Boxing Day 2004, the day of the Asian tsunami, was a day of hundreds of thousands of personal tragedies. Some images stick in the mind: camcorder footage of killer waves lashing violently against the shore, tragic final pictures of holidaymakers taken moments before the waves overpowered them, and the incredible story of Tilly Smith, the 10 year-old schoolgirl from Oxshott who, remembering her geography lessons, realised that the receding sea heralded a tsunami and raised the alarm, allowing her family to flee to safety.
The tsunami was a natural tragedy: it reminds us of the awesome force of nature, and of humanity’s fragility and vulnerability. But there is a second tragedy about the tsunami: that despite the heroic efforts of local and international humanitarian workers, the relief and reconstruction effort was marred by examples of duplication, inefficiency and waste. The aftermath of the tsunami highlighted a brutal truth: that as a world we do a remarkably poor job of translating our immediate surge of compassion and cash into effective action to save lives and rebuild shattered communities.
For example, international agencies often failed to work effectively alongside the response of local people and governments. In some cases, the compassion of outsiders smacked headlong into the cold realities of local power politics. The poor, as ever, were last in line, as local power-brokers and village supremos got first dibs on the aid that came in.