by Raywat Deonandan
December 31, 2004
When Mr. Jan Egeland, the United Nations undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, called the West’s contributions to the tsunami relief efforts “stingy”, he was answered with a defensive cry from the United States. President Bush was recalled from vacationing in Texas and senior White House staff submitted their predictable sound bytes, all trumpeting the same refrain: “the United States is the single biggest contributor to humanitarian aid in the world.”
This is true, depending on how you add the numbers. And to be fair, no nation is legally obligated to give aid to others, though the moral, political and economic arguments to the contrary are strong. The maintaining of alliances, global security and trade and power relations all depend on the remittances paid by rich nations to poorer ones. However it is the scope of such aid, especially in light of this unprecedented humanitarian tragedy, which is disappointing.
Canada has shown leadership in this matter, with our federal government pledging $40 million in aid, or about $1.23 for every citizen. The provinces have so far given over $18 million independently, while individual Canadians continue to give in heartwarming amounts. In addition, we have placed a moratorium on debt payments from stricken nations who owe us a total of $993.3 million.
The United States, however, initially announced a donation of only $US35 million. This is equivalent to 12 cents for every US citizen and is noticeably less than the $US40 million Bush has earmarked for his own inauguration ceremonies in the new year. Poorer Western nations like Spain and Sweden have pledged $US68 million and $US75 million respectively; Sweden’s GDP is one seventh the size of the USA’s.
These numbers get tossed around so much that they often lose meaning. Some perspective is helpful. The median salary of the New York Yankees in 2004 was $US3.1 million, the team’s total payroll exceeding $US184 million. It is telling that the world’s richest nation can only offer 5 million displaced and dying persons a fraction of the cost of maintaining a single major league baseball team for one year.
According to Slate Magazine, Mr. Bush himself has a net worth somewhere between US$9-26 million, while Paul Martin’s fortune famously hovers about the $50 million mark. The amounts of tsunami aid pledged by these men are, in a sense, equivalent only to the net worth of a single wealthy individual, while working people throughout dig deep to give to the Red Cross.
The entire US foreign aid budget in 2004 was $US2.4 billion, loudly touted as the most generous aid budget in the world. Yet this is what the Bush administration spends in occupying Iraq every 10 days. Moreover, aid is rarely if ever strictly altruistic. The much touted $US3 billion/year of HIV/AIDs money (“Bush money” to field workers) is tainted: only nations which agree to receive imports of US genetically modified foods are eligible to receive it.
In light of such gamesmanship and political disingenuousness, the millions pledged so far to tsunami relief do indeed appear “stingy.”
Raywat Deonandan, PhD, is an Epidemiologist and International Health Consultant. Visit www.deonandan.com.