11/01/2005 - 21:00

Reading the signs the first time

11/01/2005 - 21:00


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AN awful lot has happened between editions of our newspaper but one thing has taken the headlines for almost that entire period – Asia’s tsunami.

AN awful lot has happened between editions of our newspaper but one thing has taken the headlines for almost that entire period – Asia’s tsunami.

I won’t dwell on this subject for too long, except to say that in my holiday mode I was at least 12 hours behind the news, which was probably a good thing given I knew someone holidaying in Penang.

Our Christmas host’s father was out of contact for a further half a day or so (eventually he rang to say he’d seen the white line appear in the sea and decided to head for his hotel), so the rush of delayed news came thick and fast.

While the horror has unfolded I have also appreciated the human stories – some heroic, some just matter-of-fact accounts of a spectator – that allow me think about what I might have done if circumstances had placed me in such a situation.

I have visited many of the places hit by the waves but even that is not necessarily relevant. Recently I have found myself glancing to the horizon when I’m at City Beach or calculating the probability that such a wave could reach my house.

Australia has witnessed significant natural disasters but Perth has been largely immune from such wholesale deva-station.

Perhaps the tsunami news hits home here not just because of good fortune but also the unexpected nature of the event.

Storms usually come with some warning and we all have some knowledge of bushfires. Harrowing as these events are, in Australia the cost has generally come in the ravaging of the land, infrastructure and personal belongings, rather than the wholesale loss of life.

We live in a harsh land but, in some ways, the devastation it metes out is somewhat predictable – as are floods in Bangladesh, avalanches in the Alps, snow storms in the US Mid West and air crashes in Russia.

The tsunami, though, is a different event. Apart from a few lone voices (most notably in Thailand) it was a surprise. So much so that, even when the wave was visible to most in its way, it was perceived as a spectacle rather than a threat.

In some strange way this is what links it – and awful feelings it creates – to that other cataclysmic event of the 21st century, the September 11 2001 terrorist strikes on New York’s twin towered World Trade Center.

Though the loss of life is incomparable the emotional connection is unavoidably similar.

One superficial similarity was that witnesses with modern digital recording devices captured both events in considerable detail, which subsequently meant global dissemination by the media was swift and engrossing.

This helps us relate to the disaster in a way that we never will to another horrific December 26 earthquake, this one at Bam in Iran in 2003.

But it is not just that. It is the unexpected. That you could be going about your business – be it stockbroking in New York or sun bathing in Phuket – and disaster strikes without warning.

Worse, there is warning but you can’t read the signs. Most people thought the first plane to hit the World Trade Center was an accident. Many people went back to work and thousands gathered close to watch the spectacle.

No-one expected a second aircraft to hit or either building to collapse.

We would all do things differently if those circum-stances were repeated and we happened to be there.

And that is the point I am trying the make. It is not just about the sudden loss of life; it is the feeling that so many people could have been saved if only they knew how to read the signs.

Ensuring money does its work

ANOTHER thought the tsunami has prompted is to rejuvenate my long-running concern about fund raising for charity and the enormous industry that has grown up around pulling people’s heartstrings.

I don’t want to be a cynic, but wondering how many of the dollars raised gets to the people in need is not an issue just to me. It has made headlines before, as I recall.

While I recognise that charities need to maintain an infrastructure and the ability to raise funds, let alone the physical means of delivering them, I am not averse to the idea of significant scrutiny of this sector.

I was heartened that the two charities I sought to donate to both carried very public explanations of how they spend their money.

At Medecins Sans Frontieres Australia’s website, aptly illustrated with a syringe, the charity and aid group says 6.5 per cent of funds go to administration, 11.8 per cent go to fund raising and 81.7 per cent pays for program activities.

Care Australia’s website states that 7 per cent of funds support services and fund raising while 93 per cent go to program activities.

Of course, saying they’ll do something on a website doesn’t necessarily mean they will, but at least they understand the public’s concern about this issue.

At least one other major charity I looked at did not obviously offer such information.

In my belief it is time every charity going to the public for money at the very least offered this explanation.

There are strong alignments with the financial services sector, which has become increasingly regulated as it has widened its market to the every-day Australian.

While I would not advocate such costly layers of regulation be imposed on the charity industry, I do believe there should be more transparency – at least annual accounts, signed by directors and pro bono auditors should be available through the Australian Securities and Investments Commission or some similar database provider.

Charity groups do a lot of good and help a lot of people.

But they also have a voice in our community and they are competing with each other for limited funds. In many cases they are competing with commercial operators too, be it directly for services such as employment advocacy, as well as for retail spending money and retirement savings.

Under those circumstances, the public ought to feel secure that their choice to give hard earned money to someone or something more needy is actually realised.


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