January 14, 2005
American LargesseWhen the tsunami struck South Asia, it took George W. Bush who was on vacation at the time, three full days before publicly saying anything. More important than coming up with the funds or a formal policy was to respond quickly and show victims that we care, that in times of tragedy we are in solidarity with the world. He obviously didn't do this.
The American public responded much better. We immediately opened our hearts and wallets to the victims in South Asia. Even though some opined that they're sick and tired of giving, it was not the popular consensus. We gave and gave some more, to the tune of $700 million by the time all is said and done.
This is on top of the $350 million that the government [after an embarassingly slow and low start of $15 million] has pledged, not to mention the non-monetary assistance that we provide. Giving money is one thing; making sure it reaches the most needy is another. The military alone is providing a lot of technical and logistical support. Without question, we are unsurpassed in the world when it comes to this kind of aid.
We are a generous people, which is why when a UN official said that donor countries are stingy, it stung.
Are we stingy? In absolute dollar terms, we're not, but there's room for more generosity. When it comes to official aid for instance, most of us believe we give 23 cents to foreign aid for every dollar we make. In reality, we give less than 1/7th of a penny.
That $350 million pledge from the government is exactly that, a pledge. Just last Christmas, the government had to cut its commitment to world food programs because with the budget deficit, the war in Iraq and huge tax cuts, we couldn't afford it.
Add the tendency of governments in general to pledge more than they can deliver, making them at the expense of other programs they promised to support. From Hurricane Mitch in Honduras to the earthquake in Bam, Iran, it seems the commitment lasts only as long as the catastrophe grabs headlines.
In spite of these flaws, the government has a role to play in the foreign aid equation. There is need for assistance around the world that we don't hear about. There are logistical and diplomatic hurdles that private donors and organizations can't handle. In both cases, the government is the best way to channel aid on an ongoing basis. If we are to effectively help those in need, official aid and private donations should go hand in hand.
Pretty soon, attention will shift from the tsunami tragedy to something else. The initial shock and horror we all felt will start to fade, though the need from this and other tragedies around the world remains.
We all want to do the right thing. Doing the right thing requires that we and our government keep our promises and see it through.
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