April 2005
By Alan W. Dowd

The Measure of a Nation

UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland drew more attention and heat than he expected when he dismissed initial tsunami relief contributions from America and other wealthy nations as “stingy.”  

Although Washington pledged tens of millions in the very first hours after the tidal wave, that figure exploded as Americans began to grasp the scope of the disaster. Just two weeks after the disaster, Americans had already given some $300 million in private donations. Add to that the $350 million the Bush administration pledged in the form of US government aid, which, it pays to recall, was also donated by Americans in the form of taxes. Add to that the countless man-hours being donated by US humanitarian groups, physicians and the like. And add to that the uncounted hundreds of millions (perhaps billions?) the United States absorbed by deploying warships, helicopters, transport planes and almost 20,000 troops to lead the greatest humanitarian relief effort since the Berlin Airlift.  

It’s no wonder why Egeland back-peddled after recognizing the full scope of US aid, but the editorial page of the New York Times predictably piled on. “Mr. Egeland was right on target," howled the newspaper of record, mocking American aid as a “miserly drop in the bucket.” The Times proceeded to use the tragedy as an occasion to trot out old, inaccurate measures of American aid: According to the New York Times, US foreign aid amounts to “well under a quarter of 1 percent” of the federal budget. “For development aid,” the editorial continued, “America gave $16.2 billion in 2003; the European Union gave $37.1 billion.”

Of course, these measures only take into account a fraction of US contributions to international development and humanitarian aid.  As the US Agency for International Development concluded in 2003, when US government assistance is combined with US philanthropy, America’s development-aid tally approaches $57 billion annually—far more than what the EU gives, far more than what the Times counted in its politically charged column.

Jay Hein of the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research notes that such misconceptions reflect “a lack of understanding of the unique and indispensable way in which America has historically responded to global needs. In calling upon religious groups, charities, individual citizens, and businesses to join the effort, President Bush has also followed a rich American tradition of recognizing the strength of civil society in meeting even the most dire of needs.”

Tsunami Stinginess

An analysis by the Virginian-Pilot newspaper discovered which nations really deserve the “stingy” label. Besides the United States, several other countries stepped up in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, including:

Japan $500 million

Norway $180 million

Britain $96 million

Italy$95 million

Sweden $80 million

Spain $68 million

China $61 million

France $56 million

Denmark $55 million

Australia $47 million

EU $40 million

Netherlands $34 million

Canada $33 million

Germany $27 million

Qatar $25 million

Switzerland $23 million

Ireland $14 million

Portugal $11 million

South Korea $5 million

Taiwan $5 million

Algeria $2 million

Bahrain $2 million

Libya $2 million

UAE $2 million

Turkey $1.25 million.

But this list of donors begs an interesting question. As the Virginian-Pilot asked, “Where is Iran? Egypt? Pakistan? Oman? Morocco? The oil-soaked sultanate of Brunei? Where are Jordan, Syria and Lebanon? And why are Bahrain, Kuwait and the Saudis such cheapskates when their spiritual brothers and sisters are dying by the tens of thousands?”

This last question is a reference to the fact that most of the tsunami’s victims are Muslims, since Muslim Indonesia bore the brunt of the tidal fury. Yet as the paper notes, Muslim Kuwait’s initial contribution was just $10 million, even though Kuwait enjoys a $10-billion surplus. Likewise, even though it has found resources to pour millions into organizations that encourage suicide bombing and that build anti-Western schools, Muslim Saudi Arabia pledged just $10 million.

As a contributing editor to The American Legion, Dowd writes columns and news briefs on national security, foreign affairs and U.S. politics each month for the magazine's "Rapid Fire" section.