The U.S. government announced initially that it would donate $15 million to help victims of the overwhelming tsunami in South Asia. A United Nations official said the U.S. was “stingy” when it came to international aid. His comment was silly and a bit meanspirited. More significantly, however, it reflected a serious misunderstanding of how Americans choose to respond to disaster and problems overseas.
Since the comment, of course, the government has said it will commit $350 million to relief aid and expects to commit more. And the U.N. official “clarified” his comments by saying what he meant was the United States donates less in foreign aid, as a percentage of gross national product, than some other industrial countries do.
This ignores the fact that the United States provides about 60 percent of the food given annually to the needy of the world. It also ignores the question of whether foreign aid really helps poorer countries much. It further ignores how generously Americans contribute to foreign-disaster relief and foreign economic development privately and voluntarily — at the same time the government is displaying “compassion” based on taxes seized from those same Americans.
In response to the recent tsunami, Americans crashed the Web sites of several charities, including Oxfam America, in their eagerness to donate. The American Red Cross received $79 million in pledges. Catholic Relief Services had pledges of $15 million. Save the Children, which gets 200 calls on a busy day at its phone donation center, was getting 1,500 a day and had $14 million in donations as of Monday. The umbrella group InterAction said all 160 of its members reported a large-scale increase in donations.
This was a response to a monstrous, perhaps unprecedented disaster. But it was not atypical.
According to the American Association of Fundraising Counsel, Americans gave $241 billion, or 2.2 percent of GDP, in private charitable contributions in 2003. The United Kingdom, the world’s runner-up, saw 0.8 percent of GDP go to private charitable giving. And this understates charitable giving because it doesn’t include volunteer work, which according to Independent Sector amounted to $266 billion worth of time.
Private foreign aid donated by Americans also exceeds government foreign aid. U.S. Agency for International Development official Carol Adelman calculated that in 2000 the government sent $22.6 billion of foreign aid overseas, while private aid came to $35.1 billion.
All this is significant because private aid usually gets to recipients more efficiently than government aid, largely because private organizations are generally more flexible and resourceful than government.
In light of all this, it was probably mere frosting on the cake for President Bush to designate former Presidents Bush and Clinton as point men to urge more private giving. If it helps, fine. But Americans have shown once again that their response to disaster is swift, generous, and channeled most effectively through private organizations.