and institutional issues. Reading details of the collapse of official buildings, then looking at the transcripts of the UN Secretary General press conferences, points to importance of the UN on the ground in helping coordinate relief efforts notwithstanding the loss of so many key people.

Looking at the possible UN casualty numbers reminded me of just how many people, staff as well as peacekeepers, have died on UN missions round the world. Each nation celebrates the contribution of its own dead. We tend to forget the UN.

We all know that the UN had and has its own problems. However, I suspect that those involved in the formation of the UN and its agencies including Australia's H V Evatt would take a degree of pride if they knew that the body they had helped found would still, some sixty five years later, be playing such a key role.

Australian and New Zealanders have played, relative to population size, a disproportionate role in international agencies.

Part of the reason for this rests simply on education. Mass education came early to both countries, so that the educated Australians and New Zealanders were a far higher proportion of the global educated population than Australians and New Zealanders were of the total global population. However, part of the reason also rests on the way in which a proportion of the educated elites in both countries looked out, while also holding a deeply held public service (service to the public) ethic.  

Bangkok to Seam Reap via Poipet, January 1966, part of a travel tale, includes a photo of the Belshaw/Calvert family at the border. Both Dad and Mr Calvert were working for UN agencies at the time, the cars carried UN plates.

The family connections go quite deep. Four family members have, I think, worked for the League of Nations/UN.

This evolving muse is not about my family. Rather, I am using my own family to make a point: we need to recognise international as well as national contribution, to look out, not focus just on our domestic navels.

At the risk of gross generalisation, I think that Canadians or New Zealanders are better at recognising this than, say, people from Australia or the US.

Australians, rightly, take pride in things like our contribution to the responses to the Asian tsunami. However, an international perspective is not just a response to a individual events, but a way of thinking. Here I think that the country has become more inward looking.

Partly this is just a matter of scale. In a small population with a relatively smaller highly educated group, the international focus stands out more clearly.

The US, for example, has always been (by Australian standards) inward looking, simply because of its size, both land mass and population. As the Australian population has grown, we have also grown more insular.

The number of Australians working internationally today, private as well a public, dwarfs previous numbers. We hear Australian accents on CNN or in UN spokespeople and just take it for granted.

If part of the change is due to scale, part of the change is also due to changes in the way we see our own past. I need to phase things very carefully here because I do not want to get caught in the wrong arguments and, in any case, the idea that I am trying to annunciate is not easy to define.

There are and have been many different threads in Australian thought. The things that we emphasize now tend to downplay Australia's past international involvements and links or, alternatively, put them into a purely nationalistic locally focused frame.

Perhaps the simplest way of putting this is that the current focus looks at what Australians did; the focus is on Australia. In previous years, the focus lay in what was done, not the nationality of the doers.

This may sound a long way from the tragedy in Haiti. However, I would argue that the single greatest challenge facing the planet today is to find the best way to work together as a planet. Otherwise, we are simply going to tear the place apart.  

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