03 Jan Are we ‘stingy’ on tsunami relief? Not when private giving is counted
The tsunami waves had barely receded in Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka when the chief disaster coordinator for the United Nations called the wealthier nations of the world “stingy” for not providing more relief. Many Americans shrugged off the remark as yet another reason to dislike the UN. Others responded by doing what they would have done, anyway: They opened their hearts and wallets.
The past week’s predictable – yes, predictable – outpouring of private and corporate relief for the victims of the 9.0 earthquake and the tidal waves it unleashed has quickly exposed the fallacy of the latest “blame-America-first” lecture.
The bureaucratic elite inside UN headquarters have once again shown they don’t understand the United States, even if the Tower of Babel does overlook New York’s East River. Because they live in a government-to-government crucible, global bureaucrats mistakenly believe that’s how Americans view the world, too. While the typical UN administrator may see government as the funnel through which all things must pass, the average American does not. Americans know that power and responsibility rests not only with government, but with individuals, charitable and faith-based organizations, and private corporations.
From the moment they first heard the news about the tsunami half a world away, the typical American instinctively knew cash relief from Washington would be only a part of the response. The first thoughts of people living in Sheboygan, Superior and Beaver Dam likely were not: “Gee, I wonder how much Uncle Sam will help?” Rather, those thoughts were: “Can I give to the Red Cross or CARE or some other worthy group?”
The answer to the latter question – asked silently by millions of Americans – has been gratifying. And the world has noticed.
Even Aljazeera.net, the Arab-run news agency that gets first crack at al-Qaida’s news releases, has reported that Americans are digging into their own pockets to help earthquake and tsunami victims.
The American Red Cross and many other private relief organizations have received tens of millions of dollars from Americans and people elsewhere, and the pipeline has only begun to open. On the corporate side of the ledger, companies such as Pfizer, Coca Cola, PepsiCo, Exxon Mobil, Citigroup, Starbucks, FedEx, Amazon.com, Merck, Abbott Laboratories, Nike and American Express are adding tens of millions more to the total.
Major companies with Wisconsin ties that have stepped up include General Electric, which employs more than 6,000 state workers in its health care division, and Kimberly Clark, which has extensive operations in the Fox Valley. Others will likely spring into action now that the Christmas and New Year’s holidays have passed and people are heading back to work.
The devastation is too great and the distances too far to assume American relief will arrive overnight and solve problems the next day. The relief and rebuilding process under way in Southeast Asia will take months, and it will require long-term assistance from a range of private and public sources. Some will come in the form of cash and goods. But a great deal will be hands-on expertise, delivered on the scene by health-care professionals, engineers, technologists and financial experts with the time and desire to help.
The UN’s Jan Egeland called wealthy nations “stingy” on relief aid because some governments give more than others as a percentage of their gross national product. The United States led the world with $15.8 billion in “official development assistance” to poor nations in 2003, but that represented only 0.14 percent of the nation’s GNP.
Those figures don’t count private donations. In 2003, Americans gave an estimated $241 billion to charitable causes – domestic and foreign – according to a study by the Giving USA Foundation. There’s no way to tell how much of charity was at home or abroad, but the total was up from $234 billion in 2002.
Americans aren’t stingy. They simply prefer not to wait for the government to do their giving for them.
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