Disaster and the State

13 05 2013

Category; LawMediaPolitics

© Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty

A terrible industrial disaster in Bangladesh, a building full of workshops collapses leaving more than a thousand dead (click here), and our first reaction in developed economies is to question our responsibilities as consumers and whether we should boycott the western companies who have clothing made there (click here).

It’s an example of the fact we seem to have forgotten what the state is for.

It’s as if we so take for granted the institutions that govern and control our lives we must focus on our own remote and insignificant role.

Let me start  with the primary responsibility of the state – the protection of its citizens: Protection from external threat, from each other, and from itself.

In Bangladesh we see cataclysmic failure in a building, but the failures of the Bangladeshi state are little mentioned.

There are two reasons; a feeling of not wanting to intrude on national grief, and a belief that we can’t expect that much from the developing world. Can’t we? And when better to highlight failures than when we see what they lead to?

Let’s briefly list some of the failures involved: Planning law, building regulations, zoning, employment rights, health and safety regulations, fire safety.

Those are the direct ones involved in the collapse of a dangerous building filled with workers.

But what of what happened after the collapse? Citizens should expect that a rescue of this sort will be competent; that there will be teams of adequately led, trained, and motivated people with adequate equipment.

And what of international assistance? Was it requested? When offered was it accepted? I saw no mention of it.

It is apparently down to us to solve the problems by no longer buying clothes made in Bangladesh. Is it, really?

What about a system where the efficient modern factories chosen by western companies to produce their clothes simply subcontract the work when the buyers are gone, to workshops like the ones which collapsed. How about legislators in Bangladesh improving the legal system there to stop that happening?

Given that Bangladesh is one of the most corrupt countries on earth – on a par with Congo, the Central African Republic and Syria; click here  – when better than this disaster to highlight these things?

Is it politeness? Condescension? Do we really do our best for the people of that country by turning a blind eye to the fact their political system is utterly corrupted?

I once met a senior Bangladeshi judge. He was an extremely well-educated, liberal, cultured, intelligent and modest man. I cannot believe he would think that not using this as an opportunity to highlight the failures of his state while blaming ourselves and shops does them any favours at all.

In China, following a similar disaster, where shoddily constructed schools crumbled in an earthquake, while properly constructed buildings remained intact, artist and activist Ai Weiwei has made sure the Chinese state is held to account (click here), at great personal risk. He knows what the state is for even if we don’t.

It is not for us to let the Bangladeshi state off the hook; our media should not downplay the failings, and we have a duty to let their citizens know we think they have a right to a better state. It is the duty of aid agencies not simply to try and replace state functions while being complicit in the corruption (click here). It is the duty of our state not to ignore corruption and incompetence.

To simply observe their passing and blame western companies and consumers, not to highlight the failures in their own governance that caused so many to die, is to betray the memory of the 1,127 dead and make their passing worthless.

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One response

1 07 2013
gwenkuo

Interesting post especially the part about Ai Weiwei. Some thoughts about Ai Weiwei’s earlier provocative concept…http://wp.me/p3bwN9-dXs

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