It is now the second week after
the natural disaster, and we are nowhere near a common understanding
of why the world’s richest, and allegedly most powerful,
country appeared prostrate before the forces of nature. The
controversy is based on a number of questions, the most important
of which is how natural was the disaster if the communities
destroyed in and around New Orleans had been long forewarned
that it could happen? If it could not have been prevented,
should not the communities have been better prepared to deal
with the consequences? What was the level of culpability of
local, state, and federal officials in making the consequences
of the disaster even more tragic either by acts of omission
or commission, actions, and inactions?
Above all, is the question of political accountability and responsibility
for the consequences of the disaster.
The rest of the world has continued to watch with horror at the
devastation and with subdued bemusement and incredulity at the
ill-preparedness of the Americans in the face of this tragedy.
If this happened in some third world country (especially Africa),
there would be loud cries (none more louder than those from Washington)
about irresponsible leadership.
I see three immediate lessons. The first is a simple one. Every
one of us, in emergencies, needs help, rich or poor, big or small.
Who would have thought that less than a year after the tragic
tsunami that devastated sev-eral countries in South East Asia
and parts of East Africa, some of these countries, including
Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia would be coming forward to offer
help to the USA!
The second one is that natural disasters do happen and can happen
to any country. It only proves that we inhabit the same world
even if some countries, or their leaders, may deceive themselves
into believing that they are God’s landlords on earth.
There is no territorial sovereignty over natural disasters.
The third lesson has to do with being humble and never saying
never. Last September, a Category 5 hurricane devastated Cuba
with 160-mile-per-hour winds. Cuba evacuated 1.5 million of its
citizens before the storm. Consequently, even though many homes
were destroyed, not a single Cuban died! The United States does
not have all the answers to its own problems, let alone global
challenges. It can and must learn from others whose system it
may not like, whose leaders it may detest, but who have better
knowledge and experience than the United States in managing emergencies.
The role of racism and classism
Another aspect of the disaster has to do with what it teaches
us about America’s self-image and its way of life,
its projection of global military power and the reality of
life inside the country. The controversies are still raging
as to whether race or class were reasons why Bush and the
U.S. establishment responded so slowly and shoddily. Personally,
I do not think it is a case of either-or, and I do not believe
that one reason alone can explain the situation. It is a
combination of reasons at the heart of which both class and
race are fundamental factors.
America does not care about its poor people. This is not unique
to the U.S. ruling class, since many rulers do not care about
their poorest, as most Africans will attest. However, America,
as the richest country on earth, is expected to look after
its own. If it cannot, why should anybody in the world accept
its claims to be able to solve other peoples’ problems
The truth is that the American dream has always been a self-rationalizing
ideology for the rich, just as it has always been a huge nightmare
for the poor. Statistically and historically, a disproportionate
majority of the poor are of African-American origin, therefore
they bear a greater part of the suffering. I am sure middle-class
African Americans, with SUVs and 4-by-4s, wider social networks
beyond New Orleans, and credit cards got out of harm’s
way as quickly as their white counterparts, but the bulk of
their poor cousins had nowhere to go and many of them perished.
As a predominantly black place, the majority of New Orleans’ victims
would be black. Indeed, so black is the face of suffering globally
that many people, including many Africans, initially thought
the pictures were from yet another blighted African country.
The shock was that these were pictures from America.
Africans are known for their generosity, solidarity, and kindness
in the face of extremes of adversity, but somehow we have not
responded predictably to the tragedy in New Orleans despite
the obvious connection. Are we so numbed by it that we are
also shocked into delayed reaction, or have we become inured
by familiar suffering that we cannot be bothered anymore?
This is not just about African government’s responding.
It is about African leaders in the diaspora too. It is not
about Africans in Africa alone. It is about global Africa,
at home and abroad. Where are we at this hour of need for our
people stranded in New Orleans? We have to show that we as
Africans are willing to embrace our duty to care for other
Africans, and other peoples, and that we take the obligation
That solidarity comes in different forms. America needs the
rest of the world even if it was initially reluctant to ask
for help. It has no missile defense system against natural
One good that may come out of this could be a grudging restoration
of American faith in global institutions such as the United
Nations, whose humanitarian agencies (in spite of general criticisms)
are well equipped to deal with these types of emergencies.
If the United States learns from this disaster that it is a
cotenant, not the landlord of the world, then this tragedy
could become a catalyst for global cooperation, and the suffering
of the people of New Orleans would not have been in vain.
Dr. Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem is general-secretary of the Pan African
Movement, Kampala (Uganda), and co-director of Justice Africa.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Zuki Wanner is a
media associate for CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation
in Newtown, Johannesburg, South Africa. She can be reached