Global Analysts Dispute Perceived US Generosity
Published on Friday, December 31, 2004 by the Boston Globe
Global Analysts Dispute Perceived US Generosity
by Charles M. Sennott
 

LONDON -- The US government is contributing $35 million of the half-billion dollars that the world's developed nations are donating to the tsunami relief effort, and many Americans believe -- as President Bush put it earlier this week -- that their country is being its typical ''generous, kindhearted" self.

But both on a per capita basis and as a percentage of the nation's wealth, America's emergency relief in Asia and development aid to poor countries actually ranks at the bottom of the list of developed nations, some of the world's top economists and analysts of international development aid said yesterday.

The world's Asian relief effort -- the largest in history -- and the enormity of the disaster have put into sharp focus an intensifying debate over what it means for a country to be generous: how much should wealthy nations pledge for relief from natural disasters, and how much should those governments donate for development in poorer nations?

As of yesterday, the amount the United States has pledged is eclipsed by the $96 million promised by Britain, a country with one-fifth the population, and by the $75 million vowed by Sweden, which amounts to $8.40 for each of its 9 million people. Denmark's pledge of $15.6 million amounts to roughly $2.90 per capita.

The US donation is 12 cents per capita.

Amid the building worldwide relief effort and mounting criticism of the US government's response, the White House issued a statement yesterday from Bush announcing that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and the president's brother, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, would travel to Asia on Sunday ''to meet with regional leaders and international organizations to assess what additional aid can be provided by the United States."

''I look forward to receiving the delegation's assessment of the relief efforts so that our government can best help those in need," he said.

The 60 countries that have provided aid, including the United States, have also pledged equipment, military support, and supplies from corporate donations and private charities in addition to the government's donations. As of yesterday, US corporate donations reached $60 million, CNN reported.

But even with these additional contributions taken into consideration, America's perception of itself as the most generous country in the world is contradicted by the reality, economists and specialists on international aid say.

Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University and a specialist on aid to developing countries who has worked with the United Nations, said, ''There is a very big difference between American attitudes, which are generous; beliefs, which is that we do a lot; and the reality. . . . The reality is we actually do very little by comparative measures.

''I think the disaster in Asia is a stark example of this for a lot of Americans. It challenges their perceptions of their own country," Sachs said. ''There is going to be even more shock when the US government asks for an additional $80 billion in Iraq and the American public juxtaposes that with what was given in one of the worst natural disasters the world has ever seen.

''This discrepancy between what we think our country does and what it actually does is hurting America's image in the world, especially in the poorest corners of the world," added Sachs.

At a press conference in New York, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was asked yesterday if he thought the world's wealthiest countries were doing enough.

''In this particular instance, the response has been very good," he said. ''Governments have given and indicated that they would do more. . . . The only thing I want to stress is that we are in this for the long term."

On Monday, the United Nations relief coordinator, Jan Egeland, delved into this debate, stating that the world's wealthiest countries were ''stingy" about donating foreign aid.

Powell, in response, said on ABC's ''Good Morning America" on Tuesday that the United States ''has given more aid in the last four years than any other nation or combination of nations in the world."

And Bush angrily replied to Egeland at a press conference from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, on Wednesday, saying, ''Well, I felt like the person who made that statement was very misguided and ill-informed," said Bush.

''We're a very generous, kindhearted nation, and, you know, what you're beginning to see is a typical response from America," Bush added.

The perception that America is the most generous country in the world is one held by a majority of Americans, according to a 2001 poll by the Program on International Policy Attitudes based at the University of Maryland. The think tank, which studies public attitudes toward various international topics, found that the average American believes that the United States spends 24 percent of its budget on assistance to developing nations, more than 20 times the actual figure. Even when researchers told those being questioned that foreign aid does not include military assistance to other countries, the average response was that the United States spends 23 percent of its budget on foreign aid.

But the relatively low US per capita donation to the tsunami-ravaged region reflects a larger pattern of a decline in official US foreign assistance in recent decades.

In the aftermath of World War II, the US government gave as much as 2 percent of its total gross national product to help countries rebuild. That figure dropped to about 0.5 percent of GNP during most of the 1960s and 1970s, and it fell precipitously during the Reagan administration to its current level of about 0.15 percent of GNP, according to figures compiled by Sachs and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development based in Paris.

While the United States gives the most foreign development aid in terms of dollars, it ranks lowest among wealthy countries in terms of official development assistance as a percentage of gross national income.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States gave $16.2 billion in development aid in 2003, or an amount equal to 0.15 percent of the US gross national income. Norway, with official development assistance of $2 billion, ranked highest, giving 0.92 percent of its 2003 gross national income. France allotted 0.41 percent of its gross national income to development aid in 2003, according to the organization's figures.

At a global development conference in Monterrey, Mexico, in 2002, the world's 22 wealthiest countries, including the United States, were instructed by the General Assembly to provide 0.7 percent of GNP. But the target of the so-called Monterrey Protocol has been met by only five countries. They are Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

Nathaniel Raymond, communications adviser on humanitarian response for Oxfam America at its Boston headquarters, said that the aid organization's fund-raising drive in the last five days had raised $3 million for the relief effort in Asia.

In terms of private donations to charity, American citizens and corporations give generously -- more than $3 billion a year. But Sachs and other analysts say that amount only slightly changes -- from 0.15 percent to 0.18 percent of GNP -- the relatively low standing of the United States.

Sarah Kline, head of UK and European Union relations for Oxfam UK, said, ''If you want to compare records, overall the best way to do that is to look at what percentage a country spends as a percentage of its [gross domestic product], and in that sense America has always spent less than most of the other developed countries."

When asked about the ongoing crisis in Asia, she said, ''It is early days to assess individual donors' total contributions. . . . They will have a chance to give more. The key to this is in the long term, that is where the assistance will really matter."

Globe correspondent Sarah Liebowitz contributed to this story. Wire services also were used.

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