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Rationing miracle rescues

by Kevin Rafferty

HONG KONG — Surely the picture of the month was of Chilean miner Mario Sepulveda thumping the air like a 2-year-old in jubilation that he was free after 68 days in a dank, dark dungeon more than 600 meters below the Atacama Desert.

More than a billion people around the world watched the spell-binding television pictures of the rescue of the 33 miners. Hard-bitten friends admitted to shedding tears of joy as the men were hauled one by one to the surface. Practical engineering help came from NASA and the United States, Canada and Europe. Pope Benedict XVI sent personal rosaries to the mostly Catholic miners.

There is something miraculous about the return of the miners from almost being buried alive to their blinking the fresh bright air of the desert. In spite of the repetition of the mystical number “33″ (Jesus Christ supposedly died and rose again at the age of 33, and here were 33 miners who reached the surface after 33 days of digging the rescue shaft and a reported 33 changes of the drill bit), their rescue was as much a triumph of human faith, discipline, political determination, and engineering grit and capability.

Chile is entitled to celebrate. Engineer Andre Sougarret and his team were the strong silent heroes, who had to drill a hole close enough to discover that there were any miners left alive, widen it to let down supplies of food and drink and provisions to lift the miners’ spirits, supervise rescue shafts through the deep adamantine rock and then haul the men to safety.

President Sebastian Pinera and his mining minister Laurence Golborne provided superlative political leadership. The miners never gave up even when they went 17 days without any contact with the outside world and had run out of food.

There are lessons that should not be forgotten now that the television lights have been turned off, Camp Hope Fulfilled has been dismantled and the miners have returned to their families to face their own private demons.

Pinera promised that Chile itself has changed and will amend safety laws in what is always a perilous industry. Better laws more strictly enforced might have ensured that Chile did not have to spend almost $20 million in rescuing the men.

It was an expensive effort to save 33 men under the dramatic glare of global publicity — in contrast to the darkness of daily indifference to the billion or so poor people who waste away every day in hunger, poverty and disease, and to the millions who die every day without a prayer for their passing.

Clearly lots of people were watching and listening, judging by the way the miners’ was followed worldwide, except probably the leaders in Beijing. Within days, 37 miners died in an explosion in Henan, but China tried to hush up any publicity about the incident. Last year there were 2,631 deaths from mining accidents in China.

Who cares and why should we care? The French aviation pioneer and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote more than 60 years ago about a train journey through Europe on the brink of war, in which he watched huddled refugee miners being shunted back home. He spotted an angelic-looking child sleeping cuddled by a hulk of a parent and reflected that the child was more beautiful than any rose on which a gardener would lavish every care to protect and develop its beauty. The likelihood was that this child would be stamped and ground down like its parents.

Saint-Exupery lamented that the sleeping dreams of the child might include great poetry or the musical ability of Mozart, but no one would ever know. What a waste for humanity. Anyone who has ever traveled to poor parts of Africa, Asia, Latin America can only lament over the wasted human lives.

For me, it is not the sleeping innocence of children as much as the energy and imagination you see in the bright eyes of young kids who are rarely trained in good schooling or protected by health care.

After the mayhem of World War II, the U.S. cared enough to pour billions of dollars into the Marshall Plan, which put the European economies on their feet again and just possibly helped the child in whom Saint-Exupery marveled to live to enjoy and perhaps play Mozart’s music. Similarly, U.S. and World Bank assistance boosted Japan’s postwar development. The Shinkansen train line was the first beneficiary of World Bank money.

Last week a deficit-slashing British government promised to raise its foreign aid to reach the elusive United Nations’ target of 0.7 percent of gross domestic product, the first major country to do so. Foreign aid has been the easy target of stingy governments, with Washington and Tokyo showing the way.

As Europe, Japan and some African countries demonstrate, aid can play a vital catalytic role in creating economic growth, jobs and health. It would take a few hundred million dollars — not billions — to see that children in the developing world get schooling to their teens, a proper meal a day and vaccination against killer diseases.

Sadly, such aid can be wasted on armaments, corruption and the fattening of dictators at the expense of their people. Are you listening, Washington and Beijing?

The media mostly fails to do its job. We live in a global but also a highly parochial world where editors — I can testify from my own experience at PlainWords Media trying to promote a debate on development issues — rarely like to stray far outside their doors.

When I was a young reporter in England, we tried to calculate how many people would have to die to get the same coverage as a car crash on the road outside the newspaper offices. We worked out roughly 10 people in a multiple crash in the same county, 100 dead in a train wreck in the capital, maybe 200 in an aircraft disaster in Europe, and was it thousands or hundreds of thousands in a foreign famine or earthquake?

Sure enough, my introduction to working for the Financial Times was covering the 1970 typhoon in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh): The story of up to half a million people — we guessed a conservative 250,000 — being whisked from the face of the Earth received a little more than six centimeters of space.

So maybe 33 miners getting so much space and time is a mark of progress.

Kevin Rafferty, formerly in charge of the Financial Times’ coverage of Asia, is editor in chief of PlainWords Media.