The enormous suffering in the wake of the cyclone that hit southern Burma last week has shocked the world.
The sight of families whose homes and villages have been destroyed waiting in vain for assistance has moved many around the world to launch fundraising appeals or to donate to charities.
Many have been rightly dismayed to see aid efforts delayed by Burma’s military junta.
The Burmese regime has also failed to effectively deploy its army to deal with the disaster – in sharp contrast to their swift and decisive crackdown on pro-democracy protesters last year.
Alarmingly, however, some Western politicians and commentators, including French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, are demanding that the United Nations compels Burma to accept aid.
They argue that if a state cannot protect its own citizens, then the international community must step in to do so.
This is the dangerous thinking that has stood behind countless “humanitarian” interventions – including the 1992 US invasion of Somalia.
This was touted as a mercy mission to deliver aid but ended with the US backing one faction in a bitter civil war and thousands more dead.
“Enforced aid” requires that workers be accompanied by ranks of foreign troops to protect them and their supplies.
This can open up aid workers and the accompanying troops to become targets of local or government hostility, leading to a spiralling conflict that further endangers life, rather than saving it.
The Burmese regime is likely to be suspicious of Western aid because it has seen the way in which it can be used as a political weapon to undermine governments – democratic or otherwise.
It may fear that the presence of thousands of charities and NGOs handing out food, medicine and relief would serve to highlight the regime’s failings to the Burmese population and may help the political opposition and democracy activists.
The Burmese regime is probably also well aware that the demand for enforced aid can be the pretext for wider geo-political manoeuvring, as the US seeks to undermine China’s influence in the region.
The US already has a significant military presence in neighbouring Thailand, and the aircraft carriers Kitty Hawk and Nimitz are nearby.
It is clear that in the immediate term, the Burmese people urgently need access to aid in the form of food, clean water and shelter.
However, in the long term there is a risk attached to aid responses. They can lead to a dependency on aid that fails to address, or even deepens, structural problems that caused the problems in the first place.
Major aid agencies sometimes follow immediate aid with large-scale developments – in irrigation or roadbuilding, for example.
These often prove detrimental to both local populations and the environment. They can also leave governments in hock to powerful NGOs.
Major projects tend to be funded through organisations such as the World Bank which push neoliberalism as a model for development and usually demand the opening up of domestic markets – and cuts in welfare spending – in return for funding.
For socialists the question of saving as many lives as possible remains paramount.
This is why it is wrong for the Burmese regime to bar skilled medical staff and supplies from the country.
But it is also wrong that Western governments and corporations have created their own humanitarian disaster in the region by using patenting laws to prevent the availability of cheap HIV/AIDS drugs.
And Western leaders must take at least some of the blame for promoting policies that accelerate the climate chaos and inequality that underpin the disastrous effects of extreme weather in much of the Global South.