American Enterprise Online
January 12, 2005
Alan W. Dowd

In words he no doubt wishes he had kept to himself, UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland dismissed America’s initial tsunami relief contributions as “stingy.” He has since back-peddled, and rightly so. Americans are many things, but they certainly are not stingy.

After all, just 14 days after the Indian Ocean swallowed its victims, Americans had already given some $300 million in private donations (and counting). Add to that the $350 million the Bush administration has 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 will absorb by deploying warships, helicopters, transport planes and almost 20,000 troops to lead the greatest humanitarian relief effort since the Berlin Airlift.

That same military is building schools, bridges, roads and governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. That same military is keeping the peace in Bosnia and Kosovo, standing guard in Korea, and waging a global campaign to destroy international terrorism at its roots. Only the most cynical can dismiss this as a self-serving effort. From Tora Bora to Timbuktu, American troops are working to roll back the enemies of civilization. If this is self-interest, it is enlightened self-interest.

Yet in the tsunami’s wake, as in the world at large, the US military represents only a fraction of American generosity. Contrary to popular misconceptions, America’s willingness to help those in need began long before Mr. Egeland tried to shame Americans into giving by slurring them. Americans understand, as the old proverb says, that we should never withhold good from those who deserve it when it is within our power to act.

Robert Bremner notes in his book American Philanthropy that concerted efforts to raise and distribute foreign aid on the part of Americans date back at least to 1820, when volunteer committees collected money to support Greek independence and care for Greek orphans. In 1832, the United States sent a relief ship full of supplies to the Cape VerdeIslands. When Ireland was ravaged by famine a little over a decade later, America sent much more. According to Bremner, “To carry the contributions of Massachusetts alone required two sloops of war, four merchant ships, and two steamers.” (In other words, President George W. Bush’s plan to leverage both public and private aid is not a new idea.)

During the Great War, the United States helped form the Commission for Relief in Belgium, which pooled philanthropic and government contributions from the United States, Britain, Belgium and France. The CRB’s work continued after the war through the American Relief Administration.

During World War II, Congress shunted $50 million to the Red Cross to help war refugees. Six months after America’s entry into the war, President Franklin Roosevelt created the War Relief Control Board, which coordinated most non-military foreign aid for the balance of the war.  In 1943, the United States helped create the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. As Bremner notes, the UNRRA was comprised of 50 governments. Together, they spent $4 billion on food, clothing and medicine to ease the suffering of refugees. At $2.6 billion, America’s contribution accounted for close to 75 percent of the UNRRA’s generosity.  

After the war, after liberating Europe and Asia, American taxpayers shipped $13 billion over to Western Europe via the Marshall Plan. Similarly large quantities of aid were sent to Japan, as RAND’s James Dobbins details in America's Role in Nation-Building: From Germany to Iraq. For example, with Japan facing the worst rice harvest in 35 years, Gen. Douglas MacArthur supplemented Japanese rations “with 800,000 tons of surplus military food.” He then persuaded Washington to earmark $250 million for food, farm equipment and medicine for occupied Japan—“an amount exceeding the combined budgets of the U.S. Departments of Commerce, Justice, and Labor that year.”

For the balance of the Cold War, the “stingy” Americans poured $2 trillion in foreign aid into some of the poorest, hungriest, sickest and remotest corners of the globe. (It wasn’t always wisely invested, of course, but that’s a subject for another essay.)

Now, as then, America’s generosity is unmatched. Today, the US Agency for International Development has a presence in almost 100 countries. At $2.5 billion, the US government donates more food aid per year than any other country on earth. US agencies spend some $10 billion in official development assistance annually and another $13 billion in other forms of aid.[1] And that number is rising, thanks to Bush’s Millennium Challenge Corporation. When fully funded in 2006, the MCC will administer $5 billion in new foreign assistance, a 50-percent increase in official development assistance.  

However, US government aid is only part of the picture, as underscored yet again by the tsunami relief effort. In fact, as USAID concluded in 2003, when US government aid is combined with US philanthropy, America’s assistance to developing countries approaches $57 billion annually—far more than what international aid organizations and the likes of Mr. Egeland define as official development assistance.[2]

Americans aren’t so naïve as to expect gratitude for such generosity. Those days ended long ago. But nor should they expect slurs and cynicism.

[1] USAID, Foreign Aid in the National Interest, 2003, p.132.

[2] USAID, Foreign Aid in the National Interest, 2003, p.131.