Shaper than a Serpent’s Tooth

There is probably no coincidence in the observation that genuine humanitarians lead by example and by addressing the “better angles of our nature,” rather than by perpetual harangue. A Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, or Dali Lama might on occasion chide the rest of us by appealing to our conscience. However, they would rarely resort to the sort of whining and shameless exploitation of the tragedy of thousands (over a 120,000 now and growing) of tsunami deaths in southern Asia as did United Nations Undersecretary Jan Egeland.

According to news reports, Egeland said, “It is beyond me why are we so stingy, really.” He went on to criticize western politicians who “believe that they are really burdening the taxpayers too much, and the taxpayers want to give less. It’s not true. They want to give more.” I guess Mr. Egeland needs to learn the difference between the verbs “give” and “take.”

Egeland’s argument carries with it the seeds of its own refutation. Anyone eager to “give” more to the government or any relief organization can. Moreover, in democratic societies people control the level of taxation. Egeland’s not so hidden conviction is that governments ought “take” more and ”give” it to people like himself to dispense according to the judgment of his finely-tune humanitarian discretion.

Egeland later had to back track on his statement, but not before damage was done. While US military planes were dispatched for search and rescue operations and US Navy ships diverted to affected areas to provide fresh water and helicopters to deliver supplies to victims of the tsunami, Egeland managed to divide rather than unite the world’s humanitarian efforts. His complaint was a classic example of the difference between doing something constructive and incessant complaining.

This critique is especially misplaced coming from a UN official. The UN’s bumbling efforts in managing the Iraq sanctions squandered $20 billion in humanitarian aid. This amount is several times the amount necessary to deal with the tsunami tragedy.

What about the merits of the assertion that the West and the US in particular is stingy? Ever anxious to criticize the United States, especially if it rebounds on Bush Administration, the NY Times concluded that the US is indeed “stingy” with foreign aid. The damage to the US’s reputation for generosity from this critique was magnified as it was cited by the foreign press, particularly in affected areas. For example, The Express India headline ran, “Tsuanmi disaster: NY Times say US is `stingy.”’

The United States gives more foreign aid than any other country, about $16.2 billion a year (year 2003) and 40% of the entire world’s emergency relief aid, but some argue that this is insufficient. The argument is that the US’s parsimony is revealed be that the fact it gives a smaller fraction of its Gross National Product (GNP) than do other industrialized countries. However, a key omission in this computation is that it only includes “official development assistance” and not all US aid. Even more importantly, a large fraction of US foreign aid is not dispensed through the government at all but through private agencies. The NY Times ignored private giving in its editorial. They did not mention that according to US AID, yearly private foreign aid amounts to $33 billion dollars (year 2000), many times that funneled through official development assistance and given by other countries. Though the table below, reproduced from US AID, is for the year 2000, it shows a more complete picture of US foreign aid. Not only does the US give more, it is almost certainly the case that its private donations are allocated more efficiently and consequently do more good.

US Foreign Aid in 2000.

US$ billions Share of total (%)
US official development assistance 9.9 18
All other U.S. government assistance 12.7 22
U.S. private assistance 33.6 60
Foundations 1.5
Corporations 2.8
Private and voluntary organizations 6.6
Universities and colleges 1.3
Religious congregations 3.4
Individual remittances 18.0
Total U.S. international assistance 56.2 100

Given that the supplemental foreign aid outside of the official development assistance is so large, it is difficult to explain why the NY Times did not provide through a more complete assessment of total giving before arriving at the conclusion of stinginess. Is the NY Times simply not competent enough to check with US AID to get the complete number, or did it simply cease searching for more information when it found some evidence consistent with its own preconceived notions?

The squabble at the UN was a distraction. The more disgraceful event of the week was the rejection of aid from Israel by the Sri Lanka government. The Israeli army had planned to send medical staff to aid in the recovery, but the Sri Lanka government would apparently rather see more of its own citizens die than accept help from Jews.

At the end of this week, when governments were beginning to implement relief efforts, the former UN International Development Secretary Clare Short provided yet another distraction by complaining that the US was bypassing the UN and joining directly with Japan, India, and Australia to coordinate relief efforts. Clare believes that only the “UN can do that job” and it is “the only body that has the moral authority.” Ms. Short should realize that this is not about the United Nations, but it is about getting relief to people in the most efficient way possible. It is not about making the UN feel good about itself. Given the billion dollar bungle of the United Nations in the Iraq Oil-for-Food Program, the acknowledged sexual exploitation and abuse of refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by UN peacekeepers and staff, the inability to stop the genocides in Rwanda and Sudan, the abandonment of 5,000 Muslims under UN protection in Srebrenica, and the inability of the UN to contribute in a meaningful way to elections in Iraq, one is hard pressed to discern what moral authority Ms. Short is referring to.

The question of providing aid directly to tsunami victims rather than going through the United Nations can be answered in a simple way. If you were to write a check to help in Tsunami relief efforts would your first choice be to write it in care of the United Nations? Would one rather send money to the United Nations or to the Salvation Army?

Here is your choice:
UNICEF Relief | Salvation Army

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.