Asia's poverty-stricken millions - many of whom are continuing to reel under the impact of the devastation unleashed by the tsunami waves five months ago - may now have to compete grimly with the Bangkok - based Miss Universe Beauty Pageant - for the attention of many who matter, both locally and internationally.
Ironically, the colourfully and lavishly-conducted beauty pageant is being held in a part of the world which could be said to have been in the eye of the tsunamic turbulence.
Zestfully witnessed by some, the beauty pageant could be expected to gobble-up sackfuls of fat wads of Greenbacks, which could have fed quite a number of the world's hungry and tsunami-affected.
This is no new anomaly in a world with a mistaken sense of priorities, but what should prove thought-provoking is that those who project themselves as guiding the destiny of "the wretched of the earth" are proving so immune to the suffering of their wards and are so seemingly unmindful of the lessons of history.
This has been happening right through the era of decolonization and now well into "political independence". The awakening of the conscience of Third World rulers is, no doubt, an extremely trying task. They seem to be condemning themselves to repeating the tragedies of history.
However, hopefully, internationally - known public figures, who have managed to cut a liberal image for themselves over the years, such as former US President Bill Clinton, would prove effective in jolting the current international order into an awareness of "how the other half" or the poor of the world are dying.
Clinton has just completed a follow-up tour of the tsunami-hit regions of Asia in the capacity of UN Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery and we hope he would be sufficiently effective in sensitizing the UN system to how far the Third World in particular is from realizing the much-publicized, UN-sanctioned, Millennium Development Goals.
The poor of Asia are, however, not alone in their suffering. Chronic poverty and deprivation are continuing to plague parts of the African continent, driving many of those wilting in poverty to feed off even Water Lilies, as a Reuter report from Malawi would have us believe. Equally depressing tales are likely to have greeted the UN Secretary General on his visit to the civil war-hit Sudan.
Little, then, has changed in Africa from the times of the infamous Ethiopian famines of the Seventies and Eighties. This is primarily because the world system is remaining largely unchanged from those dark decades. In other words, the global balance of forces have not changed in favour of the world's poor.
Speaking at the end of Clinton's visit to the Maldives, a Maldivian government official was quoted saying that: "As UN Envoy, he'd (Clinton) be able to pack a bigger punch for us in terms of access to aid. He is quite confident he will be able to get the funding required".
"Access to aid" is indeed a prime issue from the Third World viewpoint and may prove a short and medium term answer to the poverty problem - if handled well - but what is needed crucially is sustainable development and from the point of view of the latter, transparency and accountability on the part of Third World governing elites receiving aid for their peoples, are crucial factors.
Clinton himself underlined the importance of transparency and accountability in the use of tsunami aid during his recent tour of Sri Lanka and until these standards are imposed on Third World governing elites from multilateral organisations, such as the UN, the battle against poverty and want is likely to remain stymied. For, aid may enrich only ruling elites.
"Growth with equity" remains the goal of development. All too often, the former is taken as a yardstick of development and the latter conveniently lost sight of by even the so called world community.
This is the reason why poverty continues to be rampant in Asia and Africa, making their populations increasingly vulnerable to Nature's furies. Therefore, Sri Lanka may now boast of a per capita income of $ 1000, but the fact is that around four or five million of its population remain below the poverty line. What price 'development'?
Produced by Lake House Copyright © 2003 The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.
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