The issue is our humanity, not God's divinity

Let us not deceive ourselves. The Asian tsunami has dominated the media for several days because it is a simple but dramatic story that broke between Christmas and New Year, usually the deadest time of all for news. The images (lots of weeping light-brown children) are a picture editor's dream. Human interest, always the first modern media requirement, exists in abundance, and is now augmented by the high numbers of westerners missing, presumed dead. The source of the disaster - the sea - echoes our most elemental fears and uncertainties. As any Hollywood producer will tell you, disaster movies are good box office, and if they involve giant waves and pretty beaches, all the better.

And so we dig generously into our pockets - getting daily pats on the back from our newspapers and, if we are of sufficient celebrity, our names on a roll of honour - and contribute on average between £2 and £3 per adult, or (as we went to press) a total of £90m, having spent £4.2bn on cosmetics alone at Christmas. Vodafone gives the equivalent of one hour's profits. Meanwhile, comparisons between UK and US government aid and the sums spent on waging war in Iraq or on subsidising weapons sales to Indonesia (see John Pilger, page ten) hardly bear thinking about.

There is a simple explanation for the curious reticence of western leaders, who are normally so quick to display their compassion to our wondering eyes: unlike the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001, there are, as Bryan Appleyard observed in the Sunday Times, no policy implications, no "therefores" that follow from the tsunami. Though similar catastrophes could conceivably hit London, New York, Cardiff and so on, it doesn't seem terribly likely. Natural disasters, we think, happen to poor countries, where people live and work in rickety buildings; unlike Arab terrorists, tsunamis do not threaten to strike in quick succession.

More importantly, the Asian disaster has no significant economic implications. None of the countries involved is of central importance to the world economy and, contrary to general belief, the industries most affected - tourism and fishing - account for a fraction of their domestic economies. Few of the homeless and jobless will be able to make claims on western insurance companies. World stock markets have climbed steadily since Boxing Day. Economists have already calculated that the tsunami will shave no more than one or two percentage points off the region's economic growth this year. It would be different if Indonesia's oil and gas production had been hit. Or if Sri Lanka's million migrant workers in the Middle East had felt impelled to return home.

It would be wrong to belittle the generosity of many westerners - often those who, by the standards of their own societies, are hard up - and wrong, too, to deny that it may be more uplifting to give voluntarily than to be forced to contribute through taxation. Yet the hard truth is that, if we really wish to help developing countries, we have to do more than deny ourselves a few glasses of wine. We have to pay more for the goods we buy from those countries; allow them more favourable terms of trade; forgive them many billions of pounds in debt; permit them to manufacture and sell cheaper medicines; require multinationals to repatriate more of their profits; welcome economic migrants more warmly; pledge a fixed proportion of our national income in aid for years to come. All these are within the power of governments, rather than individuals, and all would have uncomfortable implications for western consumers, western jobs, western businesses, western financial institutions and western economies in general. Do Gordon Brown and Tony Blair really have the courage to propose and see through such a programme? And would people vote for them if they did? In Britain, at least, we decided a century ago that private philanthropy was an inadequate means of alleviating poverty and achieving justice. But we still tend to think it perfectly acceptable for Asia and Africa.

Only the drama of a natural disaster - less often a war, and, less often still, a famine - brings the plight of developing countries to our attention. But the lack of clean water and sanitation, the degradation of agricultural land and the high cost of patented drugs, to give just a few examples, kill far more children every year than have died in the Boxing Day tsunami and its aftermath. The charm of a disaster is precisely that it seems to be nobody's fault, neither ours nor theirs, and so we can show sympathy and solidarity with a one-off donation. We can all then get on with our lives without having to consider complex political and economic problems.

Lacking Mr Appleyard's "therefores", commentators have retreated in recent days into considering the mysteries of God's powers and intentions, in the spirit of Voltaire after the Lisbon earthquake in 1755. How can a supposedly omniscient and omnipotent but also benign deity allow such things to happen? Indeed, since tsunamis are described (admittedly by insurance companies, which are not the most reliable theological witnesses) as acts of God, do we have to face the possibility that the Creator willed this event? Or is it evidence that, if there is a God at all, he is a cold, uncaring, even brutal one, treating us as mere playthings of his moods? These are the wrong questions, and atheists have no business wasting their time on them. It is far more pertinent to ask how human beings, particularly the more powerful and wealthy among us, can remain indifferent to a daily toll of poverty, disease and hunger that it is well within their means to end. The condition of Africa and much of Asia questions our humanity, not the divinity of a hypothetical God.