Here is part of President Bushâ€™s defense of the federal governmentâ€™s feeble initial response to Hurricane Katrina, in what The New York Times editorial page called â€œone of the worst speeches of his lifeâ€:
The Department of Transportation has provided more than 400 trucks to move 1,000 truckloads containing 5.4 million Meals Ready to Eat — or MREs, 13.4 million liters of water, 10,400 tarps, 3.4 million pounds of ice, 144 generators, 20 containers of pre-positioned disaster supplies, 135,000 blankets and 11,000 cots.
Does this sound at all familiar to Colombia-watchers?
Hereâ€™s one of many examples from Colombian President Ãlvaro Uribeâ€™s standard speechmaking, in this case a defense of his governmentâ€™s social and economic policies, given in mid-April in the town of ToribÃo, Cauca, which was being besieged by FARC guerrillas.
You know that in this government we have increased by nearly 5 million the number of people covered by the stateâ€™s subsidized health program. In this government we have increased the number of spaces for public-school students (cupos escolares) by 1.1 million. In this government the SENA [National Learning Service, which offers vocational training] has gone from attending to 1 million Colombians per year to, in this year, over 3 million, and we hope to attend to 4 million next year.
In both cases, we see an attempt to mask a lack of results by offering a barrage of vague but impressive-sounding statistics.
We know that, on Wednesday, tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents were being left to fend for themselves amid looting and rising floodwaters while the federal government â€“ whose military was nowhere near using its enormous search-and-rescue, medevac, transportation and order-keeping capabilities â€“ dithered. We know that the poorest Colombians â€“ especially those in neglected rural areas where illegal armed groups are strong â€“ have seen little or no increase in government services.
We donâ€™t know whether the statistics our leaders are reciting are at all meaningful. Are 13.4 million liters of water and 11,000 cots anywhere near enough? Did the government have the logistical capacity to deliver these goods to those who needed them immediately, or are they still sitting in warehouses? Was it possible to deliver any of this aid to New Orleans when the law and order situation had clearly gotten out of hand?
Is the increase in people covered by Colombiaâ€™s health system accompanied by a similar increase in doctors and hospitals? Is the increase in spaces for students accompanied by a similar increase in teachers and schools? Did being â€œattended toâ€ by the SENA lead many of these millions of people to get gainful employment using those skills?
When our leaders give us numbers instead of results, we need to ask more questions.