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Wednesday, 16 March 2005
Page: 52


Senator MASON (12:46 PM) —Talk is cheap, tears are not enough, and being sorry will get you nowhere. Compassion—unless expressed through real, practical and tangible action and assistance—is often useless. Worse than that, it might be self-indulgent and, quite often, harmful. Recently, writer and journalist Patrick West wrote a book titled Conspicuous Compassion: Why sometimes it really is cruel to be kind. West has identified a relatively new phenomenon in our Western culture: ostentatious displays of emotion substituting for sensible action. He calls the phenomenon ‘conspicuous compassion’. Conspicuous compassion elevates public statements, petitions, badges, protests and rallies above practical measures; that is, conspicuous compassion elevates feeling and saying above doing. This is not a harmless development. As West writes:

Such displays of empathy do not change the world for the better: they do not help the poor, diseased, dispossessed or bereaved. Our culture of ostentatious caring concerns, rather, projecting one’s ego, and informing others what a deeply caring individual you are. It is about feeling good, not doing good, and illustrates not how altruistic we have become, but how selfish.

Sadly, conspicuous compassion is ever-present—whether in the big questions of global affairs where the lives, health and wellbeing of hundreds of millions of people are at stake, or in the more mundane matters of domestic social policy. All too often, we fiddle while cities burn, sometimes literally. But many of the challenges facing us, from genocide and global poverty to environmental problems, do have solutions. They are not the trendy and fashionable solutions we hear so much about, but they have one definite advantage: they work. Let us see how we can make a difference.

Faced with the horror of the Holocaust some 60 years ago, we distilled our revulsion into two words: Never again. Sadly, it has proved to be an empty slogan. It has been far easier, and morally far less expensive, to publicly proclaim to the world one’s compassion and sensitivity by denouncing the crimes of the past than to try to do something to stop the crimes of the present. We have recently witnessed 800,000 people slaughtered in Rwanda, while the world did nothing. In Sudan, two million people have died over the last two decades in the conflict between the north and the south—mostly out of the international spotlight. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, up to three million people have died since 1998. That is 300 times more than the number of civilians who died in Iraq after the liberation—with 300 times less international indignation.

These numbers make the crisis in Darfur almost pale into insignificance with its 170,000 dead. Here once again, the international community struggles to come up with a magic formula that would end the crisis without the outside world having to dirty its hands with north African dust. As Mark Steyn, one of the shrewdest of commentators, wrote recently:

After months of expressing deep concern, grave concern, deep concern over the graves and deep grave concern over whether the graves were deep enough, Kofi Annan managed to persuade the UN to set up a committee to look into what’s going on in Darfur. They’ve just reported back that it’s not genocide.

That is great news, isn’t it? For, as yet another Annan-appointed UN committee boldly declared in December: ‘Genocide anywhere is a threat to the security of all and should never be tolerated.’ So thank goodness this isn’t genocide. Instead, it is just 70,000 corpses which happen to all be from the same ethnic group—which means the UN can go on tolerating it until everyone is dead.

Sadly, over the years, the standard response of the international community to genocide, mass violence and gross violations of human rights has been to substitute words for action. This seemingly endless talk, posturing, meetings, committees, commissions, resolutions and summits have all been well meaning and very sincere, but ignore the reality that words do not stop bullets; in most cases, good intentions are not enough to stop killing; and right must be backed with might if it wants to prevail.

The very brutal truth is that genocide is only ever stopped by the force of arms—or not at all. Of themselves, diplomacy, the United Nations and the very best of intentions are not enough. If moral outrage and concern were the only weapons in the arsenal of democracies those 60 years ago, there would be no Jews left alive today at all. The slaughter in Bangladesh was only stopped by India, the killing fields of Cambodia by a Vietnamese intervention and Idi Amin’s reign of terror by Tanzanian troops. In the Balkans the killing was only stopped by an armed intervention, arguably a few years too late.

In Hotel Rwanda, which is screening in cinemas throughout Australia right now, the main character, a hotel owner in the capital, Kigali, assures his wife that everything is fine because ‘they are preparing an intervention force’. ‘They’, meaning us, never did. There is evidence that even a small force of a few thousand soldiers, if inserted into Rwanda early enough in the conflict, could have stopped the genocide. Instead we have Kofi Annan’s mea culpa standing rather feebly against the backdrop of 800,000 white crosses and President Clinton’s admission: ‘Rwanda’s tragedies became one of the greatest regrets of my presidency.’ As Janet Albrechtsen notes, in his 957-page autobiography, Mr Clinton ‘devoted just two paragraphs to that greatest of regrets’. Unless the international community is ready to fortify its concern with armed force, it would be far better for everyone to shut up and greet the dying with mournful silence instead of throwing them an illusory lifeline made up of empty words. Conspicuous compassion kills because it distracts us from the harsh realities of the world outside.

The response to mass violence throughout the developing world is, alas, no different to the response to all other challenges facing the developing world: talk rather than action. Also, if there is to be action, it too often takes the form of symbolic gestures as opposed to practical solutions—and the consequences can be just as dire. Debt forgiveness and foreign aid generally have been two international causes most prominently hijacked by the conspicuously compassionate crowd. The arguments about lending a helping hand to the developing world are fine and reasonable. In practice, however, all too often this results in throwing money at the problem. We can feel better about ourselves because we are so compassionate and so giving, but the problems we are trying to eliminate throughout the developing world show no sign of disappearing.

Poverty is a symptom of dysfunctional political, economic and social systems throughout the developing world. Simply giving more money—either indirectly, by forgiving debts, or directly, through foreign aid—might show others how compassionate and generous we are, but it will prove useless unless we can fix the systemic problems of the developing world. Corruption, lack of transparency, cronyism, nepotism, stunted civil societies, closed socialist economies, overregulation and statism mean that, however much money we give, most of it is likely to end up misappropriated, stolen or wasted. The real solution is democratic reform, opening up the economy, freeing up trade and creating robust social institutions. As the Treasurer said last year:

It is not aid, but trade and economic reform that has delivered these millions out of poverty.

But pursuing that is very tough—it is difficult, it is not sexy and it requires a lot of work. The international community’s approach to global environmental problems is no different from its approach to violence and poverty. All too often we misallocate our limited resources towards trying to tackle prominent and exciting problems such as global warming when the money would be far better and more effectively spent on eliminating problems that simply do not capture our imagination, are not trendy and are not fashionable. It has become a mission of Bjorn Lomborg, ‘the sceptical environmentalist’, and a group of experts known as the Copenhagen Consensus to suggest the best allocation of our resources. The results are quite startling. As Lomborg writes:

... we can do enormous good for the money we spend. The expert panel of economists found that HIV-AIDS, hunger, free trade and malaria should be the world’s top priorities. More than 28 million cases of HIV-AIDS could be prevented by 2010. The cost would be $US27 billion ... with benefits almost 40 times as high.

He goes on to say:

Providing micronutrients missing from more than half the world’s diet would dramatically reduce diseases caused by iron, zinc, iodine and vitamin A deficiencies. This would have an exceptionally high ratio of benefits to cost. The expense of establishing free trade would be dwarfed by benefits of up to $US2400 billion a year. Mosquito nets and effective medication could halve the incidence of malaria and would cost $US13 billion, with benefits at least five times the outlay.

Not trendy, not fashionable, but practical. By contrast, under the current popular proposal to solve problems such as global warming, the enormous costs are likely to far exceed the benefits. Unfortunately, the international community will keep on pursuing initiatives like the Kyoto protocol, while for a fraction of the cost we could go a very long way towards improving the lives of billions of people around the world. Battling against the apocalyptic scenarios of The Day After Tomorrow, however, seems far more exciting, fashionable and interesting than fixing sewerage somewhere in Botswana or providing mosquito nets in Sri Lanka. Plus, in the good conspicuous compassion tradition, you can agitate for the Kyoto protocol from the comfort of the armchair in your living room without having to dirty your hands with actual hard work.

Australian society, sadly, is not free of tokenism, symbolism and conspicuous compassion. There are sections of our society which hold a belief that a UN resolution will depose a tyrant or restore peace, that aid and debt forgiveness will transform the developing world or that saying sorry will increase the life expectancy of Australian Aboriginals and stop domestic violence. They are wrong. The Howard government has been consistently resistant to this sort of make-believe social, economic and foreign policy, which is why it has championed initiatives and philosophies such as mutual obligation, practical reconciliation and tied aid.

There is always scope for more. Our approach to tackling international and domestic problems should be simple: think before you speak, prefer actions to words, spend wisely. Further, if it has not worked in the past, it is not likely to work in the future and if it sounds like magic, it probably is. My mother used to always say, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything.’ I would extend this principle even further: even if you have something nice to say, do not say anything unless you are also prepared to do something.