Thursday, April 9, 2015

Westerners solving problems they cause

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.

UMNS just published this story about things that Rev. Marcos Tamega Jr. learned from UMCOR's recent disaster response readiness training held in the Philippines in February. I think this is a great program of UMCOR, but I was struck by a fact cited in the article.  It said, "A United Nations report has identified the Philippines as the country that is the third most at-risk for disaster because of climate change."  This certainly gives a sense of urgency to disaster response readiness training in the Philippines.  Disasters are likely to continue striking and with increasing ferocity and frequency.

Yet I was also led to wonder if UMCOR-organized disaster response funded largely by American United Methodist donors, such as that to Typhoon Haiyan, was another example of Westerners solving problems that they had helped cause.  There are many examples throughout mission history, the history of Western development projects in Majority World countries, and general Western interactions with the Majority World of Westerners providing the Majority World with solutions to problems that were caused in the first place largely by Westerners.

It's a great set-up for Westerners.  They can, through obliviousness or disregard, continue to cause problems in other countries and therefore not have to change how they do things, but also get the nice glow of feeling like they've helped the less fortunate, even though they are responsible for that misfortune. It's not such a great set-up for non-Westerners, who have to live with the initial problems and the disruption or demeaning that often comes with receiving Western help.

While Western countries are certainly not the only ones emitting greenhouse gases and other climate-change inducing chemicals (China is one of the biggest polluters in the world), Western countries in general, and the United States in particular, pollute at a rate that is far higher than their share of the world's population.  Therefore, I don't think it is unfair to see climate change as a problem that is largely (if not entirely) caused by Westerners.  An increase in the prevalence and frequency of disasters has been predicted as a consequence of climate change.  Thus, Western disaster relief efforts in the Philippines (or Vanuatu or elsewhere) is to some extent a Western solution to a problem caused at least in part by Westerners.

I don't mean this piece as a criticism of UMCOR.  I think UMCOR is a fantastic organization that deserves our support.  Nor do I mean to suggest that Westerners should not help suffering people affected by storms or other disasters.  We should.  I do mean, however, to suggest that if our response to climate change-linked disasters is simply to provide more disaster relief, then we are merely treating symptoms, and we are at moral fault.  Westerners must be willing to humbly change our ways to prevent harm to others, not just give generously once they have been harmed.

1 comment:

  1. There is a major problem with this analysis. There is no such thing as "Western" and there is no such thing as "majority world." Simple binaries that pit East against West or developed against developing make no sense either for analyzing complex problems or in accounting for moral responsibility. It is equally mistaken to assign a particular weather event, such as a typhoon, to global warming. And we cannot say that only treating symptoms makes one responsible morally for failing to find a cure for the disease. Do we blame a surgeon who removes a tumor for failing to cure cancer? Do we blame a voter in the Philippines for failing to cure the endemic corruption, inefficiency and classism of his government? What makes a weather event a disaster is a complex set of interlocking factors. They include local culture, governments at many levels from local to international, economic structures both imminent and on a larger scale and finally of course climate change and pure random chance. Addressing all of these is necessary, and requires coalitions of actors more complex than the analysis above allows.