The Ivory Tower Conundrum

I’ll admit the tragic aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines has got to me – badly – and that in part this is because I am due to go there in a matter of weeks on holiday, and I am concerned not only about what we might find there in terms of broken communities, but also whether the infrastructural damage will be so great that we may not be able to go there at all.

Selfish reasons aside, the devastation wreaked by natural disasters such as this is on such a massive scale it’s almost beyond comprehension. The only thing we westerners in our comfortable homes and offices can do to help is make a donation to one of the aid agencies that are working in the affected areas. In the case of the Philippines these include World Vision, Oxfam, the Red Cross, Unicef and the United Nations World Food Programme, all of whom have teams on the ground who are working tirelessly to deliver much needed food and supplies to those who have lost everything.

Yesterday, after making a donation to World Vision I suggested on social media that others might like to do the same. I was disappointed to see five people immediately un-follow me on Twitter, and unsure in what way I had caused offence by pointing out they could do something to help their fellow humans in dire need. Maybe they don’t believe in charity because they doubt its efficacy, or maybe they already give to different charitable causes and weren’t interested in this particular one. Whatever their reasons, it got me thinking what a luxury it is for those of us in the first world to pick and chooses which causes (if any) we support, and how easily we can choose to change the channel and ‘switch off’ from things that are happening on the other side of the world, right now, to people just like us, who just happen to have been born in a different place, into a different level of privilege and wealth to ourselves.

To my mind (and I apologise in advance for sounding sanctimonious as I stand here on my soap box), anyone who is able to support themselves with something to spare for entertainment purposes (drinks after work, theatre tickets, the occasional holiday) can afford to donate a few pounds to help people whose lives are in danger, whose livelihoods and families have been ripped apart in front of their very eyes. We may complain about having no money, but it would do us well to consider what having ‘no money’ really means, and to spend some time thinking about how lucky we are as we sit in our ivory towers, turning the other cheek as we pour ourselves another glass of wine.

Typhoon Haiyan: residents of Tacloban city

Honour the dead – and help the living

Today is Remembrance Sunday, a day that evokes strong emotions in many for myriad reasons. For some it brings back the horrors of war that they’ve experienced themselves and a deep sadness for their fallen comrades, for others it triggers feelings of anger that are more political in nature. But whatever your view on the existence of – and motives for – war, the undeniable truth is that over the years many thousands have sacrificed themselves for what they believed – rightly or wrongly – to be for the good of their country. And so, putting the politics to one side is it not right that we take one paltry day each year to honour them?

On another note, the news from the Philippines is looking bleaker by the hour. From initial reports citing hundreds of casualties as a result of Typhoon Haiyan, there are now reports of 10,000 dead in one city alone, with widespread food and water shortages, looting and little or no contact with countless villages. Bodies are piling up by the roadside and being buried in mass graves, as over 600,000 displaced people try to make sense of the massive tragedy that has robbed them of their homes, their livelihoods and, in many cases, their families.

Right now it’s impossible to say if we will be able to go ahead with our trip as planned. Both Malapascua and Leyte, which were amongst the worst affected places, were on our itinerary. We have a flight to Tacloban, Leyte’s capital, booked for 6th January, yet Tacloban is the city referred to above where 10,000 people have been killed, and all buildings for a kilometre inland from the sea completely razed to the ground. I naively thought we might be able to do some volunteering to help the relief effort when we arrived, but something tells me two tourists from England are going to be little use in the face of such horrific devastation.  I just feel so horribly sad. What did these people do to deserve this?

To assuage my western privilege guilt I’ve made a donation to World Vision’s typhoon relief fund, and I would urge anyone else who can spare a few pounds to do the same. They may be out of sight and out of mind, but those people are just like you and me. They have families, they have feelings and, right now, they desperately need our help. On Remembrance Sunday we can only honour the dead – but it’s still within our reach to ease the suffering of the living.