Thursday, December 30, 2004

Is US Foreign Aid Stingy?

In the wake of the unthinkable tragedy that has befallen much of Southeast Asia, it is remarkable to me that one of the largest stories, after the ever rising death toll, is the critique of the United States’ financial contribution to the relief effort that is, by many accounts, already a success. For those living in a cave for the last few days, here’s a recap: after the storm the US, via Secretary Powell, pledged approximately $15 million in disaster aid, much of which to my understanding was in addition to the discretionary funds that embassies in the affected countries had already made available for relief efforts. This number was later more than doubled, and now stands at approximately $35 million in foreign aid. Yesterday the President indicated, as many US officials have, that even larger this number is likely to rise over the coming weeks and months as a better, more accurate assessment of what exactly is needed becomes available.

All that said, the UN, more precisely a specific UN official, Jan Egeland, Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief, was quoted as saying after the initial figure was released that "if, actually, the foreign assistance of many countries now is 0.1 or 0.2 percent of the gross national income, I think that is stingy, really. I don't think that is very generous." Granted he didn’t name specific countries, but I think the implication was clear he was talking about "western countries," specifically the US with our close to $9 billion annual gross national income. The focus turned immediately to a inquiry as to whether the US is a "stingy" country or whether we are generous.

Before crunching numbers, let’s first describe what we are talking about. The $35 million is "government" pledged aid, and doesn’t represent the millions of dollars raised an donated by private individuals and charitable groups. In addition, I don’t believe it includes the costs of sending the USS Lincoln and other military related assistance to the region. Battle-carriers and carrier groups are expensive to maintain and those costs have to be factored in. Second of all, our contribution appears to be on par with what the majority of other "developed western countries" have pledged. According to the Washington Post, only Spain with its $68 million pledge has contributed more in real dollar terms. Other contributions include: Japan $30 million; Britain $29 million; Australia $27.6 million; Germany $27 million; France $20.5 million and; Denmark $15.5 million.

Given the real dollar comparisons we don’t seem so bad in terms of what other nations have contributed, however, that is only one way of looking at the numbers. If you compare the numbers in percentage of GDP terms, you would of course get a much bleaker picture of US government generosity. Given our much larger GDP than the other countries on the above list we would likely rank much closer to the bottom of the list as our number is considerably smaller in percentage terms than the other contributions. 35 million is a drop in the bucket for a 9 trillion dollar economy or so the argument would go. I don’t happen to think this is a fair way of looking at the numbers, nor do I think it actually or accurately represents a measure of a countries generosity, but it is not an unreasonable measure to use if one wanted to criticize our government’s efforts.

Another way of looking at the numbers is relative to what we are spending in other countries. According to Se. Lehay (D-VT), "[w]e spend $35 million before breakfast each day in Iraq," now I don’t know if that’s true or not, seems a bit steep to me, but military operations are expensive and the Iraq bill has totaled more than $200 billion so far with no foreseeable end in sight. Thus, it seems that relative to our expenditures there our $35 million contribution to a massive natural disaster is a bit small. That being said, the comparison to Iraq is at best ludicrous, and at worst, well, it's political rhetoric in its poorest form. Comparing the Iraq war with the humanitarian relief effort is worse than comparing apples and oranges, as the saying goes. Simply put, it needs to stop post haste. Regardless of whether one agrees with the war in Iraq or not, the money spent there should not be used to justify or excuse other government expenditures, especially those unrelated to military, national security, or international interests.

Yet another comparison I have seen is one to other similar disasters. For example, the Post reported today that "[a]fter Hurricane Mitch in 1998, when about 9,000 people were killed and 3 million were left homeless in Central America, the United States provided $988 million in relief assistance." In other words, in a disaster with approximately 8.5 times fewer casualties, we spent approximately 28 times more money. This, in my opinion, is a comparison with some merit, however, as indicated above, were not done spending money in Southeast Asia yet, so it’s still a bit premature to critique our performance.

Oh, one last one, I promise. Several people have compared our relief efforts to the $3-5 billion pledged to Florida this season after the devastating hurricanes that swept through the region. To people who think this way, I have two words, SHUT-UP, NOW. Of course the government will spend whatever it takes to repair Florida, they are our citizens, its our country, and our tax dollars. The fact that this has to be explained is itself appalling and really requires no further commentary. While I don’t subscribe to the theory that an American life is worth more than the life of another person with different citizenship, in fact, I think they should be considered equal, nevertheless, when allocating government resources, which are scare, the priority should always go to taking care of your own first and then with what is left being generous to others. No exceptions, no questions asked. Spend whatever it takes of US money to repair the US then and only then look to the rest of the world.

All this is by way of saying that its not the amount of money that’s important, but the efforts being undertaken by those on the ground providing aid and comfort to those affected. My thoughts are with the people who have been harmed by this tragedy and I fully support the efforts of our government in providing any and all assistance possible.


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